I’ll get to the elephant in the room in a minute. Right now, I just need to say, what the hell are these guys thinking?
Newsflash to series creator Chris Van Dusen and Netflix producer Shondaland (Shonda Rhimes) and Netflix execs who signed off on this house of cards: people who enjoy Regency romance are not going to like this conglomeration of ridiculous sex and error. Whoever made decisions about how to bring Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels to the screen clearly has no knowledge of the time period (1813) or appreciation of the aspects of that history which nourish the storyline.
Did I say nourish? Let me rephrase that. Historical accuracy is ESSENTIAL to the storyline.
First of all, the casting. Dear God, why is 31-year-old Claudia Jessie playing the part of a 17-year-old? The face, the body, and most of all a voice worthy of an aging jazz singer immediately create painful cognitive dissonance every time this actress appears on screen. In the part of the second oldest Bridgerton daughter Eloise, Ms. Jessie sticks out like a sore thumb. No matter how tightly laced the corset or uneven affections of voice are meant to disguise her age, it just doesn’t work.
By the way, poor quality control on audio means some entire narratives are incomprehensible no matter how high the volume.
Same casting problem with one of the Bridgerton sons. Luke Thompson plays the part of second-oldest son Benedict, written as a 27-year-old blade exploring the ways of haut ton social situations. Luke Thompson is a well-aged 32 years old. His age is obvious even when he’s supposed to appear boyish and naïve. Please.
But let me move on to glaring corruptions of historical accuracy thick on the ground in this Netflix series. Early on we’re treated to a scene where Eloise is hiding out in the back yard to smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes did not jump from Mexico to France until the 1830s and didn’t make it to England until the 1840s. Even then, these tobacco conveyances were not the long slender white-wrapped items spotted in Eloise’s delicate hand. Cigarettes weren’t widely available until mass production in the 1880s. In 1813 London, a protected young lady like Eloise would have had no access to any such thing. She would have been very lucky to find a servant or stable hand she could bribe to obtain raw tobacco for her.
I get why Dusen wanted to show Eloise smoking. She’s a rebel, not eager to follow the tradition of marriage and children. Her use of cigarettes shows that rebellion. Except – it doesn’t. Because it’s completely ridiculous!
This type of ignorance undermines virtually every scene. Regency men were considered undressed if they appeared outside their bedchambers in anything less than complete formal attire – pants, shirt, waistcoat, jacket, and cravat, and yes those de rigueur Hessians. Yet we see aristocrats parading around in their shirt sleeves, often with the sleeves rolled past the elbow. Also often missing from male attire is the cravat, an essential element of proper male body covering. In reality, serious scandal would ensue from such flagrant exposure of forearms and necks.
Male-female touching likewise was simply not done except in very specific circumstances. A gentleman might touch a lady’s hand if he is helping her into or out of a carriage, for example, but they would both be gloved. In greeting, he would bow over her gloved hand and air-kiss above her knuckles. He might also welcome her to rest her gloved hand on his lower (fully clothed) arm when walking or escorting her up or down steps. But the touching rampant in these scenes is often ungloved and conspicuously caressing, like a dance scene where some genius decided that dance partners could lavish their hands on each other’s bodies – neck, shoulders, waist – in ways that would never occur among proper ladies and gentlemen of those times.
In fact, touching at all during dances was so scandalous in this time period that the waltz (another import from the outrageous French) had barely gained entry to the ton’s social gatherings. A debutante was required to pass muster at Almack’s by a panel of older society grande dames in order to gain the right to dance a waltz. Hostesses of society dances were careful to allow only two waltzes at any of their events, well-spaced between country dances and quadrilles in which participants move similarly to those in modern square dancing with touching limited to fleeting passage of gloved hands and no close body contact.
Restrictions on the waltz reflected its close body positioning and the clasp of both hands with the dance partner’s. Even at that, intense scrutiny by other dancers and society matrons watching proceedings with an eagle eye enforced the rules of engagement, most importantly the appropriate distance tolerated between the bodies of dance partners. Yet in this Netflix series, we see couples hugging up to each other, standing body to body to whisper sweet nothings and emote.
