Shondaland’s Regency: On “Bridgerton”

December 26, 2020   •   By Patricia A. Matthew

THE MOST FASCINATING young woman in Shonda Rhimes’s new series Bridgerton is Marina Thompson, the country cousin of the fashionable and gaudy Featherington family. All of the young women navigating London’s marriage market have something to recommend them, and they are each endearing in their own way, but Marina’s story elevates what would otherwise be an enjoyable but largely predictable series. She is gorgeous, self-possessed, smart, and playful, and Ruby Barker’s graceful and nuanced performance of her as worldly, naïve, resourceful yet vulnerable all at the same time makes me hope that we’ll see her again in another season.  She is a woman of color, and in some other storyteller’s hands this might make her a token exotic with a predicable narrative arc, especially in 1813 England. This, however, is Shondaland’s Regency England, so Marina is not alone; she’s not even the only mixed-race character in the series. There are Black actors among the servants, the people walking along the street, the merchant class, the young members of the ton, and their mothers. The queen is Black (Queen Charlotte played by Golda Rosheuvel). The dashing Duke at the center of the primary love story is Black (Simon Basset the Duke of Hastings played by Regé-Jean Page), and so are both of his parents (Daphne Di Cinto and Richard Pepple). The ton’s most feared matron Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) is Black. With such a diverse cast, Bridgerton not only enters the contemporary Regency-era lexicon at a time when contemporary Black writers, artists, critics, and scholars have successfully punctured the myths about its homogeneity but also gives us a multicultural world that feels organic and allows its young characters of color their own bildungsroman. Put another way, the Black figures in this world are not in the series in the empty service of diversity or to serve the white characters in the novels. They are peers. Lady Danbury’s ballroom floor is decorated with curlicues intertwined around the phrase Non scholæ sed vitæ discimus (We do not learn for school, but for life). It’s an aphorism meant for both the young Black women and men and their white counterparts, in the series and at home.

Marina Thompson is certainly not the only heroine of color featured in contemporary tellings of Regency England. Most recently, Andrew Davies’s adaptation of the Jane Austen fragment Sanditon takes the silent West Indian heiress Ms. Lambe (Crystal Clarke) and gives her a storyline as complex as the story’s white heroine Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams). While she never speaks in the novel, she roars in Davies’s rendering, and no reasonable viewer can blame her.  She’s desired only for her wealth, her guardian is rigid, and most of the people in the seaside community she is forced to join see her as an oddity. She is likeable for her persistence, and her friendship with Charlotte is as interesting to watch as her secret trysts with her love interest Otis Molyneux (by Jyuddah James). In 2014 Amma Asante’s Belle, the mixed-race heroine Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) also has wealth to recommend her, a friendship with her cousin, and outrage at both her situation and the lot of enslaved Black men and women.  Marina is in a different kind of story than either of these young women. Sanditon and Belle are heritage dramas in the BBC/PBS tradition; Bridgerton is a soap opera whose set-pieces and characters are drawn from history.  At times it feels more like a play than a television series.

Black heroines that reflect in Regency-era politics and aesthetics pop-up in different genres. Ibi Zoboi’s young adult novel Pride brings Austen’s most beloved novel to modern-day Brooklyn with Afro-Latino heroines facing two especially confounding and oppressive forces: gentrification and single straight men in New York City.  On YouTube, Aydrea Walden’s Black Girl in a Big Dress is a hilarious series of shorts about a Black woman so caught up in Victorian cosplay that it disrupts her real love life. Walden’s writing in this series is sharp and funny, and she does something interesting with race and racism in it. At her cos-play events (mostly balls and tea parties) she is just a girl in a dress. Outside of that imaginary world, she has to fend off racist assumptions about her, something she often does in sly side remarks her clueless white co-workers brush off as funny or too puzzling to understand.  In one vignette, she shows up in the wrong clothes for an office party and her attempt to be blasé about the mistake is foiled by a white colleague. He asks her bluntly who she is and when she replies in a passable posh British accent that she’s Lady Catherine Avingdon of some invented abbey, he blurts out, “You can’t be from DownTOWN Abbey or Pride and Prejudice or whatever.” She responds, why not? And he hesitates the way white people do when they’re afraid they are about to stumble into their own racism: “Because, because, you’re,” he says as he gestures to her. He then says to someone off screen, “Doesn’t she look like that girl from Django Unchained?” He gets everything wrong, but he also captures what it means to be Black in pre-1900 England. You might be free, but slavery is never too far away. The Black people in Bridgerton know this, even if most of their white counterparts seem not to.

The series, based on Julia Quinn’s novels about eight siblings and their various paths to marriage and love (usually in that order), is not explicitly about slavery and abolition, but it is there in private conversations and debates. Older Black members of the ton talking to young ones about the stakes of respectability politics will remind long-time Rhimes fans of Papa Pope’s lecture to Olivia about the necessity to be twice as good. Lady Dansbury’s advice runs along the same lines, though she speaks from love and not arrogance. And, although Marina is clearly a free woman of color (she has a modest dowry and is fully part of the London season), a few pointed barbs she throws at the other women in the series and the way she is dressed gesture (just gestures really) towards England dominance of the Transatlantic slave trade.  Marina’s dresses are initially more homespun then her elegant, if gaudy, cousins, but sitting in her bed with her hair wrapped, she brings to mind the women of color depicted in Agostino Brunias’s paintings of the West Indies.

