On Christmas Day, Netflix dropped its new period drama Bridgerton – variously marketed and received as Regency Gossip Girl, or, as one of my friends observed, Pride and Prejudice with sex in it. Bridgerton, based on the historical fiction novel The Duke and I (2000) by Julia Quinn and adapted by Shonda Rhimes’ company Shondaland (Rhimes serves as executive producer), is a visual feast for the senses that is the latest in a long line of bingeable Netflix series that have kept people entertained throughout the pandemic. In the first 28 days on the platform, it has become Netflix’s biggest series ever, streamed by 82 million households and reaching the top spot in 83 countries around the world. It has set the internet alight with enthusiasm, but also plenty of questions and critique.
Bridgerton, although developed into more of an ensemble drama than the original source material, ostensibly follows the first season of Daphne Bridgerton, the oldest daughter of a prestigious family of eight siblings. Daphne is declared “flawless” and the “diamond of the season” by Queen Charlotte, but interest in her as a marriage prospect quickly dwindles following the meddling of her older brother Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton. In order to raise her prospects, and escape the skin-crawling clutches of Nigel Berbrooke, Daphne strikes a deal with Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, that they start a fake relationship. This also has the bonus that whilst interest in Daphne increases, he is seen to be off the market by the scheming mothers of the ‘bon ton’ who hope to marry their own daughters off to him. Simon, a renowned rake (though we see more on-screen rakishness from Anthony Bridgerton than his best friend the Duke), wishes not to have children so that he does not continue the Hastings line, due to the fractious relationship he had with his own lineage-obsessed father.
Alongside this, we have all the tropes of a gossip- and scandal-loving Regency drama: affairs with opera singers, gambling, an unmarried and pregnant young debutante, unrequited love and scheming matriarchs. And of course, all of this is narrated by the anonymous scandal-sheet writer, Lady Whistledown, brilliantly voiced by Julie Andrews. Very like the omniscient voice of Gossip Girl in the CW’s teen drama (hence the endless comparisons), Lady Whistledown is an entertaining insight into the gossip and society pages, enhanced with the arrival of the mass-produced printing press during the Regency period. Yet, as highlighted by Daphne’s younger sister Eloise Bridgerton, what is different about Lady Whistledown is that she publishes the names of those she is referring to in full, rather than the supposedly cryptic notation often used by other society papers, such as the Duchess of D– or Lord W–; though, of course, during the long eighteenth century, most members of polite society did, in fact, know exactly who was being referred to.
Across eight episodes, all featuring incredible costuming, beautiful sets and scandalous drama, Daphne and Simon’s plan predictably unravels as they fall in love with each other. The series reaches a beautiful resolution at an outdoor ball in the rain, where everything is stunningly colour coordinated in shades of cornflower blue and lavender in scenes reminiscent of the exquisite ball scene in 2016’s War and Peace where Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky fall in love against a background of white and gold. With this, the love story between the two characters is harmonious once more.
Bridgerton is beautiful and it is easy to get swept up in the escapist melodrama, and I must admit that I was rejoicing when a second series was confirmed. It is appealing, yet also holds uncomfortable moments that seem to be clumsily handled, causing controversy over race, queerbaiting, and a scene of marital rape, despite being heralded as driven by modern concerns.
The colour-blind casting of the series is excellent and something that I hope will become the norm with other period dramas, but there is a discrepancy between the diverse casting and the way issues such as slavery and colonialism, completely embedded within elite Regency society, are explained. A very simple reason is offered: in a conversation between the Duke (Regé-Jean Page) and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), it is revealed that it was the marriage between King George III and Queen Charlotte (possibly my favourite character, portrayed by Golda Rosheuvel), who is Black, which ushered in racial equality. Much has been written about this, which appears a very fleeting moment in the drama and insufficient when considering issues like the consumption of products of slavery, such as the moment when Daphne (Phoebe Dyvenor) and Simon are sat in a tearoom, with her watching him suggestively lick a sugar spoon. Kerry Sinanan’s written round table delves deeper into this, asking to what extent can we gloss over the implications of slavery, with this post-racial version of early nineteenth-century society not addressed with the depth that it needs to be.
The queerbaiting involved in the presentation of Benedict Bridgerton and his artist friend Henry Granville was also disappointing, mainly because in the trailer for the series, it was suggested queer representation was key to the plot. Yet, in reality, it felt a little swept under the carpet as a storyline. Granville’s male lover barely even registered as a character throughout the series, his appearance was so fleeting.
The handling of the aftermath of the marital rape scene was also uncomfortable. Daphne, following montages of sex scenes set to brilliant string quartet renditions of modern music – Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams in particular – realises that Simon’s assertion that he cannot have children is not due to him being physically unable, but because he does not want to carry on his family line. The ensuing bedroom scene is a sexual assault, committed by her against him, but the aftermath very much focusses on the betrayal Daphne feels by Simon’s dishonesty, rather than the violation Simon feels at the hands of his wife. It is only after this event that Daphne questions why Simon might feel this way about having his own children and attempt to help him with the root of the problem: through this, we are meant to sympathise with her and the innocence she had over how sexual relations worked (a pointed thread that runs throughout the series), despite the fact she clearly assaulted him out of spite and anger.
Though I have devoted much of this review to what I hope the show tackles in better and more nuanced ways in the next season, there were some brilliant highlights that deserve to be mentioned. In particular, though a relatively small storyline, the exploration of Queen Charlotte’s experience of her husband King George’s illness was sensitively and beautifully done – in fact, we never even see their son the Prince Regent. Instead, Rosheuvel’s portrayal of Charlotte is not only in control of society, but also intelligent, entertaining and stylish, taking seriously her role as partner to her ill husband. I also loved the partnership between Queen Charlotte and Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie). Eloise spends much of the series lamenting the fact she cannot attend to education in the same way as her brothers (“You know what is an accomplishment? Attending university!”), but when the Queen tasks her with investigating the identity of Lady Whistledown, from one intellectually engaged woman to another, it seemed a very clever nod to Queen Charlotte’s links to the Bluestocking circle. The show is populated by many strong, female characters, as well as women questioning the strictures society places upon them (exhibited in episode one when Daphne complains to Anthony: “You have no idea what it is to be a woman… I have no other value. If I am unable to find a husband, I am worthless.”), which feels distinctly modern, as well as testing the boundaries of what truly limited women within the Regency period.
Ultimately, Bridgerton is very enjoyable: diversifying and expanding upon the original source material with a modern audience in mind, I look forward to the second series (and hope that Shonda Rhimes is put in charge of other period adaptations). It is also commendable that this regency historical drama is not another Austen adaptation. However, I hope that the questions asked and critiques raised by its huge audience are taken into account in future seasons.