Having been raised on Jane Austen adaptations and developed a Downton Abbey obsession for a few glorious years as a teenager (I gave up when they killed Matthew on Christmas Day and have never forgiven them), I have always been an avid fan of period dramas. The beige reassurance of Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth’s Pride and Prejudice and similar BBC and ITV offerings, the grit and social satire of Dickens’ Victorian London, and the glorious opulence of Julian Fellowes’ attempt to get us all to feel sad about an incredibly rich family having to sell their enormous castle (didn’t that scene with Lady Sybil’s trousers make questionable politics worthwhile?) I was incredibly excited then, in early 2020, by what seems like the beginning of the period drama made for a new era. First we had Greta Gerwig’s brilliant, heatbreaking Little Women (I cry every time I watch it), followed closely by Armando Ianucci’s hilarious David Copperfield and Autumn de Wilde’s stylish, sharp, heartfelt Emma. And now comes an unprecedented phenomenon – a Netflix show based on a series of Regency romance novels, which (by some measures at least) has become its most popular production of all time.
So what are all of these films and shows doing that makes them feel so appealing, so fresh, right now? An awful lot of things, I would say. First, the aesthetic of the period drama is changing. In 2005, Joe Wright updated Pride and Prejudice by making everything even more beige than before and softening every recognisable characteristic of the era’s fashion. Those tight little curls around the face are gone, replaced with Rosamund Pike’s gentle, flattering waves and Keira Knightley’s messy full fringe. It’s trying to be naturalistic, to avoid reminding us that this stuff is old and weird and not-like-how-we-do-it-now. De Wilde takes the opposite approach, swapping out the mud colours for a glorious palette of yellows, pinks, blues and greens. It’s more like looking at a stack of macarons than at a Jane Austen film. The ringlets framing the face are back with a vengeance, more extravagant than ever, period style turned high fashion. It’s extravagant and glorious and incredibly refreshing. Bridgerton is less interested in historical accuracy, taking basic Regency silhouettes and delighting in playing with them. There’s glitter and shiny stuff they would never have had in 1813, but who cares when it’s so fun? There are silhouettes more familiar from the 1950s, dresses of all different shapes, designed not for accuracy but to suit every actor’s body type and to enhance the characters. It doesn’t take more than one glance at the bright red hair and acid-toned floral fabrics of the Featheringtons to know what kind of family they are, particularly when paired with the muted pastels of the Bridgertons.
The new period drama is also a more diverse affair than it ever has been. Ianucci’s David Copperfield is cast entirely colour-blind, with Dev Patel in the title role and Black actor Rosalind Eleazar as his eventual wife Agnes. This has inevitably sparked racist backlash, as well as some legitimate criticism for potentially helping to gloss over the real challenges actors of colour face. Nevertheless, if we’re going to keep remaking Dickens and Austen movies ad nauseum, and it seems like we are, then it seems like a positive step that actors of colour are no longer barred from these opportunities, and that white British people are seeing a version of our past that doesn’t constantly centre ourselves. Bridgerton takes a slightly different approach, casting a large number of its characters as explicitly Black and taking advantage of the theory put forward by some historians that Queen Charlotte had Black African ancestry. Again, there is significant debate over how effective Bridgerton’s portrayal of its Black characters is, but it nevertheless marks a significant step in how we visualise our collective past and who is allowed to hold a central place in the stories we tell about it.
It is noticeable, too, that other than David Copperfield, all of these are female-centred stories. Gerwig reframes Little Women so it opens and closes with Jo’s attempt and eventual success in publishing the story of her and her sisters’ lives – but it also highlights the way women, or any oppressed group, can be tricked into thinking their experiences are unimportant when they never see them represented and validated. “Writing doesn’t confer importance, it reflects it” says Jo. It’s Amy, the youngest sister and, until this film, most passionately hated March sister, who tells her “No, that’s not true.” Amy understands, and helps Jo to see, that the act of writing, of telling one’s story – and of hearing one’s story told – asserts the significance of those experiences. It’s not new to point out that people like to insult anything that women, and particularly teenage girls, like, and the romance genre, perhaps especially the period romance, has long been a source of scorn and derision. It feels gratifying, then, to see a show like Bridgerton reach such huge levels of popularity. And not just to have people watch, but to have them want to talk about it. People have levelled legitimate criticisms at it for various reasons, but whether they love it or find it too problematic, they’re taking it seriously – they’re not just saying “well, this is just silly nonsense for little girls, look at these idiots caring about and being invested in art that’s trying to represent them.” While it lacks the ingenious satirical bite of Austen’s writing, Bridgerton also offers things Austen adaptations can’t. Austen has a serious problem with mothers and older women in general (they’re almost always foolish to the point of ridiculousness, or controlling harridans warning the heroine away from their son/nephew/[insert young male relation who apparently can’t decide for himself here.]) Bridgerton, then, brings something incredibly refreshing to the table – not only one, but two beautiful, clever, supportive, sexy matriarchs, determined to get the best for their children but also calling them on their nonsense and looking amazing while doing it. Throw in Queen Charlotte and the glorious outfits she wears while lounging on her throne, and you’ve almost made up for Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs Bennett. It also has a vast array of passionate sex scenes in every possible locale, if you need a change from those longing stares across large rooms which are about as explicit as Austen gets.
Whether you enjoyed Bridgerton, or prefer something a little more period accurate, I think we can all be excited and optimistic about the future of the period drama. This new era of content is visually beautiful, funny, clever and diverse, and might even be enough to convince the odd sceptic who’s always been put off by all that beige.