What was on Mr. Malcolm’s List? The real history behind the Regency romance
The Britain of 1818 was one of harsh realities at home and abroad, but the show – by which we mean the Regency marriage market – must go on. While historical detail might be lightly applied in this adaptation of a modern historical novel, as Amanda Rae-Prescott explains, Mr. Malcolm’s List answers a growing appetite for escapist period drama that can tell us much about the genre…
Mr. Malcolm’s List is a film adaptation of author Suzanne Allain’s 2009 historical-romance fiction novel of the same name. Set in Regency England, in 1818, the story follows Jeremy Malcolm (played by Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), a bachelor with overly stringent standards for his future wife, whose relentless pursuit of perfection leaves many eligible women behind.
When Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) feels the embarrassment of his rejection, she devises a plan to cut Mr Malcolm’s ego down to size with the help of her good friend Selina Dalton (Frieda Pinto).
The plan: Selina will show him how she is the perfect woman, but will ultimately reject him, citing her own list of what she wants in the perfect husband. Of course, unforeseen circumstances and human emotions threaten to ruin the plan.
The vision of Regency society presented in Mr. Malcolm’s List is different to that of other recent dramas set in the era – of which Bridgerton is perhaps the most obvious parallel. This story largely excludes the people and institutions that control the social and political hierarchy. Though there are several characters with royal titles, there is no mention of the monarchy – so no George III or Queen Charlotte.
On the whole, Mr. Malcolm’s List recreates more features of the elite marriage market than other aspects of life in 1818. But that doesn’t mean a there is a lack of real events that are tied into the story.
The real history of Mr. Malcolm’s List
Cartoonists played an integral part in Regency print culture, and this aspect of life in the 19th century manifests early on: Julia’s embarrassment, which kickstarts her scheme, comes from a pamphlet containing a sketch that mocks a failed night she spent at the opera with Mr Malcolm.
There are plenty of surviving examples of such cartoons from newspapers and pamphlets, many of which represented major political events, with the Napoleonic Wars being especially popular. There are also examples of cartoons from the time making fun of the upper echelons of society. Julia’s on-screen humiliation rings true even today with the proliferation of social media gossip and tabloid news.
What is on Mr Malcolm’s list?The “most eligible bachelor in England” certainly wasn’t shy when it came it setting out his demands in a wife. The requirements on his list are:
- Amiable and even-tempered
- Handsome of countenance and figure
- Candid, truthful and guileless
- Converses in a sensible fashion
- Educates herself by extensive reading
- A forgiving nature
- Charitable and altruistic
- Graceful and well-mannered
- Possesses musical or artistic talent
- Has genteel relations from good society
The film also depicts Mr Malcolm’s strict requirement to have a wife who is educated, allowing the screenwriters to drop in a number of contemporary historical details. Julia points out to Selina that while men want women who can conduct an elegant conversation, they do not want a woman who is smarter than them. Mr Malcolm tests Julia and Selina’s knowledge by quizzing them on current events, including the Corn Laws or the building of churches.
The 1815 Corn Law would have been one of the most divisive pieces of legislation of the day. When asked, Julia improvises that it was a positive thing, as a way to moderate the diets of the less fortunate. While the real legislation did affect diet, Julia’s view is a simplistic reading of a complex situation. The 1815 Corn Law prohibited the import of grain until the price of domestic grain passed a set threshold (corn in this instance referring to all cereal grains, not just corn). It raised the price of bread astronomically for the working class and was incredibly controversial at the time.
Whereas Julia’s answer reveals that she was not keeping up with current events (or even paid attention to household expenses), Selina fares much better when answering Mr Malcolm’s question about the Church Building Act, noting that the money allocated to the buildings themselves would be better reallocated to support charitable efforts.
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The real Church Building Act of 1818 established a £1 million fund for the building of new churches, as well as a commission to oversee its distribution. But her answer only tells part of the story. Population growth in cities and newly established centres of industry meant there were more Anglican parishioners than spaces in existing churches. Though Selina’s father is a clergyman, her answer suggests her family lives in an area where this was not the case.
While the plot references these two concrete political events within England, it is far more elusive about political events overseas. Captain Ossory (Theo James) mentions seeing death at Waterloo, and presumably fought there, but the Napoleonic Wars are otherwise glossed over. The absence of the monarchy also means a noticeable absence of many of the issues around the expanding British empire. There is a brief reference in a conversation about family connections (another quality from Mr Malcolm’s infamous list), which is the only clear reference to issues of immigration, race, and ethnicity.
Race and colour-blind casting in Mr. Malcolm’s List
There is a moment in the film when Mr Malcolm quotes a foreign proverb, which he then translates into English: “A man who marries a woman marries all of her relatives.” Up until this point, the film treats the major and minor characters played by actors of colour as a normalised phenomenon.
It could be said that Mr. Malcolm’s List is being derivative by using racebent casting (which refers to casting actors of colour as characters that were described as white or no ethnicity in the original novel or script). However, it pre-dates Bridgerton in this regard. In February 2019, long before it was optioned as a feature film, a short-film adaptation of Mr. Malcolm’s List debuted on YouTube. Some of the cast are played by different actors, but it established the precedent of racebending several characters from the novel. It is important to note that diversifying cast opportunities does not invalidate other forms of historical recreation on screen such as costuming, set design, and reenacting historical events.
The proverb segues into Mr Malcolm asking more generic questions, effectively normalising the presence of non-white elites in Regency England. Likewise, Mr. Malcolm’s List purposely chooses not to reconcile real events regarding race and colonialism in 1818 in order to maintain the alternate history escapism for the characters of colour.
In reality, 1818 was the year that Chile declared its independence from Spain and that British forces and the British East India Company conquered the Maratha Empire in India. It also signified an increase in effort on part of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron to enforce the ban on the international slave trade enacted in British law in 1807. Such events would likely have affected real families living in early 19th century English society – but on-screen, the impact on the Dalton, Thistlewaite and Malcolm families are invisible.
The script makes the assumption that all of the characters of colour were either born in England or successfully assimilated after moving from moved from colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean several decades earlier. However, figuring out what is unsaid in the script is harder to deduce, as the world of Mr. Malcolm’s List already ignores the monarchy and its role in military and colonial ventures.
Interracial marriages in the British colonies or inside Britain were never officially outlawed but there were social and in some cases class-based restrictions depending on location. It is unclear whether any of the characters or their parents/grandparents ever experienced life as a slave or an indentured servant, since those words are never mentioned. It’s left to the viewers to speculate as to whether the ownership of property in the colonies or trade is a factor of the wealth of the characters in the movie.
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What is clear is that the movie’s internal logic is driven more by contemporary and historical romance tropes and less by recreating historical events. Some viewers may not be satisfied by how little space is given to that historical context, but it answers the call from audiences for escapist period dramas, undeniably a growing trend.
Where to watch Mr. Malcolm’s List
Mr. Malcolm’s List releases in cinemas in the US on 1 July 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.