There’s been a lot of excitement in the generally restrained world of Regency romance at the prospect of Julia Quinn’s popular Bridgerton series being turned into a Netflix series, and I was sufficiently tempted to sign up for Netflix just to watch it. Reviews have been mixed, with purists shocked by the gleeful disregard for historical accuracy, while modernists applauded the brave new world of the diverse Regency. Because yes, in this re-imagined Regency, the nobility encompasses people of all colours.
I knew going in that it wasn’t going to adhere to the rather twee standards set by the BBC adaptations of Jane Austen. This was more along the lines of the 2020 movie version of Emma – stylised, colourful, even brash in places. Bridgerton wasn’t a Regency I recognised, but it was a lot of fun, for all that. I’ve never read Julia Quinn’s books [Update: actually, I have, the very book this series was based on! Must have made a big impression.], so I can’t comment on how closely this version hewed to the original material, but I’ve read the (often outraged) reviews. My favourite said that reading the reviews was more fun than reading the books.
The basic premise is Regency 101: the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne, is about to make her debut in society, so we have a presentation at Queen Charlotte’s drawing room and a succession of balls in the hunt for A Suitable Husband, with all the social pitfalls of Making a Mistake and possibly even Being Ruined. There are rival debutantes and an array of potential husbands, but the principal other family we see is the Featheringtons. I loved, loved, loved the contrast between the uniformly charmed Bridgertons, all of them handsome and elegantly dressed as well as rich, and the less fortunate Featheringtons, with their garish taste in dresses. If the Featherington ladies were to stand in front of the curtains they would be invisible.
However, Penelope Featherington, plump, red-haired and dressed in eye-watering shades of pink or yellow, is one of the most interesting characters of the series, along with blue-stocking Eloise Bridgerton. Both of them were far more fun than righteous Daphne and her tortured duke.
I suppose I ought to mention the hero and heroine, but that involves the plot which is pretty much a regency trope-fest. There’s the fake courtship and the dramatic parting, followed by the reputation-ruining kiss in the garden, the duel at dawn (eye roll), the dramatic ride to intervene by the heroine (even more violent eye roll), the marriage of convenience and the inevitable Big Misunderstanding. Eventually, things get sorted out but it was all pretty tedious, frankly, and makes the usual mistake of mixing up love and lust.
And boy, is there a whole heap of lust. Some of it was even in bed. Although not much of it, it has to be said. Yes, let’s talk about sex. I understand this is straight from the book, and it’s tastefully done. In fact, I don’t recall seeing a single breast exposed, but if you’re a connoisseur of male bottoms, this is definitely the show for you.
Historical accuracy? Variable. We had tightly-laced corsets, dance cards and a variety of dances that were never, ever seen at Almack’s. Queen Charlotte, whose favour or otherwise plays a big part in society in this imagining of the Regency, wears some truly awe-inspiring wigs and the old-fashioned hooped gowns of her youth, but (unlike the real Regency) debutantes were not required to wear hoops themselves. But then when half the ton is black, even the nobility, historical accuracy isn’t really an object.
On the other hand, the gowns (apart from the Queen and the neon-bright affairs of the Featherington ladies) looked pretty accurate to me, ditto the carriages and the houses—! Oh, the houses! Some utterly spectacular interiors and exteriors, sigh. Although I was slightly flummoxed to spot Bath’s Royal Crescent masquerading as London, but then the whole centre of Bath is practically a Regency set, so I don’t blame them for using it.
Even for me as something of a purist, this was a great deal of fun. There were some glimpses of non-ton lifestyles, like the prize boxer and the opera singer, both of whom had to face up to difficult life choices. I loved the story of the cousin fresh from the country, who turns out to be pregnant, and has a whole series of difficult choices of her own. The series doesn’t shy away from the horrible difficulties of life for those who stepped off the conventional path, especially in the sensitively drawn picture of homosexuality, too, a highly dangerous undertaking in those days.
Overall, the side stories were (to me) much more interesting than the main pairing, although the actors were excellent. In fact, the acting was uniformly terrific, and the whole series was very well done. I totally enjoyed it.