Netflix must have satisfied some real craving in today’s viewers when it debuted Shonda Rhimes’ “Bridgerton” at the very end of an exhausting 2020: the season is now on track to become one of the biggest shows ever produced by the streaming service (Forbes).
As a longtime lover of fiction set in the Regency Era, I can understand the appeal of stories told in the framework of that time in history. The beautiful language, the exquisite clothing, the absurdities and whimsies nurtured on the pillow of a sumptuously wealthy upper class. And most of all, that genteel behavior: the careful greetings, the bows and curtsies–and yes, the sexual tension created by the very fact that interaction between the unmarried was curated by structures and strictures like chaperonage.
Entering works of Regency romance for either reader or viewer is an experience rather like landing on a new planet where all normal human behavior must pass through a sieve of care and thought. “Bridgerton” includes all these alien elements of courtly conduct, but these polite conventions are set against a harsh background more familiar to our modern-day sensibilities: scandals, gossip, rivalries, and backstabbing–all laid atop more silent warfare with the invisible powers of sexism, racism, and imperialism.
In our urge to escape the ugliness of 2020, it’s hardly surprising that viewers would flock to a costume drama where the beauty we see and hear softens those jarring moments where the plot resembles so much of the struggles of our day, and yet seems to defy them all. After all, what could be more satisfying than to be caught up in a swirl of fictional society when we ourselves can’t leave our homes without taking COVID-19 precautions?
These dissociations from our reality become even sweeter when they play upon the ironies within our real world, too, and give us a sense of victory over them. There’s a certain sweet delight for women, especially, in moments like the grand-finale of episode one when the heroine Daphne, glittering in her ball regalia and delicate as a swan, hauls back and punches her would-be betrothed, Nigel, to repel his unwanted advances.
Or earlier in that opening episode, when body-positivity icon Penelope faces teasing from the thin and elegant women at the ball, only to be rescued by the gentlemanly offer to dance from Colin Bridgerton, who presents his request in a moment of Mr. Knightley-like grace.
Or in episode four, when after weeks and weeks of polite games of pretend while in company with others, Simon finally gives in and kisses Daphne in a moment when they seem to be alone (only to be discovered!).
Or that girl-power moment when the Bridgerton women work together to turn the tide of gossip, and by so doing, rid themselves of the unwanted Nigel once and for all.
The fantasy such a world presents to us–and particularly to women–is irresistible. If we could but feel so beautiful, speak so eloquently, and seek the “connexions” of power so available in this fictional realm, what wrongs in our world could we set right?
And goodness, if the men in that world could speak and act so well, and would value and preserve such things as ” honour” in their strangely appealing (when benevolent) patriarchal power set, what good might they do if similarly motivated today? What would our male-dominated political realm look and act like (maybe dignified?)? What might our family lives feel like (more secure, we could hope)?
And yet, “Bridgerton” and other works of Regency Era fiction show us that the problems common to us and to their day never did go away, despite all that lovely language and elegant dress.
But the beauty set before us in the balance of such strife is incredibly appealing. When it’s offered up with the spell-like promise of a happily-ever-after trope, stories like these give us the perfect fantasy we need to face the hardships of reality.