Bridgerton, an eight-part miniseries released by Netflix, is a visually stunning show with an engrossing storyline set during the Regency Era. Based on the novels by Julia Quinn, this first season of Bridgerton follows the romance of eldest daughter Daphne Bridgerton as she launches into the ton as a diamond of the first water and attempts to land a husband during the London season. Sabotaged by her brother’s overprotective attention, gorgeous Daphne soon finds herself almost bereft of suitors entirely. When her brother’s lifelong friend, Simon, the Duke of Hastings, comes to town to settle his late father’s affairs, Daphne and Simon come to an arrangement that might just benefit them both. He pretends to court her to keep the other matchmaking society mothers off his back; she pretends to be courted because a girl that has caught a Duke’s eye will surely catch the eye of other envious gentlemen.
As any reader of romance novels might expect, this pretense swiftly blossoms into something real. But even though Daphne and Simon both have feelings for each other, Simon has a secret in his past that holds him back from ever marrying (Warning: spoilers ahead). Not to worry. A compromising situation in a poorly lit garden leads to a duel of honor and a forced marriage.
But lest you think that Daphne and Simon are now to live happily ever after, you must know that the wedding occurs in Episode 5 out of 8. There are still three episodes left to untangle the thorny problem of Simon’s refusal to have children, Simon’s choice to lie to Daphne about it, and Simon’s determination to separate from Daphne and let her live her own life by herself. (Basically, Simon is the problem.) After a rousing pep talk from her mother (who is bad about explaining the birds and the bees but good about explaining how love is a choice), Daphne abandons her offended feelings and throws her all into fighting for her marriage with Simon. A dance in the rain proves just the thing that is needed to reconcile wounded hearts, and Bridgerton Season One wraps up with all the necessary hearts, flowers, and feels.
Cinematically, the filming of Bridgerton is a treat. As a Regency aficionado, I loved seeing every time the camera panned over Mayfair and Grosvenor Square. The obligatory visit to Vauxhall (which features in probably one of every three Regency novels) and the oohs and ahs over the newfangled gas lighting in the Vauxhall Gardens brought a satisfied sigh to my lips. After watching the show, I enjoyed this article detailing all the different locations filming took place and developed a new interest in visiting Bath.
The costumes were gorgeous, glittering and Regency-ish throughout, with a heavy emphasis on the “-ish.” While no liberties were taken to the level of the “Tudor-era” (ahem, Hot Topic era) costumes in Reign, there was certainly not the attention to period-detail attire seen in many Jane Austen movies such as the most recent adaptation of Emma. I had to take a few deep breaths during the first episode when the debutantes were presented to the queen in attire completely opposite to the expected court dress of the time and remind myself that historical inaccuracy is okay in historical fiction. (After all, one could argue that the Regency as we romance readers know it is more a figment of Georgette Heyer’s imagination than a literal time period…)
The casting of the show is well done, with all the main and secondary characters proving convincing in their roles. Daphne with her girlish innocence, devotion to duty, and quest for love steals the show while Simon (whose part mostly consists of being angsty or smoldering) also has screen appeal. The Queen, with her characteristic frown, her fascination with the Lady Whistledown scandal-sheet, and her touching relationship with her husband suffering from dementia, is an important character in the drama as is Daphne’s widowed mother, both of them providing models for what a love match should look like.
Each of the Bridgerton siblings show their personality on screen, most of the older ones having their own romantic side plot that will surely be developed in future installments. Daphne’s overbearing and ineffectual brother Anthony, I must confess, was my least favorite (or was it Daphne’s debauched brother Benedict?); however, her third brother Colin with his chivalrous impulses was charming throughout. Daphne’s younger sister Eloise (who embodies the bluestocking feminist ubiquitous in Regency novels) promises to create fireworks in a future Season Two of Bridgerton. And of course, the big reveal at the end of the season, the identity of the scandal-sheet writer “Lady Whistledown”, promises to lead to more imbroglios in the future.
I have seen other reviews touting the series for providing a “colorblind cast” as, historically, members of the royalty and peerage in England during this timeframe would not be people of color. In many ways, this reminds one of Hamilton, where several of America’s founding fathers are played by non-white actors. One strange quirk of the show, however, is that instead of actually being colorblind, it dips into alternate history, explaining that since King George III married a person of color (apparently Queen Charlotte was not of German descent…), this true love inspired him to raise other people of color (like the Duke of Hastings) to the peerage. I found this an interesting deviation from actual history and wanted it to be further developed, but sadly, it was only mentioned in passing….
If Bridgerton were to have an overarching theme, it would probably have to be love. And sex. Or maybe just sex, with some platitudes about love thrown in.
It seems that the appeal of the Regency era for modern audiences (or at least the romanticized version of the Regency Era which may have more to do with Victorian mores or imaginary mores than Regency ones…but I digress…) is the strict social conventions under which men and women of high society were expected to interact and the simmering sexual tension repressed between the surface. But, in keeping with many modern Regency-set novels, the characters themselves have no inner moral compass reflective of the morality of the time. They are modern American young people placed like figurines in the glass case of Regency mores for the sole purpose of iconoclasm.
The show careens between highlighting the young ladies’ ignorance of sex (a little overplayed, in my view) and allowing them modern quips laced with double entendre:
Ignoring the historically inaccurate dialogue (Who in the world “felt chemistry” during the Regency Era?! Stop. Take a deep breath.), one still has to grapple with the fact that innocent little Daphne (who has apparently never seen a man roll up his sleeves before…) is making a joke about being feeled up by her dressmaker.
Which is it? The debutante who is unaware that babies can be made outside of marriage? Or the debutante that makes a joke about a certain widow’s baby looking more like her footman than her late husband? In Bridgerton those two characters are one and the same.
The main romance of the season between Daphne Bridgerton and the Duke of Hastings is ostensibly based on friendship (because true love is found by marrying one’s best friend); however, if one were to calculate the amount of screen time the main leads spend on becoming friends and weigh it against the amount of screen time they spend fantasizing about each other or rolling around in bed (or, we should probably also include staring at the gentleman’s naked forearms while he, ever so seductively, rolls up his sleeves at a boxing match), it may indicate that the show’s producers think true love is measured by the number of sex scenes that can be stuffed into an episode.
All in all, Bridgerton might be best summed up by describing its musical score: “a classical arrangement of modern pop songs.” At its heart, Bridgerton is a very modern show with modern characters with a glitzy historical-ish setting. Readers of mainstream Regency romance novels will love it.
For those who are still reading this much-too-long review, I’ll leave you with a list…
TOP TEN THINGS I LEARNED FROM BRIDGERTON:
- If you are a young lady, and anyone anywhere says anything about you, you will be ruined forever!
- Men can do whatever they want. And women can’t. And life is unfair.
- Rolling up your sleeves is a breathtakingly alluring activity.
- Artists are creepy people who hold debauched parties at their houses after dark.
- Friends don’t let friends get tricked into marrying con artists.
- Every time a man and woman are alone in a garden, the man will be unable to resist passionately groping the woman. Every time. No exceptions.
- Getting back at your dead father by refusing to have kids is counterproductive.
- If you need to know how sex works, talk to your maid, not your mom.
- The best marriages are based on friendship. (Or maybe sex. Lots of sex. But friendship is good too…)
- True love is a choice that you have to make every day.