Drama, Spotlight

Bridgerton, a new Netflix historical nonsense

queen charlote drinking a cup of tea

topics covered by bridgerton

From producer Shonda Rhimes the last Netflix’ hit, Bridgerton, has surpassed any expectations. Based on Julia Quinn’s novels, the show depicts the Regency period in England like never before. And not because of its original plot but for the lack of any historial accuracy (and free will) on it. Bridgerton aims to talk about love, responsability and women’s emancipation. But what is true the result? Let’s find out.

Britain’s greatest Epoque: The Regency

Netflix’ Bridgerton is set in the 1813 England, during the period better known as the Regency. This period is named for George IV, the temporary king while his father, George III, was mentally ill. During his rein, the “First Gentleman of Europe”, the Prince Regent, provided a great deal of support for the development of the arts and science. The Regency lasted nine years, from 1811 to 1820, and it is considered one of the glorious periods in the Britain history.

Astley's Amphitheatre

Astley’s Amphitheatre, 1808-1811 (Wikipedia)

This period also brought the end of a religious and reserved society, and gave birth to a more frivolous one. Saul David in his biography of George IV describes the Regency as a ‘devil-may-care period of low morals and high fashion’. The life-style of this refined upper class contrasted with the tough conditions of the poor. A third of the country’s population lived on the verge of starvation, prompting food riots across the countryside. This trouble got worst when Luddites attacked new industrial machinery to demand better conditions. As the demonstrations began to spread, the English government responded with repressive measures that limited free speech. This situation turned the country into a powder keg, but anything of this is shown in Bridgerton series (at least properly).

What we see is the first world problems of England’s aristocracy. In this case, Daphne’s marriage. In the late eighteenth century, British culture became focused on the accumulation and concentration of wealth within the family. One way for families to gather capital was through advantageous marriages. Thus daughters within the family became the means through which a family could achieve grater wealth. Familial aspirations and women’s dependence on marriage for financial survival, made courtship a central focus of women’s lives. This situation changed when Mary Wollstonecraft published Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In the book, Wollstonecraft states that women should be treated as the rational equals of men. However, Chris Van Dusen’s story, conveniently, prefers to skip this interesting history turn and prefers to focus on woman’s troubles. Expectable if we realise Bridgerton’s only motivation is to depict a multicultural victorian England.

Almack's Assembly Room, 1805–1825

Almack’s Assembly Room, 1805–1825 (Wikipedia)

Blacks in Regency England

Nicola Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington, recently tweeted: “If you’re seeing Bridgerton and thinking it’s anachronistic because it’s brilliantly diverse and in glorious technicolour – you are correct. We are serving you *Fantasy* Regency London. Bright, Bold, & Beautiful.” There’s no doubt that Coughlan was forced to stand up for the show due to criticism received for its lack of historical accuracy. Manipulation while working in a historical adaptation is expected, but in Bridgerton series case it’s absurd and even insulting. Why changing people’s colours for no narrative reason?

According to producer Shonda Rhimes it is all about personal taste:

“There weren’t really Bridgertons back then, so it wasn’t like this was a docudrama. It allowed Chris to create the world that he wanted to live in.”

Ok, so… What’s this suppose to do with history? I mean, if the main attractive of the show is its historical component, why are we being disrespectful about that? It might seems nonsense, but if we allow to let our personal preferences interfere with the past, how can we trust that everything we see in regular tv shows is not a fictional recreation of history? If that was true, we would be living in Truman’s world.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, David Martin. (Wikipedia)

Records show that black people have lived in Britain since at least the 12th century. The numbers increased in the 17th and 18th centuries. As the British empire expanded, African and Afro-Caribbean slaves were brought to english ports. Some of them became companions for white expatriates during their long voyages. Others ended in domestic service.

We have to remember slavery was legal in Britain until 1722. By the time, most of the black people worked as butlers or other household attendants in aristocratic families. Other times they could serve as decoration. In fact, owners selected them based on their look and the lustre of their young skin as if they were pieces of cattle. So, yes, black people can be found in the fancy eighteenth century aristocracy but not as Bridgerton pictures it. No need to say that few black personalities achieved a certain notoriety among the english aristocracy. But that was very unusual.

Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz

Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz by Allan Ramsay (Historybitches)

Speaking of notoriety. Another remarkable thing in Bridgerton is the black queen. Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was a northern German duchy in the Holy Roman Empire. She married George III and they had 15 children. Although she was German, historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom states her features were (Allan Ramsay’s portrait) African. She descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family related to Margarita de Castro e Souza. According to Valdes, Margarita’s ancestry traces from the 13th century ruler Alfonso III and his lover Madragana, who may have been a Moor (and therefore a black African).

Weather Queen Charlotte was truly black or not doesn’t matter as Golda Rosheuvel states: “This is really a period drama like you’ve never seen before because it sits itself right in the twenty-first century. I can grab hold of it, be engaged with it and how it relates to me. I think that having a Black Queen is really interesting and joyous and celebrates the modern world as well.” This would make sense if the queen’s skin color affected the message of the series or improved its quality. But no. We’re getting used to pervert and adulterate our history just for fun, or worse, for being “modern”. It is discouraging.

Female Empowerment

Bridgerton, of course, also includes a wink at today’s growing feminist movement. Actually, most of the cast is female and the men we see are depicted as manipulative, totalitarian and despicable. All men but Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) who is a cool black guy who shuns marriage. So eighteenth century women on Netflix’ Bridgerton are trapped in a sort of high-class patriarchy. They attend to large balls and fests to find a husband who will take them. But nothing else. They can’t even read when they have some time off. It might seem outrageous but that’s they way they lived back in England’s Regency.

Women in Bridgerton series

Some of the daily occupations of women in Bridgerton

The premise reminds in some way to ITV’s Harlots. Each girls seems to be living a particular drama. Phoebe’s under the oppression of his despotic brother, Marina is with child, Penelope is embarrassed of her body, and so on. The main difference between each shows is the background drama. While the harlots fight to survive in the cruel world of prostitution, the Bridgerton ladies strive to pick which dress to wear for the next ball. No need to say: two different levels.

As Jane Austen’s novels the main incentive will be to witness Daphne and Simon relationship. They agree to pretend to marry because they want to preserve their freedom. How progressive and modern is that, uh? What they don’t know is they will end up falling in love after all. I didn’t see that coming. But what can we expect in a period where women didn’t have anything better to do that to wait for their prince charming. That could be compensated if anything of what they talk and care the characters of Bridgerton was interesting at all.

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Laura Blanco is a Filmmaker based in Barcelona. She also works as a film and TV critic and theorist and she is a member of the ACCEC (Associació Catalana de Crítics i Escriptors Cinematogràfics) and Dones Visuals. Her first feature film, 'Costumbre', has been selected in Acció Curts, Mallorca Talent Lab by Filmin and the Ibermedia Program.