Netflix's period romance has taken the world by storm over the winter - but how does its fizzy escapism compare to the historical record? Deputy Viewpoint Editor Niamh Yates investigates
Like so many others, I watched the shiny new Netflix period drama Bridgerton over the winter break. Based on the first of Julia Quinn’s hit Bridgerton romance novels, the series depicts the eldest siblings of the aristocratic Bridgerton family’s attempts to find love during the Regency Period in England, largely focussed on the romance between Daphne Bridgerton and Simon, Duke of Hastings.
During Bridgerton, I was transported into a fantasy of exuberant parties, lovely multicoloured gowns, beautiful people and dramatic gossip – a welcome escape from the reality of COVID-19 Britain. I found the show enjoyable, though at times it was unclear quite what it was attempting to be.
Indeed, despite being the current most-watched Netflix original TV show of all time, Bridgerton has received criticism.
The criticism is often centred around its historical accuracy, particularly when it comes to race. The show portrays BAME people as members of the British nobility which is unheard of in most costume dramas and has led to both commendations and confusion.
Firstly, many have argued that if Bridgerton is a period drama as it says, it should be as historically accurate as possible and the series fails to do this. Sadly, England during the Regency Period was a profoundly racist time where horrific colonialist atrocities were being committed across the world by the British Empire. Some say that by erasing these truths from historical dramas, it plays into the narrative of glossing over history’s details to make it more palatable to wider audiences.
On the other hand, the show has received praise because BAME people have often been racially stereotyped or ignored by period dramas such as The Crown or Downton Abbey. It has also been argued that Bridgerton is intentionally historically inaccurate – as indicated by the orchestral reworkings of Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish songs on the soundtrack. It depicts an alternative history of a more accepting Britain where BAME people can be members of the traditional aristocracy. That is part of what makes the show so alluring as it is a contemporary take on history.
I believe that here lies the problem with Bridgerton. The series has not decided whether it is trying to portray fact or fiction which has appeared wishy-washy. It, at times, alludes to past divisions on race as Lady Danbury suggests Britain was “two separate societies, divided by colour until a king fell in love with one of us.” Following this, there was no further explanation of these racial divisions which somewhat took away from the alternative history aspect. It would have been excellent to understand what took place, how the world changed and how this affected the characters.
It is, of course, evident throughout the show that it took inspiration from the Regency Period. The use of ‘ye olde’ language, outfits loosely based on the period and of course, King (in name only) George III and particularly Queen Charlotte featuring as characters in the show suggest this. The scandal of a woman being pregnant before marriage, LGBT romances or a wealthy heir dating a commoner also add to the historic theme. Sadly, these things only heighten the conflict between fact and fiction to me. The show is trying to kick back against traditional genres but is confusing by keeping some historical accuracies, but discarding others.
Despite this, I enjoyed watching the show regardless of the genre. Hopefully, the second season of Bridgerton will bring more clarity and also more lovely multicoloured gowns.