When Desire Meets Duty

Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page as Daphne Bridgerton and Simon BassetTWITTER/NAIRGRSILVA

Bridgerton’s Regency London is consumed by the current season’s ‘marriage market’, where aristocratic families prepare their eligible daughters to compete for a suitable match. Yet the true competition, argues Rosie Dixon, exists between what each character longs for and what they must settle for, between their desires and their responsibilities in the rigidly defined Regency society.

Central to the series is the entanglement between Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the “diamond” of the season, who desires a love marriage, and Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a man staunch in his desire to never marry. Initially, neither claims to want the other, but agree that a temporary union serves both their long-term hopes and current responsibilities. The magnetism of this onscreen pairing comes from their slow-burning desires. These build from the tentative placement of Simon’s hand on Daphne’s back as they dance — a delicate touch in the ball’s wide-shot whimsical grandeur, to the fast-paced, sexually passionate montage — a more explicit display of their desire.

Bridgerton succeeds in the sweeping scale of the characters’ emotional journeys: dramatic, if a little extreme, and always orchestrated by desire.”

What the people of the town desire is scandal, quenched by the Gossip Girl-style, rumour-soaked exposés of the incognito Lady Whistledown (voiced by the appropriately ineffable Julie Andrews). They report on and accompany the events of each episode, revealing the conflicting realities of desire and responsibility in the community. The inquisitive Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) and the stern Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) make an unexpected pair. They share an insatiable longing to uncover Lady Whistledown’s identity, while the relationship of Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and Siena Rosso (Sabrina Bartlett) continually fluctuates as their attraction stands at odds with their responsibilities. Bridgerton succeeds in the sweeping scale of the characters’ emotional journeys: dramatic, if a little extreme, and always orchestrated by desire.

Jonathan Bailey as Anthony BridgertonTWITTER/SHONDALAND

If historical accuracy is what you desire, the series will disappoint. Bridgerton, however, never promised a factually precise depiction of the Regency period. We trade a truthful historical account for the fulfilment of our most extraordinary stylistic desires: an excessively lavish and ever-changing wardrobe (designed by Ellen Mirojnick), a surprisingly fitting soundtrack of modern songs recreated as classical pieces, and filming locations as swooningly magnificent as Bath’s Royal Crescent and London’s Lancaster House. The series remains in the realm of the fictional, and though the basic romantic premise is nothing new, it is certainly vibrant. Bridgerton is a fanciful and flamboyant reimagining of the old.

Considering Lady Whistledown’s observational pondering: “What is more fragile than the human heart?“, if what your heart desires is an immersive watch, defined by its heightened extravagance, then it will undoubtedly be fulfilled by viewing this Shondaland original series: Bridgerton.

A Period Drama for Modern Britain?

Golda Rosheuvel as Queen CharlotteTWITTER/DECIDER

The colour-blind casting of Bridgerton is the series’ most striking feature, followed by its attempts to apply a feminist lacquer to the gender politics of upper-class 19th-century British society. Rosie Aylard interrogates Bridgerton’s treatment of women and people of colour, asking how far the series can truly be called progressive.

Having actors of colour appear in a period drama set in 19th-century Britain is a rarity, let alone seeing Black actors take on central roles. While some viewers and critics see this as an asset to Bridgerton, others criticise the way in which race is — or, rather, isn’t — addressed in the narrative. For many, the diverse cast makes the show more familiar, as it is far more representative of British society today, similar to the idea behind the diverse Hamilton cast. In Bridgerton, Black actors are cast in the roles of main characters such as Lady Danbury, the Duke of Hastings, and the Queen herself.

“In Bridgerton, interracial love is acceptable, but there is no representation of Black love on-screen.”

However, many critics have pointed out that it is not enough to simply have a diverse cast if the issue of race is never addressed. This is where Bridgerton falls short. The only attempt to address race in the show takes the form of a slightly stilted conversation between Lady Danbury and the Duke of Hastings. In it, she explains to Simon (and indeed the audience) that people of colour have only been accepted into society since the King fell in love with a Black woman, and married her. Not only does this perpetuate a harmful myth that love can somehow conquer racism, but it also raises an issue which has been picked up on by many Black critics. They note that, in Bridgerton, interracial love is acceptable, but there is no representation of Black love on-screen. Whether the crew will engage more meaningfully with the idea of representation in future series of the show waits to be seen.

Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) and Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie)TWITTER/SHONDALAND

Bridgerton also tries to be progressive in its approach to gender. The lack of a strong patriarch in any of the central families exposes the superficiality of gender-based power structures. Throughout the narrative, it is the women who have the most narrative depth. In the Bridgerton family, Daphne, Eloise and Lady Bridgerton are the true leaders, proving themselves far more capable than Anthony, Benedict and Colin, who fade into the background negotiating their own romantic trials and tribulations. In the Featherington family, Lady Featherington, Penelope, and Marina are the epicentre of all activity. Lord Featherington contributes nothing to his family but financial ruin, and meets a suitably anti-climactic end.

“Ultimately, it is the female characters who carry the narrative entirely on their shoulders, leaving the men trailing behind.”

Nevertheless, this “feminist retelling” is lacking in certain areas. Daphne, rather than embodying the 21st century heroine, remains the perfect 19th-century woman: looking for a husband, wearing beautiful gowns, and doing exactly as she is told. While the production crew may have sought to give her some agency through several graphic sex scenes, she still falls under the trope of the adoring wife who wants to change the ways of her devious and elusive husband. However, Daphne is balanced out by her sister, Eloise, who would rather read books and run through fields than swan around at balls trying to attract a match. Considering that it is almost impossible to put a feminist spin on a show all about finding husbands and marrying well, Bridgerton takes a decent shot at it. Ultimately, it is the female characters who carry the narrative entirely on their shoulders, leaving the men trailing behind.


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