On Christmas Day, period-drama lovers and hopeless romantics alike couldn’t help but sigh in relief to see what Netflix had brought to our screens. Bridgerton, the adaptation of Julia Quinn’s much-loved novel ‘The Duke and I’, whisked us away from our glaring screens and gloomy prospects to the ballrooms and promenades of high society London, or ‘the ton’ for short, where our protagonists schemed and agonised over their marital prospects. It’s undeniable that we’ve all been looking for an escape from the everyday over the last few months, and Bridgerton’s viewing figures are living proof. Within a month of its debut, the series surpassed the 63 million households it was predicted to reach, with a staggering 82 million tuning in to watch, making it the most successful launch of a Netflix Original Series ever. It was unsurprising then that after much speculation, a second series was confirmed within weeks. But what is it about Bridgerton that we find so fascinating in the current climate, and what is it about the regency period that is so endlessly adaptable?
Well for one, it’s the style. Many have dubbed it a cross between Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the TV drama Gossip Girl, and they wouldn’t be far off the mark. At the centre of the story is Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), whose debut at the ton sets tongues wagging, and none more so than Lady Whistledown, the narrator and anonymous writer of the ‘Society Papers’ which are read by all, from Queen Charlotte to the servants who tighten her corsets. When Daphne meets the obstinately unavailable Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), she discovers they share a problem – he is constantly attracting potential suitors, she is looking for the best of them. The two make a pact to act as though they are courting, keeping willing brides away from the Duke, and encouraging more suitors to visit the drawing rooms of the Bridgerton house. The two, perhaps predictably, fall for each other, with the arrangement becoming less of an act by the episode. Where the story gets interesting is when the ‘rakish’ Duke refuses to settle and follow his heart, for reasons unknown to Daphne. All the while, we and the protagonists are left to try and work out the identity of Lady Whistledown who seems to know so much of their relationship, as well as the scandals that threaten to derail it.
Daphne and the Duke’s relationship, with its frequent ups and downs and ‘will they, won’t they?’ moments, is in many ways, much less predictable than an Austen, with the stakes at one point being as high as life and death. Though too the majority of Austen’s romances take place in the congenial drawing rooms of country houses, many scenes in Bridgerton unfold in the privacy of gardens at night or fields at the crack of dawn. While the circumstances are far from relatable to the average 21st century couple, it is a literary trope as appealing now as it was then, and it’s not the only one Bridgerton leans into. The show relies on frequent close up shots of hands and facial expressions, much like Joe Wright’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or Autumn de Wilde’s ‘Emma’, and fuelled dance scenes to contemporary pop on strings to show the changing relationship between Daphne and the Duke. Its focus on female desire also differentiates from so many regency dramas that have come before, pushing it to the forefront of the story and allowing it to direct the latter half of the series (if you’ve seen episode five and beyond, you’ll understand exactly what I mean). All of this, combined with the undeniable chemistry between the two leads, makes for TV you just can’t look away from.
It is a disloyal adaptation, but one which adds character – quite literally. George III’s consort Queen Charlotte makes a welcome appearance as a meddlesome matchmaker, as does her nephew Prince Friedrich. The show’s diverse casting also means that several black actors take starring roles, reimagining Regency-era Britain as a place where the aristocracy was not predominantly white, including Queen Charlotte herself, whose African heritage has long been discussed by historians. Their approach to diversity in a genre which can often be desperately lacking – despite how ethnically diverse Britain in the early 19th century was – is refreshing, and brings up important conversations concerning representation in this period and in the media as a whole. One incident between Daphne and the Duke and its rather hasty resolution has also sparked an ongoing discussion around the issue of consent, and how differently viewers have reacted to the scene compared with original readers of the series twenty years ago. In short, it is not a show that shies away from controversy.
In saying all this, Bridgerton never falls into the trap of taking itself too seriously, something many of its contemporaries are prone to. It has its fair share of light-hearted moments, most of which come from the friendship between Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) and Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), whose ongoing investigation into the identity of Lady Whistledown fails miserably. Equally enjoyable are the moments we see of the Bridgerton family behind closed doors, from the oldest Anthony’s doomed fling with an opera singer to the bond between Eloise and Benedict, the two siblings most desperate to escape high society. Stylistically too, it is unashamedly fun. The characters attend balls where Ariana Grande songs are performed by a string quartet and, somehow, it feels believable. The costumes are surprisingly accurate to the era, but use a colour palette far beyond it, taking the show into the realm of fantasy. The wardrobe of the Featherington sisters, magenta pinks and lurid yellows, speak volumes about the nature of the family, while Daphne’s spread of pastels fit for a princess nearly helps her win a prince. Interestingly, corsets inspired by those worn on the show have seen a huge surge in sales since January, suggesting that the appeal of its fashion extends far beyond the 19th century.
In a time where so many days seem to feel the same, a break in convention is not only welcome, but necessary. Bridgerton’s approach to a genre that can often feel stilted and lifeless in the wrong hands is refreshing, and judging by how receptive audiences are to it, it’s only right that season two is on its way soon.