The whole show feels like a series of paintings come to life, and, fittingly, painting is one of the artistic genres that dominates the story (writing is the other). Anthony Bridgerton’s (Jonathan Bailey) lover Siena Rosso (Sabrina Bartlett) is posed like the white female figure in Manet’s Olympia. Queen Charlotte and her ladies-in-waiting are ready to be captured on canvas. Daphne and Hastings discover real passion in front of a painting that looks for all the world like W.M. Turner painted it. “Bridgerton” is filmed in England, and the, hair, make-up and costume team worked on costume dramas like Downton Abbey. It shows. Not only is every costume lush and gorgeous, the wigs fit each character. I gasped at Queen Charlotte’s hair the way I’m guessing I was supposed to gasp at the sex Netflix productions make possible. The white wigs that sit atop every fashionable person’s head are personalized here with locks and afros on some of the Black characters.

When she announced the series, Rhimes explained that she has loved Quinn’s novels for years. After reading all eight of them before I watched the series last month (I read them over 13 nights, and I must confess that with the exception of the rake who lives near Scotland, the sex reads as predictable as a quadrille) I could easily see why. The plot twists are as bananas as those we’ve seen in Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder.  It might have made more sense for Rhimes to adapt historical romances that already feature characters of color (here’s hoping for future adaptations of novels by Beverly Jenkins and Elysabeth Grace), but after reading the novels, Rhimes’s choice feels intuitive. This is the Rhimes of The Princess Diaries II, and Daphne Bridgerton is cut from the same cloth.

The Bridgerton novels are also a refreshing counter to historical fiction that traditionally required women readers to participate in a troubling contract. They were called “bodice rippers” for a reason. In exchange for sweeping romances and titillating love scenes with throbbing and heaving bits and pieces, women read stories with uniformly thin, luminously beautiful heroines whose paths to love often included nonconsensual sex with brooding, often cruel men. The message was that rape was okay so long as the story turned out the way the cover of the novel promised.  Quinn doesn’t subscribe to all of these generic conventions. Yes, her heroines are young, chaste, and vulnerable to scandal, and they are all white.  But they are not all thin and some of their beauty is only in the eyes of the men who fall in love with them. Some of them are ambivalent about marriage, and almost all of them can throw a punch. There’s a Katniss Everdeen quality to their mix of innocence and agency that fits in easily with Netflix’s young heroines, like Enola Holmes, little sister to Sherlock and Mycroft, and, Anya Taylor Joy’s Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. It’s no coincidence that Joy played a perfect Emma Woodhouse just last year.  

The Bridgerton novels have more than a bit of Austen about them. There’s a butler named Wickham and a truth or two is universally acknowledged. Every heroine has Elizabeth Bennet’s spunk, and, like Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, the heroes struggle to find a place for themselves in the world. While the stories belong comfortably in the tradition of Regency-era courtship novels, some of the names feel like they come straight from a Richard Brinsley Sheridan play. Bridgerton, Featherington, and Whistledown would be right at home in School for Scandal. Marina Thompson only appears briefly in one of the later Bridgerton novels (Queen Charlottes does not appear at all), and we only have hints about her background. We know, however, that she does not want to be in London, and the bargain that has her among the ton echoes with the circumstances that bring Olivia Fairfield in the 1808 novel The Woman of Colour, A Tale from the West Indies to England.

The women in the novels walk a fine line between innocence and an underinformed worldliness that threatens their happiness and the social order they are expected to uphold. They know what makes a man a rake, but they don’t know how babies are made. This translates onto the screen in ways that I find wholly satisfying. In part this is because the young women in the series are openly disdainful of Regency-era gender requirements. If this series feels like Austen’s world, it is Austen through the cynical eyes of Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford.  The hapless, frazzled mothers and maternal figures in Austen’s novels (Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Ferrars come to mind immediately), are replaced in this world by shrewd women unafraid to confront the foolishness of young Dukes, and, by and large, those young men listen. Portia Featherington (Polly Walker) is a hustler, displaying her daughters like wares in a window, and she is unrelenting. Although the men here are beautiful and, well, rakish, they have obstacles to overcome and must evolve into responsible men.  The Duke of Hastings as a little boy will break your heart, and I was happy to see that as comfortable as he with the ton, his intimate friendship is with a Black couple (Martins Imhangbe and Emma Naomi) whose livelihood depends on boxing exhibitions.  His understanding of friendship between men and women might even reconcile Mary Wollstonecraft to the melodrama of these stories. In The Vindication of the Rights of Woman she places it above love and desire: “Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time.”

