Within a month of dropping on Netflix, Bridgerton became the most-watched original series on the streaming platform. It’s certainly a tasty confection of a series, whisking viewers to a world of extravagant mansions, dazzling costumes and scandalous gossip. But just how historically accurate is its depiction of Regency-era England? The answer, in one word, is 'surprisingly'. Which is saying something for a period drama where characters dance to Ariana Grande songs.
A major draw of the show is its salacious depiction of Regency high society, or 'the ton'. The name comes from the French phrase 'le bon ton', which can be taken to mean 'good manners' or 'good style'. The ton was very much a thing in the real Regency period, consisting of royals, aristocrats, and the wealthiest, best-connected members of the middle classes. These were the Regency’s trendsetters and taste-makers: the celebrities and influencers of their day.
Just as depicted in Bridgerton, the beautiful people of the ton adhered to strict codes of etiquette, and embarked on a frenetic 'season' of balls and social soirees for roughly half the year. They would flock to London from their far-flung estates to conduct business, network and – importantly – allow debutantes and eligible young men to conduct courtships. As seen in Bridgerton, society hostesses would rule the roost during the social season, and some would become infamous. As Regency-era expert Dr Hannah Greig has noted, one such figure was the Duchess of Gordon, who was widely mocked for brazen attempts to 'push her daughters into the lap of some eligible young duke.'
What of Lady Whistledown, Bridgerton’s mysterious scandal-monger whose society columns strike fear and delight among the elite? Again, this is a pretty accurate depiction of the era’s appetite for gossip. Newspaper and magazine columns really would cover the love affairs and titillating tomfoolery of the upper classes, just as they do today. One of the most notorious publications slightly predated the Regency era, doing the rounds in the late 18th Century. This was Town and Country Magazine, whose 'Tête-à-Tête' pages would chronicle the illicit trysts and saucy liaisons of wealthy lovebirds.
Their full names would be redacted (real-life scandal rags wouldn’t have explicitly named names like Lady Whistledown does), but there would be heavy hints about who the columns were talking about. A regular focus of Tête-à-Tête was the family of poet Lord Byron, whose grandfather John was alleged to have had an affair with his wife’s chambermaid, not to mention orgies with foreign women while serving in the Royal Navy.
This is clearly a utopian, 'post-racial' fantasy of the Regency
Another big talking point among Bridgerton fans is the show’s sartorial splendour. The famed corsetmaker Mr Pearl was one of the designers behind the scenes, ensuring the corsets mimic the style of the time – ie, half-corsets, rather than the more restrictive full corsets which became fashionable in the later Victorian era. However, liberties have been taken with the colours and adornments – the outfits on Bridgerton are more colourful and vivid than they would have been at the time, and the jewelled accessories more lavish.
As costume designer Ellen Mironjnick says, 'We have increased the amount of glitter, increased the amount of colour, increased the over embellishing. We have done things that can relate a little bit more to today's point of view.'
What’s not been exaggerated is the lack of sex education among the elite young women of the day. When Eloise Bridgerton exclaims, 'How does a lady come to be with child? I thought one had to be married? Apparently, it is not even a requirement', it’s an amusing moment, but speaks to a real ignorance that prevailed in the Regency era. Interviewed on the shocking lack of knowledge shown by the female characters in Bridgerton, historian Lesley A. Hall has said: 'There would have been nothing in the way of formal sex education. Mothers might have given some premarital counsel to daughters, but although it almost certainly wasn’t actually "Close your eyes and think of England" it may not have been much more illuminating.'
No discussion of Bridgerton can ignore its striking racial diversity. It’s important to note that the show is not an example of 'colour blind casting', where skin colour isn’t relevant within its universe. Instead, it’s explicitly set in a kind of alternate England where diversity has been encouraged thanks to the passionate marriage between the white King George III and the black Queen Charlotte. The real-life Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz is thought by some historians to have had African ancestry, and Bridgerton takes this idea and runs with it, imagining a country where Charlotte may have “elevated other people of colour in society and granted them titles and lands and dukedoms', in the words of show runner Chris Van Dusen.
This is clearly a utopian, 'post-racial' fantasy of the Regency (a problematic fantasy, when you consider how so much of the wealth in its world would have relied on the Atlantic slave trade). However, it’s important to point out that there were plenty of people of colour in England in that period – around 20,000, according to noted abolitionist Granville Sharp. One prominent society figure was the former slave and boxer Bill Richmond, who – in the words of his biographer Luke G. Williams – 'hauled himself from a life of grinding and condescending servitude to sample the rarefied heights of elevated upper-class English society, having mixed with MPs, nobles and the likes of Lord Byron to become one of the most prominent "men of colour" of the Georgian era.'
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Bridgerton’s Will Mondrich was inspired by Richmond. A reminder that, for all the entertaining escapism, Bridgerton does have a thing or two to teach us about the distant past.