The visually decadent hit show "Bridgerton" has managed to take some of the edge off and provide sweet relief from this world full of social unrest, pandemics and scurrilous politicians. Set in 1813 London during the oh-so-romantic Regency period, "Bridgerton" quickly wrecked previous Netflix viewership records, with 82 million households worldwide tuning in during its first four weeks of release. That's a stunning 41 percent of Netflix's subscriber base.
No doubt, people tuned in because they heard tales of the diverse and gorgeous cast. All the sex scenes didn't hurt, either. But hot lovin' isn't all that "Bridgerton" is about. Feminist themes permeate throughout the first season, and the show also shines a bright light on class issues that plague society still today.
Still, "Bridgerton" is a fictional television show based on an equally fictional book series, so it's safe to say that some creative liberties were taken. So, what did "Bridgerton" get right and wrong, historically speaking? Is it a true representation of life in Regency England? We take a closer look.
Race in Regency Times
Executive producer Shonda Rhimes is known for shattering ceilings and stereotypes, so it really shouldn't have shocked anyone that she cast a smoldering Black man as a duke. Sadly for those fans of Simon Basset (also known as the Duke of Hastings), this scenario would have been very unlikely in Regency England.
"Bridgerton is largely a fantasy in terms of the diversity of the population shown," explains Regency historian Whitney S. Christiansen in an email. Only about 20,000 of the 1.3 million people in London at that time were Black, or about 1.5 percent of the population, she adds. "The majority of them were poor or working class, with most employed as servants."
There are some exceptions, however. "While the numbers of high-ranking Black people in Bridgerton is fantasy, some of the ways they are depicted are based in fact," Christiansen says. "Black boxers like Bill Richmond and Tom Molineaux were a popular form of entertainment, much like Hastings' friend Will. Additionally, interracial marriage, while rare, did happen and was depicted in the literature of the time."
Let us also not forget that Queen Charlotte herself is portrayed in the show by a Black actress. This may very well be rooted in fact. "One of her ancestors may very well have been a 'Moor,' or Black, a mistress of one of her ancestors. Portraits of her definitely illustrate an African cast to her features, including her curly hair," Christiansen explains. However, "there were almost 500 years between Queen Charlotte and the Moorish mistress that may have been her ancestor; in that time, almost all the royalty in Europe was also related to the same woman, which would mean that they were equally as Black."
Women's Rights and Roles
Watch any period drama and you'll likely wind up incensed by the portrayal of women's rights (or lack thereof). "Bridgerton" does a great job of depicting a close representation of the rights of women of the day, Christiansen says.
Whereas most of the female characters obsess over finding a husband, the character of Eloise Bridgerton routinely laments her gender's societally imposed limitations in life. "Must our only options be to squawk and settle or to never leave the nest?," she says in one scene. "You wish to follow your heart, and I wish to nurture my mind," she explains in another.
The thing is, the women depicted who worry over finding a husband do so for good reason. In that time period, "Women could typically not inherit, and in fact many estates were tied up in 'entailments,' which meant that upon the deaths of their fathers, their homes were inherited by the nearest male relative, sometimes leaving unmarried women homeless," Christiansen says. "This made marriage incredibly important, because there was no real way to support yourself financially if you were not of the working class."
Hence, the "The London Season," which during the Regency period ran from around Easter to the end of the summer. During this time the debutantes "came out" at Queen Charlotte's Ball, a tradition that continues today. During the Regency period this marked the beginning of a months-long process of lavish balls, where men and women considered each other for marriage potential. "The hunt for a husband was indeed known as the 'marriage mart,' and people did indeed track how many times you had danced with a specific partner, and particularly if they were in a row! Three times in one night meant you were practically engaged already!" Christiansen notes.
Many young women felt immense pressure to find a husband immediately, as the character of Daphne Bridgerton does. "There is some truth in the idea that a failure to find a husband in your first season was a disaster, but it's not because of your reputation," Christiansen explains. "It's more that the money spent on a successful season — the gowns, the carriages, the travel expenses, the balls hosted in one's own home — could be ruinous if they didn't pay off. The pressures on Daphne to make a good match would have been very real."
In the area of costumes, the show took some liberties, although the fashions are rooted in reality. "These are mostly fantasy, with the designers taking the silhouettes from the era and playing with color and creativity for effect," Christiansen notes. "The silhouette of Daphne's gowns is largely accurate. Regency Era gowns were inspired by Greek sculpture, as the Parthenon marbles were moved to London during this time, and so neoclassical ideals were all the rage."
The Featherington ladies, in particular, sport brightly hued frocks. However, "the use of color in Bridgerton is much more madcap than the reality would have been," Christiansen explains.
Detail-oriented viewers might also note that Queen Charlotte and her courtiers are outfitted in a much different style, more suited to the Georgian aesthetic. "This is accurate, because court dress remained several decades behind fashionable dress, with large hoops being worn until 1820," Christiansen says.
'Bridgerton' As History
As with most films, books and TV shows set in pervious times, "Bridgerton" presents as a double-edged sword of sorts. "For example, those who take Bridgerton's version of history as truth may fail to understand the deep racism that marked early 19th century London, including how its depictions of Black men as boxers or Marina as sexually experienced may actually reinforce racist stereotypes rather than challenge them," Christiansen explains. However, she adds, "'Fantasy history' can also be a powerful way to get people interested in real history — it's often the pretty dresses and romance and charismatic characters that draw us in to discovering the real-life facts behind these people and places. It's a great marketing campaign that can lead to real scholarship."