Topping Netflix charts worldwide since its release last Christmas day, the period drama series Bridgerton has achieved international acclaim for its modern twist on romance in regency era London. Created by Chris Van Dusen and produced by Shonda Rhimes, famous for her acclaimed television series Grey’s Anatomy, Bridgerton is decidedly different from traditional period romance dramas.
To use one word to describe it, Bridgerton is refreshing. The modern twist on a period drama cuts away at all the typical historical romance plot points that our audience today might find frustrating. Instead, the show strikes a balance between our contemporary ideals and the rigid social norms of the Regency era, successfully depicting its characters as being ahead of their time. Coupled with witty dialogue and clever delivery by its cast, the show has created and filled its own unique gap in the market, deserving of all the praise it’s getting.
A background on the book series
Julia Quinn’s The Bridgerton series is a historical romance novel series which tells the stories of the eight Bridgerton siblings. Raised by their mother, Violet, after their father passes away, the siblings grow up together in an environment full of love and care for one another while navigating the social rules and regulations of the Ton. Each book focuses on a dramatic love story of one of the Bridgerton siblings, who are named in alphabetical order: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth.
Brief synopsis on Bridgerton
The first season is primarily based on the first book, The Duke and I, which revolves around Daphne Bridgerton, the eldest daughter of the Bridgerton family. After being lauded as the “Diamond of the first water” by Queen Charlotte, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) is aware that her marriage will influence the status of her family and so, wishes to find an eligible love match. Her overprotective eldest brother, Anthony, however, keeps rejecting suitors on her behalf, leaving her suitorless in her debut season.
Enter Simon Bassett (Regé-Jean Page), the Duke of Hastings, Anthony’s friend and a handsome rake (a player) who has sworn to never marry, due to his hatred for his abusive father.
While both Daphne and Simon leave poor first impressions on each other, they eventually agree on an arrangement where they pretend to be courting, for Daphne to attract more suitors and Simon free from marriage-minded society mothers. On the premise of their contract, the couple culminates a friendship and gradually begin to fall in love with each other, amidst misunderstandings and missed opportunities.
An unconventional family
The Bridgerton family is unconventional by many standards. While most of the children in Regency-era London are regarded as “heirs” and “offspring”, the Bridgerton siblings are seen as beloved children and grew up very close to one another. When Simon points out the unusual practice of the family having meals together without children bickering and fighting at the table, Violet simply answers that they like each other.
The establishment of the Bridgertons’ eccentric family dynamic opens up the playing field for characters, particularly female ones, to demonstrate behaviour that is atypical of their character archetypes. Daphne gets to punch a handsy suitor when she is supposedly a damsel in distress. Eloise (Claudia Jessie) does not want to marry or have children, which would have been unacceptable in the 19th century. The Bridgertons’ family relationship gears the audience up to be surprised by their eccentric personalities. It also explains the siblings’ defiance of social restrictions, making their portrayal as trailblazers with contemporary mindsets believable.
The female writer
Another modern woman in Bridgerton is the elusive Lady Whistledown. Essentially the Regency-era version of Gossip Girl, she regularly makes anonymous social commentaries about the Ton, exposing their privacy. In a plot twist, the mystery of Lady Whistledown’s identity is revealed in the final episode to be Eloise’s best friend, Penelope Featherington.
Lady Whistledown functions as an insider, an observer of the people, back in a time where it would have been scandalous for noblewomen to engage in writing or hold a job, especially one that critiques her own society. The character is the show’s embodiment of the female gaze, and functions as a homage to females stepping into the forefront of Literature during the 19th century, from Mary Shelley to Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, who are known for writing classic Literature from female perspectives that we read even today.
Female sexual awareness
The level of ignorance that these well-groomed noble ladies have towards the topic of sex is unimaginable to us modern folks blessed (or cursed) with the knowledge bestowed upon us by the internet. The intelligent daughters of the Bridgerton family embark on a search for answers to the basic question of “Where do babies come from?”
Daphne also blames her mother for not educating her on sex before she is married. Simon’s refusal to have children is mistaken by Daphne for infertility. And her lack of awareness about sex leads her to feel betrayed when she realizes the reason why she cannot get pregnant is that her husband refuses to ejaculate inside her during sex.
The show puts a modern twist to the story by juxtaposing the Bridgerton women with Marina Thompson. Played by Ruby Barker, Marina gets pregnant by her lover, who supposedly abandons her when he heads to war. She is thus forced to make her social debut to find a husband before her child is born out of wedlock.
As an unwed female of nobility with sexual awareness, Marina is enlightened and self-aware, in ways that the other ladies are not. She flirts and charms and lies to get her way, and also attempts to abort her baby. While Marina may not be a very flattering portrayal of women, the show empowers its female characters with knowledge and agency. It also makes a strong reference to the restrictions imposed on women in the context of the 19th century, where their marriage plans are often not up to them to decide.
Incorporated racial politics
Another element that was not directly translated from the book series was the notion that Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) was a black woman who married King George III out of love. While some historians do believe that Queen Charlotte had African ancestry, the show takes the creative license of shaping this fictional background in the world of Bridgerton, where the King and Queen’s interracial marriage elevated the people of colour, allowing them access to titles of nobility. The choice to cast Rege Jean Page, who is of African descent, as Simon Bassett further alludes to the possibility of a society that offers Black people equal opportunities.
Although some have criticised the fictional setting as a mere touch-and-go that does not influence the plot, it parallels current affairs in our time, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and other racial politics. By portraying the world of Bridgerton as a world that was not always (but now) colour-blind, it presents a world where racial harmony is possible while re-painting people that have been excluded back into its history.
Shondaland dramas are known for their honest and open portrayals of sex. But Bridgerton, in particular, has attracted a lot of attention for its use of intimacy coaches to ensure that the actors feel comfortable when enacting sex scenes.
Given the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the MeToo movement in recent years, many have applauded the creators for choosing to start a new page in Hollywood, by ensuring that neither of their actors feels taken advantage of during sex scenes. Bridgerton stars have also remarked that with the intimacy coordinator choreographing their bed scenes, their movements were all scripted and became very technical, similar to that of an action scene, hence allowing them to be more comfortable and focused on their acting.
Moving forward to Season 2
With the lauding success it has experienced in the past month of its release, it comes as a surprise to no one that Bridgerton has now been renewed for a second season!
Following the order of the books listed, Anthony Bridgerton is set to be the protagonist of the second book. While the novel dictates that the love of Anthony’s life is Kate Sheffield, Anthony’s relationship with opera singer Siena Rosso leaves him heartbroken by the end of Season 1, leaving us with little clue as to how his story will play out.
Guess we’ll have to tune in to Season 2 to find out!