Think of a Regency-set period drama and you might expect a restrained and genteel affair; tea will be sipped and gossip might be whispered. Viewers may be invited to peer into panelled parlours lit by flickering candlelight, or an opulent Assembly room to watch a chaste yet highly charged Quadrille.
Bridgerton takes this further, promising an on-screen Regency romance that feels made for the modern era. There are many playful and stylised elements; brightly lit settings and bold primary colour palettes, not to mention the string quartet arrangements of chart-topping favourites by Ariana Grande or Shawn Mendes. It is these choices made by creator and showrunner Chris Van Dusen and the team behind the new drama, explains Dr Hannah Greig, that help to translate the modern and ground-breaking nature of Georgian high society for a 21st-century audience. A historian of 18th-century Britain and the Beau Monde, Greig served as Bridgerton’s etiquette advisor and recently appeared on the HistoryExtra podcast to discuss how the show is “a period drama like no other”.
The eight-part series is made for Netflix by Chris Van Dusen and Shondaland, and is based on a series of Regency romance novels written since 2000 by Julia Quinn. Set during the reign of the Prince Regent (later George IV), the drama follows a few fictional families of the ‘bon ton’, whose worlds are soon sent reeling by a scandal sheet written by a mysterious ‘Lady Whistledown’ (voiced by Julie Andrews). The families may be drawn from fiction – but how much does the drama otherwise borrow from real history?
Listen to the full interview with Dr Hannah Greig on the HistoryExtra podcast:
Welcome to the Ton
According to Greig, the aristocrats of 19th-century Britain’s high society would have considered themselves incredibly modern: “They were at the cutting edge of fashion; they were the trendsetters. They had the money to spend, and really were extravagant. They lived life in the fast lane, and we don’t always see that on screen.”
Though the families at the centre of Bridgerton are fictional, they are inspired by a real elite who could be considered the ‘celebrities’ of their day, with their vibrant fashions and habits reported in the newspapers. “To see this world made modern, feels in keeping with what it would have felt like to be there at the time,” comments Greig.
Showrunner Van Dusen has stated how he imagined a show that reflected today’s society, including “lustful scenes shot from the ‘female gaze’”, and the result is one that inevitably departs from historical reality – thoroughly escapist, fun, and fantastical. But the historical elements on show are in keeping with many true Regency conventions.
Take the mothers and aunts: figures who loom large in Bridgerton’s plot and hold court at many of the drama’s sparkling set-pieces. “Bridgerton is the world of the matriarch and that is in keeping with the historical world that I would recognise,” explains Greig. “There were some very powerful hostesses, as we call them historically, who ran the balls and the social season, who were kind of managing the marriage market, introducing eligible young people to other eligible young people and managing the flirtation.”
Some mothers were notorious for being extremely ruthless in trying to make a suitable match for their children. One such figure is the Duchess of Gordon, who had four daughters and was featured in many caricatures of the day “trying to push her daughters into the lap of some eligible young duke”. “She was famed for her determination to see her daughters well-married,” says Greig.
The most formidable and influential of these matriarchs is Queen Charlotte (played by Golda Rosheuvel), wife of the incapacitated George III. “She’s the mother of Prince Regent,” explains Greig, “and her court is the pinnacle of society. She did determine who was in and who was out of fashion, to some extent. She didn’t like disreputable women at her court. I don’t know if we’ve seen that kind of court world portrayed before, apart from (the play and film) The Madness of King George.”
Scandal and the ultra-rich
Lady Whistledown’s pamphlets are eagerly awaited bearers of society news, both in Quinn’s novels and the show, and missives like these really did exist.
“These scandal sheets are very much in keeping with how this world of high society was publicised and talked about in the early 19th century,” says Greig. “Newspapers ran columns about what the fashionable world was up to. Magazines ran series that exposed the romances, and adultery and scandals within high society. It was very much part and parcel of the print culture of early 19th-century London.”
One slight departure from history, Greig explains, is that in reality, Regency society pamphlets would have gone to a little more trouble to disguise who was being written about, due to the libel laws of the time. “Some might just have printed initials, for example ‘the Duke of H’, instead of the ‘Duke of Hastings’.” But it was still obvious who the subjects were, she says. “There was no point in having these columns if no one knew who you were talking about.”
