By Madeleine Pelling, University of York, The Conversation
Bridgerton, Netflix’s hit of the season, which is adapted from the historical fantasy novels of Julia Quinn, plays fast and loose with history. It opens in 1813, the year in which Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published, Napoleonic war raged in Europe and London’s Westminster Bridge was illuminated by the world’s first public gas company.
Bridgerton is far from an accurate portrayal of the historical Regency period in which it is set – named for the transfer of power from the incapacitated King George III to his son George IV in 1811 until the king’s death in 1820. However, it does get some things right.
In the show, London’s social set are abuzz with gossip provided by the anonymous column of Lady Whistledown. The columnist’s salacious writing is in step with the time: gossip newspapers circulated in Regency London, detailing the exploits and scandals of the “Bon Ton”, or fashionable elite, during “the season”. As Bridgerton’s historical consultant Hannah Grieg has detailed, this was the six months each year during which the daughters of Britain’s richest families would be presented at court, and advantageous marriages arranged.
Some have expressed surprise at Bridgerton’s depiction of sex on screen. But, while Daphne Bridgerton’s (Phoebe Dynevor) extensive outdoor copulation against a backdrop of triumphant baroque architecture may not have been every new bride’s experience, sex was everywhere in Georgian England. For two shillings, tourists in London could purchase Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies, a catalogue of sex workers in the city that later informed the show Harlots.
Scandalous elopements, abductions and unfaithful spouses within the upper classes were all fodder for the gossip columns. The adultery trials of aristocratic women proved particularly popular, among them Seymour Fleming, known as Lady Worsley in 1782, and Lady Anne Foley in 1786.
Black histories on screen
Another thing Bridgerton has received attention for its clumsy handling of issues of race in the Regency period. The show is one of several recent costume dramas looking to make the historical presence of people of colour in Regency England visible.
Amma Asante’s 2013 Belle, based on the life of mixed-race aristocrat Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804), sets its action in the shadow of the historical Zong case. The case centred on a fraudulent insurance claim in which over 130 enslaved individuals were murdered at sea. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Wtdk6owFj2o?wmode=transparent&start=0
And in 2019, ITV’s Sanditon adapted Jane Austen’s unfinished novel to give voice to her only Black character, Miss Lambe, an heiress who travels from the Caribbean to the English coast.
The showrunners of Bridgerton looked to incorporate similar histories. Building on suggestions that the real Queen Charlotte may have been mixed-race, the show casts her as a powerful Black woman and acting head of the state (her son, the Prince Regent, makes no appearance). Elsewhere the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) spars with his friend Will Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe), a character who evokes real-life 19th-century boxers Thomas Molineaux and Bill Richmond. https://www.youtube.com/embed/bewgZjUVhYg?wmode=transparent&start=0
While the decision to introduce racial diversity to the story has been lauded by many, including the novels’ author, Julia Quinn, Bridgerton has faced strong criticism from scholars and viewers alike.
In particular, historians including Patricia A Matthew and Kerry Sinanan have highlighted the show’s failure to deal fully with the history of slavery. From its sugary palette to the confectionery adorning its tables, Bridgerton presents a historical material culture built on the exploitation of enslaved peoples without acknowledging the system that maintained the same lavish lifestyle – a decision made all the more troubling given its Black characters are depicted similarly partaking of these riches.
The art of adaptation
Bridgerton’s visual culture is no less implicated. Across its luscious sets, paintings copied from real-life artworks give depth and legitimacy to the Regency world created onscreen. A group portrait of the Bridgerton brothers, hung in the stairwell of Bridgerton house and to which the camera returns throughout the series, replicates Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1760s depiction of the British politician Henry Fane and his friends. In it, Fane is seated with a greyhound. Either side of him are the architect Inigo Jones and Charles Blair, a Jamaican plantation owner whose wealth depended on slavery.
Elsewhere, the show speaks to modern feminist sensibilities. When Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) attends a royal art exhibit at the newly refurbished Somerset House, she looks in dismay at a painting of nude female figures. In remarks that recall the Guerrilla Girls’ 1989 poster campaign for fairer representation of women at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she exclaims: “It was done by a man who sees a woman as nothing more than a decorative object. They’re like human vases.”
But Bridgerton’s most notable innovation is the harnessing of that most Regency of spaces – social media. (Like the salons of the Bon Ton, participants congregate for conversation, gossip and to present their best selves.)
Of course, earlier costume dramas regularly find themselves re-purposed on such platforms. Polls, for example, often pitch Colin Firth against Matthew Macfayden to establish the “best” Mr Darcy. This can sometimes backfire. In 2019, Sanditon faced criticism after its official hashtag included a pineapple emoji (a reference to the storyline in which Georgiana Lambe is likened to the fruit and taunted for her “exoticism”). However, Bridgerton was forged using these tools.
The show’s official Twitter account began to introduce characters before the series aired, expanding the spaces of early 19th-century London into the 21st. It takes up familiar memes to recalibrate the hierarchies of Regency society, inviting viewers to select their friends from among Bridgerton’s characters. In this way, the gossip of Lady Whistledown’s pamphlet has leaped from the page and into our hands, changing forever the landscape of costume drama in the digital age.