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16 May 2024

The conservative fantasies of Bridgerton

The Netflix series promised to radicalise romance. Instead, it delights in old-fashioned patriarchy and class systems.

By Tanya Gold

I’m faintly shamed by my love for Netflix’s Bridgerton, because I usually ignore television drama in which everyone wears lilac.  It is based on a series of silly “Regency Romance” novels by Julia Quinn, only one of which I’ve read (for this piece). They have names like The Viscount Who Loved Me or Romancing Mister Bridgerton and they tell the love stories of eight British siblings: the Bridgertons. Their parents named them after the letters of the alphabet, which is just lazy. They wear a lot of lilac. I know why. (I guessed). Their father, Viscount Edmund Bridgerton (Rupert Evans), loved lilacs – until he was killed by a bee, anyway. (Netflix PR copy writers don’t really care about forms of address. There is no Viscount Edmund Bridgerton. He is Viscount Bridgerton or Edmund Bridgerton). The entire second season can be read as a discourse on apiphobia.

It is conservative, being romance fiction, whose essential command is – if you don’t have, or want, a patriarch, invent one as an avatar, or toy. This genre is a system of feminine control, and much closer to crime fiction, its twin, than it pretends. It’s about coping, and gilding. Bridgerton, which first appeared on screens in 2020, promised to radicalise romance, but it didn’t. Much of the early chatter about the show, which is the fourth most popular show in Netflix’s history, was about race. The presiding Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) – usually referred to as THE QUEEN! or MY QUEEN! in shouty caps – is a woman of colour. When she arrives in Britain to marry George III (James Fleet), the crown ennobles local families of colour, which is, to be fair, the sort of thing the royal family would do if they found themselves biracial in error. Bridgerton calls this The Great Experiment: the hero of the first season is a black duke called Simon (Regé-Jean Page) who hates his father. This is the sort of negotiation the British elite excels at: incremental change to emphasize, not dilute, its power.

Bridgerton loves class: if you didn’t why would you bother to write eight whole books about it? Even so, Americans – and Quinn and Rhimes are both American, though minorities, which might explain their obsession with class – don’t have to live with it. They think it is decorative, like the Cotswolds: a leisure choice, or theme. A function of the class system is that you can’t see beyond it. But others who should know better join in. I had this encounter on the set of Downton Abbey (it’s not really an abbey, it’s a house): the PR told me she loved the class system. She should be in Bridgerton. Perhaps in her mind she is.

The plot of the second season, beyond apiphobia, is two sisters bickering over who will be a viscountess addressed wrongly in Netflix publicity copywriting material forever after. “You deserve to be the viscountess!” they scream at each other, while bees hover threateningly, and Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (he’s not called that, and it’s Jonathan Bailey) lurks outside with a horse in a giant bow. There are female character with agency, but only because their husbands are dead, or mad, and they know as little of solidarity as they do of Tinder. Bridgerton believes in prosperity theology: if you are noble, you are good. All the show’s characters delight in the structures that oppress them. Whores are happy to be whores: I sense they would do it for free. Whether their compulsive use of sex workers affects the male Bridgertons’ claims to decency isn’t addressed, though they are very scared of bees. Servants are loyal as dogs. They love their masters, and, to prove it they wear a lot of lilac too. (I sense they would do it for free too). No one has syphilis in Bridgerton: in life, a fifth of Georgian London’s population did by the age of 35. The only hint of revolution in three and a half series (including the spinoff Queen Charlotte) is a mild scrap over a pig. The wife of Duke Simon (he’s not called that, and she’s D for Daphne, played by Phoebe Dynevor) didn’t manage to choose a best pig in the village fair despite years of education, and no one got the pork contract for the big house. She pulls herself together, chooses a pig, and order is restored.

This is an 18th century without misery, then. Jane Austen with the sex put back in; wish-fulfilment, not feminism. Sexual pleasure predates universal suffrage: orgasm and liberation are different things.  But Bridgerton does contain one thing I find addictive, because it’s less true now than it was then: the magical power of journalism, and of writing to renew yourself. I choose to read Bridgerton, at least so far, as a piece about gossip columnist called Lady Whistledown, whose real name is Miss Penelope Featherington.  If you’re a writer, you can do anything to the limit of your powers. You can ennoble yourself, and, thus armed, you can go to war with a queen of England. “Penelope might not know how to defend herself,” Quinn writes, “but by God, Lady Whistledown did”.

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And what a typical female writer Penelope Featherington (Nicola Couglan) is: shy, over-weight, awkward (when sex comes to her, she falls over in the street and lands on a shoe). Since the last journalist to grace a worldwide TV hit was Carrie Bradshaw of Sex in the City, who thought that if you bought the right desk the right novel would follow, I love Penelope with a weird intensity. She is close in spirit to anti-social Jane Austen (she hated Bath) and raging Charlotte Brontë (she hated children), though her object of hatred is herself, at least until she picks up a quill.  

Penelope had a miserable first season (social season, not Netflix season). She is bullied by women and ignored by men. Her mother (the superb Polly Walker, another Bridgerton heroine redeemed by widowhood) makes her wear yellow all the time, like a duckling, or banana. Her only pleasure is to stare out of the window looking at C for Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton), who doesn’t desire her, but offers something worse than hatred, at least for a teenage girl: disinterested kindness. So, she writes down her agony, sells it for money, and Bridgerton has a feminist heroine at last. She has “insulted almost every person of consequence in the British Isles,” which is more than Bridgerton does. If you read closely – much too closely – she undermines it all.

She is a victim of her own column, another glorious act of subversion, and control. “Miss Penelope Featherington’s unfortunate gown left the unfortunate girl looking like nothing more than an overripe citrus fruit,” she writes gaily. Or she is strangled by her own ruffles, which is close to being strangled by your own brassiere. “People never talked to me,” she says, but with a three column a week deal, she talks to them, and they listen, because they think she’s someone else. She leaves notes for her publisher hidden in the pews at St Bride’s, the journalist’s church, and I think she’s the Hilary Mantel of Netflix Regency Romance. Couglan looks oddly like Mantel, though perhaps only I have noticed this. I worked out what Lady Whistledown earns, and it’s more than me, but not more than Mantel.

[See also: Gavin & Stacey, the sitcom New Labour built]

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