Trigger warning: suicide, depression. mental illness
If you’re like me, you caught the Bridgerton show on Netflix and decided to read the books. For the most part, I’ve found it to be a case of the movie (or television show) being better than the books. Not only are the books lacking in the multi-cultural experience of the series, but I’ve found that they have more in common with the Harlequin romances I managed to avoid for most of my life.
The family Bridgerton consists of the widowed matriarch Violet Bridgerton and her eight offspring, neatly arranged with alphabetical names from Anthony to Hyacinth. This fifth book focuses on Eloise. At the end of the previous book, Romancing Mister Bridgerton, we saw the revelation of who Lady Whistledown was. The only problem is Eloise was not at the party when it happened. She had made plans and secretly dashed off to meet Sir Phillip Crane, the widow of Bridgerton cousin Marina. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, Eloise and Phillip had been exchanging correspondence since the death of his wife.\
Eloise had turned down several proposals. At 28, she is considered a spinster in Regency England. That’s fine with her as she was looking forward to spending her later years with her closest friend, Penelope Featherington, who also seemed destined to be a spinster. That is, until the romance between Penelope and Eloise’s brother Colin finally took root. Suddenly, Eloise sees a future of being alone. However, Sir Phillip extends a proposal to her in one of his letters. Eloise runs to him, determined to meet him before she decides whether to consent to his proposal.
The problem there is, this is Regency England. Eloise rushing to Sir Phillip’s country estate where he lives with his twin children leaves her in a compromising position. The estate isn’t too far from where Eloise’s brother Benedict lives with his wife. However, being alone in the house, even though Eloise stays in a separate bedroom, is considered to be a compromising position. Her three older brothers soon arrive to force the issue.
Sir Phillip is having a terrible time with his children, you see. They have been unable to keep a governess in their employ as the children torment anyone who takes the job. Eloise is a few steps ahead of them, though, and used to the kind of mischief children get into after growing up with seven siblings. He also hasn’t completely dealt with the loss of his wife. Their marriage was rather complicated, and Marina was apparently depressed for quite some time. This left him with unprocessed grief as well as feeling like he failed her somehow. It’s also why he struggles with raising his children.
While Eloise’s presence is what he needs, she’s not so sure that it’s her that he wants, or just someone to raise his children. However, the dictates of society leave little room for her to choose otherwise at this point. The two must make an effort to get to know each other and carve out a relationship outside of caring for the children.
Although there was a lot that annoyed me about To Sir Phillip, With Love, I thought it handled the issue of depression and suicide very well. Phillip tried to be what his first wife needed but blames himself for her death. I know the feeling. You get paralyzed about making any decisions, fearing that the wrong choice will lead to disaster. This is the main problem he has with his children – he is terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing with them. The only place he feels comfortable is in the greenhouses on the estate. He’s an acclaimed botanist and loves to escape to study his plants and work on breeding stronger, more resilient plants. He also retreats from Eloise this way. He’s afraid to either drive her off or get close to her so he just interacts as necessary and then retreats. He must learn to live and love again.
Eloise was annoying at times. She’s always been portrayed as having little patience, and that is a problem when she’s trying to forge a relationship with Phillip. Rather than wait for him to feel comfortable to open up to her, she presses, again and again, to try to force him to open up to her. This is a man who has been through a terrible ordeal and must resolve the guilt and grief that plagues him.
I have a few complaints about To Sir Phillip, With Love. One is that the ending of the previous book is never really dealt with. Eloise wasn’t present when Colin revealed that Penelope was Lady Whistledown, which means that when her brothers arrive at Sir Phillip’s estate she has no idea what happened. No one ever tells her. During the entire novel, I was waiting to see Eloise’s reaction to this information, and there’s never a scene where that happens. The other issue I had was the depiction of her brothers, particularly Colin. Every scene he’s in he’s eating. That’s all he seems to do is walk into whatever location they are at and look for something to eat. It’s supposed to be a bit of comic relief, but it makes him rather one-dimensional and uninteresting, and this was just after a book devoted almost entirely to him and his relationship with Penelope. In addition, the “romances” all seem to be the same formula. There seems to be a compromising position that forces the two protagonists to have to wed, but love develops after some misunderstandings. It might be entertaining to see how the story plays out, but it does seem to be the same story over and over.
I did like To Sir Phillip, With Love better than some of the other books in the series, though. I thought the issue of depression and suicide was depicted very well, especially for the setting. Mental illness was not a sympathetic cause in Regency England, and yet it’s handled well here, even by the standards of today. The characters were interesting and fun for the most part. Of all the books I’ve red in the series so far, I’d rank this one second.
Previous book in the series (link): Bridgerton: Romancing Mister Bridgerton