Dearest Gentle Reader… It is not a history lesson… All liberties taken by the author are quite intentional…
Issuing a pointed welcome to a fictional show that certainly is not a documentary, Lady Whistledown briefly swept back onto our screens to usher in the beginning of Netflix and Shondaland’s limited series, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. In the first two seasons of the Regency-set period drama, Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) has stolen the show, an addition to the world of Bridgerton that did not originate with Julia Quinn’s novels. Audiences have loved her so much that Queen Charlotte earned her own origin story, written by Shonda Rhimes, and a tie-in novel from both Rhimes and Quinn.
Queen Charlotte follows our titular queen (India Amarteifio) from being a seventeen-year-old in the small German kingdom of Mecklenberg-Strelitz to England in 1761, where she has travelled – unhappily – to marry the King. Plagued by anxiety, Charlotte runs away from the wedding, where her future husband (Corey Mylchreest) – who just happens to be handsome and charming – finds her trying to scale a wall to escape. The two marry, but very quickly things do not seem to be right. George gifts Charlotte Buckingham House, but wishes to remain away from her at Kew, ensconced in his world of astronomy and agriculture. Charlotte is disgruntled, and her secretary Brimsley (Sam Clemmett) begins trying to conspire with Reynolds (Freddie Dennis), the King’s secretary, to bring anew happiness in their marriage, whilst Charlotte’s camp tries to work out what it is exactly that George is hiding.
Though only six episodes covering just a short time at the beginning of George III and Charlotte’s reign, there is a lot happening in this origin story. A huge focus in the narrative is race. Bridgerton has famously been cast in a colour-conscious manner, celebrated for diversity but also criticised for clumsy handling of what slavery and colonialism mean in a world where its products are on show, but it does not exist. Queen Charlotte attempts to respond to these challenges, pinpointing the end of racial inequality in Britain to the marriage of the King and Queen. Labelled “The Great Experiment”, with their wedding comes the granting of land and titles to people of colour throughout Britain, which we see is not without opposition or insecurity. It is through this arrangement we meet young Lady Danbury (Arsema Thomas), who is not yet the society leader and arbiter of taste, but unhappily married to a man much older (Cyril Nri), whom she supports solely because she sees how he suffers for being disregarded because of his colour. There are still problems in “The Great Experiment” storyline: microaggressions are swept away with a narrative that seems to suggest that purely love is the cure for everything, and the colonies are mentioned in passing with no context as to what they now mean in this world. Similarly, colonial wealth and its commodities still hangs over the show like a shadow.
Beyond the discussion of race, it would not be a story about Queen Charlotte and George III without exploring what the King is most enduringly famous for: his mental health. The first episode of some kind of illness occurred in 1765, moving him to push for an early form of Regency Bill. Whilst Queen Charlotte takes some artistic license with this timeline, its exploration of what George, and Charlotte as his supportive partner, may have gone through is sensitively done. Often reduced to a historical punchline, the show’s portrayal of hideous physical and psychological treatments is portrayed in an incredibly humanising way, with his whole character not solely defined by his mental health. Rhimes gives much screentime to his passions of agriculture, science, and astronomy, interests he shared with his new bride. Queen Charlotte may be fiction inspired by fact, but it allows for the audience to try and sympathise with a couple moved by incredibly difficult and unpredictable health conditions.
A more successful area in which Queen Charlotte seems to deal with audience feedback from the main Bridgerton universe is with the long-awaited inclusion of a fulfilling queer romance. Romance is, of course, at the centre of any Bridgerton series, and in some ways Queen Charlotte is the most adept of the three seasons so far to explore the complexities of a variety of loving relationships, with one of the most compelling being the love story between Brimsley and Reynolds. Caught between duty to their employers and desire, this story plays out with incredibly emotional tenderness and smart humour across the six episodes and offers hope that future instalments of the main show might centre queer love stories in a similarly enchanting way.
It would be remiss not to mention that, though this is an origin story, not all the show is set in the 1760s: it is framed by insights into the lives of Queen Charlotte, Lady Danbury and Dowager Viscountess Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) in the present. For Queen Charlotte, we gain an insight into her anxiety over securing an heir from her children. It is particularly interesting seeing her ridiculing her virgin daughters for being spinsters when history tells us that the real Charlotte tried to keep them close to her long past them reaching marriageable age. We briefly meet the infamous Prince Regent (Ryan Gage), who has so far not surfaced in the Bridgerton bon ton. Yet, what is most fascinating is the exploration of ageing women. Famously there are a lack of roles for middle-aged and older women on screen, and many that do exist lack substance. Yet in Queen Charlotte, we see Violet Bridgerton grapple with a desire to find love again, urged on in her friendship with Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh). This older presentation of the characters seen in the 1760s fleshes out their storylines and gives a playful and captivating presentation of women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries experiencing different freedoms offered by age and widowhood.
There are the usual hallmarks of Bridgerton in this show: sumptuous costumes and sets, steamy romance and intense drama, as well as beautiful string versions of contemporary songs, with Black female musical royalty Beyoncé and Alicia Keys featuring heavily, which is particularly perfect for a show about a Black queen. Yet Queen Charlotte is both darker and more sentimental, treating its factual subject matter with care and embellishing with a fiction that is enjoyable, speculative and thought-provoking. It is overall a great addition to the historical fantasy of the Bridgerton universe, which builds even more anticipation for the long-awaited third season.