For those of us weary of romantic stories that pair hapless young white women with savvy black ones whose sole narrative purpose is to help them navigate the world, Bridgerton will be refreshing. Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynervor) is innocent but she’s not weak. The youngest of the Featherington daughters Penelope (Nichola Coughlan) adores Marina, but she does not rely on her to understand the world. Marina, in other words is not Jolene, the Black, streetwise orphan played by Moses Ingram to Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit.  She gets to have her own journey from her innocence to experience, and this poses interesting questions about what a Regency-era bildungsroman looks like through this contemporary lens. This is not to suggest that I think Bridgerton gets everything “right” when it comes to its Black and mixed-race characters. I don’t really know what “right” looks like for Black characters in an England that in 1813 had abolished the slave trade but not slavery. The act to abolish slavery was passed in 1833. But emancipation was not freedom, freedom is not equality, and the presence of Black people among aristocrats and as monarchs is not my idea of equity. Further, race in this adaption is tricky.  There are moments between white characters in the novel that gave me serious pause. But when those moments were recast between Black and white characters, they made me furious. This is not a didactic fairy tale with princes and princesses. Despite the quest for love, this is a hard market and its characters are less than ideal mostly, I think, by design.

What is exciting about Bridgerton is that there’s a world of fans and cultural critics waiting to watch it, revel in it, debate about it, and critique it. There will be fans of Regency-era cosplay who will balk at seeing a London depicted with Black people, especially in the aristocracy. It’s not as far-fetched as they might think, and I wonder about their persistent need to cling to this fantasy.  Those predictable arguments will be lobbed at the series; credulity will be strained along the lines of racial representation. People will, and I think should, debate the fate of a mixed-race heroine. There are communities like Bonnets at Dawn, a reading community and podcast co-hosted by a white British woman who lives in Bristol and an African American woman who lives in Chicago, that have been thinking and wrestling with race and its absence in nineteenth-century literature for years. They are going to have a lot of fun with this series, and it’s comforting to know that in this particular moment there is a Black audience who will see and read this series in a variety of entertaining and passionate modes. KQED contributor Bianca Hernandez, an avid Austen fan who is “fighting for a more inclusive Jane Austen community,” is already leading the charge about how to make sense of Shondaland’s multicultural Regency.

When my screener arrived, I started watching the series in the mode of someone writing a book about race, abolition, and the history of the novel. I study this world for a living.  On a research trip last summer, I saw a whip specifically designed for a woman’s use.  It was in a display case at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool along with shackles and a “punishment” collar. A few feet away from the lady’s whip was a case displaying an elegant gold and white sugar bowl and the accoutrements used for sweetening tea. It is easy to imagine those tea objects on Queen Charlotte’s table.  Sugar, as everyone in 1813 would have known, was a product of the slave trade. And abolitionists connected the taking of tea with sugar to supporting the slave trade.  The museum makes this plain, so the placements of these items struck me as a curious curatorial choice. It was odd to see that the curators separated the whip and the sugar accoutrements; for surely some of the hands that poured the tea, also wielded the whip.  It was with this in mind that I sat down in my office, pencil and notebook in hand to watch the series. I was armed with my own research and my sense of Quinn’s novel. Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Absence, a series of melancholic and pointed reflections on how Black figures are represented in Eurocentric art, and Stephanie Hershinow’s Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel were on my desk. So was Mike Goode’s new book Romantic Capabilities: Blake, Scott, Austen and the New Messages of Old Media with its capacious chapter on Austen fan fiction and Denise Murrell’s Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today. I had in mind the Black women with whom I watched Scandal on social media, our regular Thursday habit in a different Twitter environment. We — historians, sociologists, religion scholars, and literature professors — subjected Olivia Pope’s world to our critical modes of inquiry. I was prepared, armed really, to treat the series simply as a text.

Then, Lady Whistledown, the mysterious all-knowing author of a wicked gossip broadside the ton and Queen Charlotte read every day, voiced by Julie Andrews said, “Titled, chaste, and innocent. This is what they have been trained for since birth,” and I was lost. I put on my favorite pajamas (factory Brooks Brothers), grabbed an almond on almond on almond cupcake the size of my head, and curled up under a blanket to see the whole thing unfold. I cringed at how the plots and dialogue of historical romance are not entirely suited for adaptation. The sex scenes felt more cringeworthy then erotic (I might have muttered slow down a time a time or two). I wanted to prepare a cup of safe tea for Marina and hug Penelope. I laughed where I was supposed to, and sometimes when I suspect I wasn’t, and I cheered on the working women who unflinchingly faced the social realities of the world. I got weepy for Marina and hope very much to see her again — not just because she’s a woman of color but because there is so much more to know about her story. I’m hopeful. Having read the novels, I can see where showrunner Chris Van Dusen has carefully laid the groundwork for future seasons.  There are, after all, eight Bridgerton siblings, and in Shondaland their path to marriage is in a world that feels more relevant and authentic for its inclusion of men and women they surely would have met in their fashionable world.