Lauren Snooks | Lancaster University
On Christmas day, Netflix gifted its viewers a costume drama with a modern twist, providing the perfect escapism for the lockdown blues. Such interest in the genre has not been seen on this scale since Aidan Turner’s shirtless scything scene in the BBC’s adaption of Poldark six years ago. Inspired by Julia Quinn’s popular noughties book series, Bridgerton brings to life all that Regency romances have to offer.
The world of Bridgerton casts us back in time to the 1813 London Ton’s courting season, introducing the illustrious Bridgerton family and their associates. Series one focuses on the fourth Bridgerton child, Daphne, the ‘it girl’ debutante whose efforts to find a suitable match are thwarted by her overprotective brother Anthony. Along the way, we meet the dashing and eligible Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset, who has sworn never to marry in revenge for his abusive father’s desire to continue the family line. The marriage market appears to be a vexing pressure for the two of them. What follows is a fairy-tale style romance spurred on through a convenient arrangement agreed by Daphne and Simon and the classic trope of fake dating (or courting in this time).
It should be warned, this is not a typical British period drama. Sure, it has carriage rides, balls, and extensive wardrobes full of beautiful, intricate designs. But it also embraces the essential element of any modern historical romance novel - it sells sex. Coy glances and hand flexes are exchanged for a steamy sex montage set to a string-quartet rendition of Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams. Bridgerton is a bodice-ripper fuelled by the sizzling chemistry between the leads played by Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page.
Produced by Shonda Rhimes of Grey’s Anatomy fame, it was expected that the show would be full to the brim with melodrama. It didn’t disappoint. Illegitimate pregnancy, gambling debts, and duels are all thrown into the mix. To top it all off, the series is narrated by ‘Regency Gossip Girl’ Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) who loves to stir the pot and reveal all of society’s juicy scandals in her infamous newssheet. Whilst ridden with cliches, it appears to be the perfect blend of drama and history, becoming the most-watched Netflix original series ever.
What brought Bridgerton to the attention of many was its diverse casting. This show may take place in the nineteenth century, but it is an alternative historical universe where racism no longer exists. The colour-conscious casting has divided viewers; it offers an escape from the brutal realities of the era but also does little to explore the complexities of a racially progressive elite who partake in the riches built from colonial exploitation.
Casting Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte is a nod to the historical Queen’s heritage as a descendant of the black branch of the Portuguese royal family. Her marriage to George III attempts to explain this multiracial aristocracy, reasoned in one line by Lady Danbury: ‘We were two separate societies divided by colour, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, Your Grace, conquers all’. However, one conversation hardly seems sufficient to address the end of racial divide in imperial Britain.
Yet, what Bridgerton does prove is a need for more representation. Nineteenth-century dramas can flourish by placing their black characters outside of the realm of servitude, and it is important that they do so. There is still plenty of room to diversify and expand the cast in following seasons, but hopefully Bridgerton’s success sets a precedent for historical dramas yet to come.
Bridgerton has been lauded for its sexy scenes but has also come under fire for its handling of sexual consent. In a desperate attempt to impregnate herself, Daphne sexually coerces her husband, despite his clear intentions to never have children. Although, the scene was softened from the book in which Daphne took advantage of Simon whilst he was drunk, two decades have passed since its publication, and still the narrative expects us to sympathise with her after sexually assaulting her husband. It’s uncomfortable to watch, and Simon even reverts back to the stammer he possessed as an abused child. The semantics of ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ have children are given more consideration than the impact of marital rape. Daphne never really gets punished, nor offers an apology, and Netflix fails to deliver an important lesson in consent. It begs to ask the question if the Regency era has been reimagined, why can’t the attitudes also be reimagined?
To sum it up, if you’re looking for a satirical take on 19th-century society then stick to Austen and Vanity Fair. Bridgerton is a much more interested in love, and all its drama, wrapped up in opulent gowns and wigs. Its charm lies in its raunchy rom-com tone and historical aesthetics. It certainly isn’t flawless - when any period of history is romanticised, there is a risk of its problems being romanticised too. Historical accuracy, for the most part, is thrown out of the window, but it is pure escapist fantasy.
There is still plenty of opportunity to delve deeper into some of the show’s more interesting characters and the historical issues that come with this. Whether that be through the lower-class Genevieve and Selena earning their own money, the outspoken Eloise who wants to defy her marriageable expectations, or the artistic Benedict whose bohemian lifestyle gives a mere glimmer of queer representation, Bridgerton has left its viewers wanting more.
What we can all agree on is that Bridgerton is here to stay. Its popularity cannot be denied with a staggering 82 million households and counting having viewed it. A Bridgerton Musical even appears to be in the works, based upon Abigail Barlow’s viral TikToks. Less than a month after its premiere, the series was renewed for a second season. Presumably, this will be an adaptation of The Viscount Who Loved Me and fans of the book and show alike will be buzzing to see Anthony’s story unfold.
Lauren Snook is studying an MA in Digital Humanities at Lancaster University. She is interested in nineteenth-century social and cultural British history, with a specific focus on female sexuality. Her dissertation will use geospatial technologies to explore the biopolitical control of prostitution in Victorian Britain.