The music is yet another problem, adding to the flaws in dance scenes. The producers/writers took the lazy way with this, using soundtrack music as the dance music so that dance music doesn’t start or stop with the dance. Dancers simply cavort around the floor to whatever part of the soundtrack happens to occur at that point. This eliminates the real tension experienced between dances by young women desperate to be claimed for a dance. It also smears over specific types of music used for specific types of dances. There’s no good reason for this except lazy production
Equally cheesy are bits and pieces such as a scene where the courting couple walk across a bridge and the male lead pulls a rose from a bush to hand to his lovely lady. Our hero plucks this rose without tugging or breaking it from its bush and presents a long straight stem that would never exist in those circumstances. But then, once one questions the reality of that moment, one is quick to survey the rest of the ‘rose bushes’ lining that particular bridge and reach the firm conclusion that all of these are arranged bouquets, probably not even real flowers.
Social etiquette involved lessons on how to bow and curtsey, yet here we see men bowing slightly without their arms in proper position, plus short head bobs and virtually zero curtseying even when standing before the Queen! No.
Unlike many scenes in the Netflix Bridgerton series, females of the upper class never ventured outside alone. A maid and sometimes also at least one footman accompanied them as protection not only of their reputation but also their personal safety against a desperate underclass of thieves and opportunists.
Successful Regency authors pay attention to this wretched dichotomy between rich and poor for the depth it adds to these stories. In the one Bridgerton scene of the impoverished parts of London, which by any estimation consumed the majority of that real estate with dilapidated side-by-side buildings and manure-littered streets teeming with vendors hawking wares, grimy orphans looking for pockets to pick, whores, and scoundrels of every ilk, we get a brief scene in a bricked alleyway where a handful of actors strive to convey reality – and fail.
Apparently, what the writers/producers of the series do not grasp – and perhaps did not even try to understand – is that these subtleties are what fans of Regency romance adore. We look for quirks of language, the rigid rules, the details of dress and social interactions that define that time period. We expect characters to obey the norms extant in the early 19th century, not just because we’re some kind of historical purists but because those norms are inextricably linked to the behavior that drives the plot.
This falls flat most of all in the sex scenes. We see actors feverishly ripping off their clothes to pursue their desire without slowing down to appreciate the shocking touch of ungloved hands or the explosive eroticism of a man’s exposed neck, sans cravat. By the time the two main characters get around to kissing in the garden (oh, my!), an unbelievable melee of groping and whole body molestation takes place. In reality, for 1813, just the touching of lips was enough to ruin a young lady whether or not the guy ever touched her body. Jeez, Louise, who signed off on this absurdity?
In the moment when Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings [played by Regé-Jean Page] finally satisfies his raging desire for his heartthrob Daphne Bridgerton [played by Phoebe Dynevor], the wedding night scene proceeds through the ripping off of clothes, kissing, a bit of body contact and a nice buttocks shot to a few seconds of active intercourse during which the virgin’s face portrays her loss of virginity (oh, that hurts) to pleasure (really?) and satiety (no bliss?). And we’re supposed to be satisfied with that terse culmination of a long and tortured courtship?
As for this and subsequent sex scenes, I’ll just quote a bit of a Salon critique [https://www.salon.com/2021/01/03/bridgerton-sex-is-not-good-sex/]:
“He maneuvers her hand down there. She looks pleasantly shocked. Then he stands up and takes off his pants so she can get an eyeful of what she’s working with. Apparently that is sufficient, because then he mounts her, informs her that “this may hurt a moment” … then badda bing, badda boom, he starts pumping away like a bunny hopped up on cold brew coffee. Afterward he rolls off of her and finishes in the sheets – more on that later – as the tender music fades out.”
Producer Shonda Rimes claims in interviews about this series that she is a great fan of Julia Quinn’s books. She should read more. It’s obvious from her work with Bridgerton that her understanding of the Regency period is painfully limited. Otherwise it’s difficult to believe a woman of her professional experience would sign off on this travesty.
Likewise, for a man who claims to have studied and adapted this story over a three-year period, Chris Van Dusen gets a “D-” for his utter failure to portray the very details that serve as the lifeblood of a Regency romance. And whoever decided that a guy was the right person for this job, anyway?!