The stakes really were high. Bridgerton is a world of glamour and celebrity, sumptuous balls and grand leisure pursuits. But historically it was also a world that held a huge concentration of power. Just a few hundred families made up this super-rich elite which, compared to the rest of society, held staggeringly disproportionate wealth. “They all had London townhouses, and came to London for six months of the year,” explains Greig. “The reason was parliament; they dominated the political infrastructure. But it was such a small world.”
As such, there was always the opportunity for scandal to break a family. “There was a mismatch between what people were allowed to get up to in private and public. If something hit the press, then quite often it would lead to a woman having to remove herself from society to take a period in exile. That was even the case for married women, as well as unmarried women. The press really did have a big power in terms of people’s reputation management in Regency society.”
The wider public had some chances to glimpse into the sparking lives of this upper echelon in person, in places such as the pleasure gardens of the day. One memorable scene in Bridgerton takes viewers to the Vauxhall pleasure gardens, which also featured in the most recent BBC adaptation of Poldark. It was, comments Greig, a place “to indulge in overpriced refreshments and take an evening walk amongst lanterns, statues, music and entertainers.”
Though the pleasures on offer might seem a little tame to modern audiences, “the ticketed, al fresco pleasure ground was a fantasy world and a temple to modernity,” explains Greig. Georgian visitors were awestruck by fantastical installations in which art mimicked nature: water features that on closer inspection were made of metal; endless garden walks that turned out to be trompe-l’oeil visual deceptions; and thousands of simultaneously-lit lanterns that turned night back into day – of course, with the requisite shadowy corners that promise drama and intrigue.
Playing with expectations
The practices of colour-blind casting (take Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton as just one example) and choosing to foreground BAME characters have been increasingly employed in retellings of historical stories in recent years. Thanks to series like Harlots, another Georgian favourite based on Hallie Rubenhold’s Covent Garden Ladies, many regular viewers of period drama are now surely aware that early 19th-century Britain was much more diverse than we might previously have believed. Bridgerton’s casting is not necessarily ‘colour-blind’; to say that would imply that the drama does not consider the weight and history of colour and race. Instead, suggests Greig (who was interviewed further about the subject here), it encourages us to think about it more carefully. She explains: “It’s not that you’re ignoring race, but you’re thinking about it quite carefully. In Bridgerton that happens in two ways.
“The first is by introducing characters who are inspired by real historical figures. There is a black boxer, Will Mondrich (played by Martins Imhangbe), who is inspired by Bill Richmond.” Richmond was born into slavery in 1763 on Staten Island and fought for the British during the American War of Independence. He was brought to England by his commanding officer and later, when serving as a bodyguard, was introduced to the thrill of London’s bareknuckle boxing scene. He became a professional boxer, remarkably beginning his career at the age of 41, and later opened his own gym, training notable figures of the day such as Lord Byron.
The second way Bridgerton breaks new ground is with characters cast in places where we might not expect to see people of colour, such as the aristocracy of the time. Chris Van Dusen and the drama are “sort of playing with the idea of what society would look like under different circumstances,” says Greig. “It draws on what we know to be historical reality, but also asks the audience to think more carefully about their expectations of what a period drama should look like, and also what it might be like if history was slightly different.”
Bridgerton plays quite strongly on an idea that has been suggested in various points in history – that Queen Charlotte has some kind of mixed race heritage. “Bridgerton picks up on that and runs with it a bit further than we might otherwise do, and then asks the question: if she did have mixed race heritage, what would the society around her look like? What opportunities might that have meant for other people to being elevated?” explains Greig. In creating the period series he has “always wanted to see,” Chris Van Dusen both shines a light onto a monarch not often featured in the dramas depicting the era, and spotlights the ethnic diversity of Regency Britain.
This approach, Greig continues, is “a combination of a historical truth – which is to say that the past is more diverse than we tend to see on screen, and we tend to accept in our popular imagination. But it’s also a fictionalising, asking what history might look like under certain different circumstances. It’s doing both of those things – and I think that’s really valuable, and drama can be very powerful in setting that up.”
Bridgerton was released on Netflix worldwide on Christmas Day 2020 and is available to stream now.
Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and the historical advisor to a number of historical TV and film projects.
Elinor Evans is acting digital editor of HistoryExtra.com