The hit adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton Regency romances gets everything right, almost. By Ellie Marney.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an onscreen adaptation of a Regency romance must be in want of a Pride and Prejudice comparison. Which is a shame, as Bridgerton is definitely not Austen but a stunning creation in its own right.
Yes, Bridgerton and Pride and Prejudice share a bloodline. There are significant differences, however: while Austen wrote realist romantic comedies of manners, Bridgerton is a classic genre romance, a constructed daydream of Regency England created by an American, author Julia Quinn.
The P&P comparisons seem to have confused a lot of people who are apparently happy to lump all Regency romance into the Austen category. Certainly Bridgerton is a delightful confection, adapted by Chris Van Dusen – with able assistance from writers of quality such as Abby McDonald, Sarah Dollard, Janet Lin and Quinn herself – as part of the Shondaland media stable. But just as all love stories differ in the details, there is a lot of distinction and detail in the show worth picking over.
You’ve probably got the gist of the Bridgerton story by now: Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), jewel of the illustrious and multi-siblinged Bridgerton clan, and Simon Basset, the rakish Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), must find their way to true love, while being obstructed or abetted by a bevy of friends such as the divine Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh, who deserves a show all to herself), family (Claudia Jessie is a standout as Daphne’s sister Eloise, and Ruth Gemmell is warm and sincere as Lady Bridgerton) and various troublemakers, including Lady Featherington (Polly Walker, enjoying herself immensely).
If you know anything about genre romance, you’ll know that the viewer will be rewarded with their HEA (happily ever after) at the end of the day. Dynevor is excellent, and she and Page have wonderful chemistry, giving solid, vulnerable performances. The supporting cast is fabulous – the subplots of various characters are given depth and add to the texture of the story. It’s really well-constructed television, and viewers have flocked to watch the show.
Bridgerton acknowledges from the first frames that genre romance is a fantasy, and it has some very interesting things to say about how such idealised visions of romantic and erotic love are presented, and how pleasure – especially female pleasure – is depicted onscreen. The show has a level of self-awareness that doesn’t tip over into meta too intrusively, and a sexual honesty that is diverse, sensual and touching.
With the opening scenes of Bridgerton, full of dollhouse-like sets of Grosvenor Square and the streets of Regency London, we’re presented with an imagined world of light, emotion and colour. Notably, this television version establishes a racially inclusive world immediately. Regency romance, onscreen and on the page, has hitherto been blindingly white, and Bridgerton tackles that head-on with a high society ton full of people of colour, ruled by the gloriously haughty Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel). There is a gradually developed narrative context for this, and the show cleverly binds together this foundational backstory – based on love – with the heady love story between Daphne and Simon.
The show’s Regency era is depicted as a world in which racial inequality has been partially addressed, but gender inequality is still dispiritingly awful. This is something that Bridgerton brings into stark relief: in the Regency period, women were property. A high society woman’s worth rested entirely on her status, her physical beauty, the size of her dowry and the purity of her reputation. By the second episode, Daphne Bridgerton has explained the precarious situation of women to both the audience and her brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey). If you were in any doubt, the glimpse of abrasions we see on Daphne’s back – from the constriction of her corset – drives the point home.
So the fantasy isn’t all froth and sweetmeats, no matter how much CGI is incorporated into that blossoming tree in the opening credits. The tree is about family, of course – a lot of genre-romance story arcs focus on reconciling the wants and desires of the protagonists with the requirements of their families, or coming to terms with the damage done to an individual by their family. It’s noteworthy, then, that Simon’s daddy issues are familial and personal, and Daphne’s problems are largely societal.
But the details are what make the show an incandescent joy. Everything from the striking colours of the women’s gowns to the elaborate arrangements of their hair is designed to draw the eye. There is a cornucopia of delight in every frame, and I take my (feathered) hat off to the costume designers and art directors, not to mention whoever took a punt on adapting contemporary tunes for classical strings in the ballroom scenes – bravo for including “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish; that was a nice touch.
My only complaint involves the episode depicting a scene of dubious consent. Such a scenario might have played adequately to Quinn’s original readership when The Duke and I was first released 20 years ago, but it leaves a sour taste today, and skews the dramatic heart of the final episodes. It could have been so easily avoided, and my suggestion to the producers is: do better.
Aside from this, Bridgerton is about as delightful a romp as it’s possible to get on television. I’ve seen Bridgerton described as a “subversion of the romance genre” – but genre romance has always been subversive. Any kind of media that privileges women’s perspectives, their lives and pleasures, is subversive by nature.
Above all, genre romance is hopeful: it’s about the imagined ideal in any intimate relationship. I’d love to see the series dash off to check out the fortunes of other pairings (Benedict Bridgerton and the artistic Mr Granville, or Eloise and Penelope, perhaps?) and the success of this first series certainly suggests a second season might be on the way.
More than anything else, it’s gratifying to see that someone had the sense to adapt more genre romance for the screen. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least half-a-dozen romance series that would make great onscreen period pieces. My fingers are crossed for Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster series, the Hathaways series by Lisa Kleypas, Courtney Milan’s The Brothers Sinister series and the glorious The Loyal League series by Alyssa Cole – and there are another dozen contemporary romances that would work like a dream if viewers fancied something more modern.
Genre romance has been underappreciated for a long time, and there’s a huge, hungry audience for it out there. Bridgerton is an example of a romance adaptation done right.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "A cornucopia of delight".
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