Van Dusen claimed in one interview that he wanted to show the contrast between modern social norms and the stifling conservativism of the Regency period. But by shortcutting the details and failing to authentically portray the realities of the Regency period, an uninformed viewer would mistakenly assume there weren’t that many differences. Yes, women were property and that comes through fairly clearly. But how their lives – and the lives of men – were guided moment by moment in that mindset is diluted and in many scenes fully bastardized in this cavalier adaptation.
Which brings us to the elephant.
Van Dusen grabs onto an old unproven allegation that King George’s wife Charlotte was of African descent and through this broken door welcomes a large contingent of Black actors into key roles of this series. We don’t know to what extent this decision reflected the influence of Ms. Rhimes, herself a successful Black producer, screenwriter, and author. Maybe they thought this would give the series some kind of outré appeal.
But the more I watched and witnessed scenes where Black actors comprised such a large percentage of the ton and at points expounded on how Queen Charlotte opened the door for ‘their kind’ to participate more fully in society, the more I realized that this outright misrepresentation of London’s Regency period serves as an outrageous disservice to Black history.
[It’s relevant to note that contemporaneous images of Queen Charlotte fail to bear out these allegations.]
In reality, the British Empire played fast and loose with issues of race.
“Owing chiefly to the parliamentary campaign of William Wilberforce, the ‘Slave Trade Act’ had been passed by Parliament in 1807, but this act prohibited only the trading in slaves in the British Empire, and crucially not slavery itself. Within Britain, slavery had been found unconstitutional in 1772; but, so long as they did not bring any of their slaves into Britain, slave owners such as Sir Thomas Bertram remained free to profit from the exploitation of slave labour in the colonies. Slavery itself was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833.”
As noted by many scholars of the time period,
“Overt racism was rampant. Servants of the rich were beautifully dressed, but treated like possessions (much like a brood stallion or a rare antique vase.) Portraits would show noble women and a Black servant, be it a child or adult, sitting at the edge of the painting, which served to increase the contrast of the female’s creamy white skin to the ebony complexion of the other sitter.”
Despite Van Dusen’s assertion that he wanted to show how society has changed over the last 200 years, neither he nor Rhimes seem to understand that without an accurate portrayal of Britain’s high society during the Regency period, viewers can never appreciate how times have changed. One of the tensions for fans of Regency romance is the nerve-bending restrictions on women compared to the freedoms we take for granted today. Authors of Regency (or any historical) romance go to great lengths to research their work to ensure authenticity in this regard.
During that long struggle, women have fought like tigers to gain the right to govern their own lives as well the right to own property and vote. Likewise, Black people have battled to gain their rights and freedoms and still suffer from prejudice and outright violence so long entrenched in white society. To smear all of that into a fantasy where a Black man could ever be a British duke who publicly courts a virginal white girl in 1813 London is to, well, whitewash the true struggle.
Okay, I understand the primary energy behind this series is to put Regency eroticism on screen in hopes of cashing in. They’ll probably succeed in this since Regency fans like myself are watching the series, even if we’re yelling at the television. But even in the sex, these producers/writers fall short of their goal.
After all the producers’ and writers’ efforts to create this simulacrum of Quinn’s novels on screen in order to capitalize on the sex of it, viewers get to the sex and find it flaccid.
P.S. One irreconcilable problem in casting this series is the apparent widespread use of breast implants among actresses. These do not play well in the extremes of Regency dress in which corsets pair with extremely low cut gowns. Corsets push the breasts up high, which in many instances during this series, reveals the hard edge of implants. Distracting, to say the least.
And while I’m at it, I’ll point out that among the most titillating bits many Regency readers enjoy are scenes in which the male is so aroused by the object of his affection that his erection is prominently displayed in the front of his tight breeches. Despite his embarrassment and desperate thoughts of icy water and old toothless men, the surging organ persists, thus requiring the fevered hero to modestly place a book or hat over his lap or hide behind a chair. At the pinnacle of this particular cliché, the female in question notices the anomaly and is intrigued even if she, in many cases, has no idea how that peculiar bit of male anatomy might come to play in her deflowering. Alas, we see no such deliciously provocative sights in this production.