Lady Whistledown knows and tells all in her liberally distributed Regency gossip sheet. Britain’s Ton*, servants, and even the Queen are breathless, riveted, reacting to every word as gospel. Lives are made and broken by the knowledgeable, anonymous insider (the voice of Julie Andrews) narrating Season One of Netflix’s series Bridgerton.
The eight novels by Julia Quinn from which these shows derive (Season Two is in discussion) span an extended family history – 1813-1827 – one volume for every child of the late Viscount Bridgerton (very much alive here). Each sibling finds her/his love (and/or steamy sex) in a competitive marriage market tethered by rules of income and pedigree, the fate of entire genealogies subject to pairings. (Inundated with questions, the author then wrote an additional book and bonus novella.)
Three families occupy Season One.
The Bridgertons are well-fixed and tight-knit. Widowed Lady Violet (Ruth Gemmell) would prefer her children to marry for love as she did, but factors in practicality. She tutors the brood in manner and grace without repressing spirit. Violet is attentive, sympathetic, and more capable than allowed to show by eldest son, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), whose pompous adherence to what’s proper (he’s head of the family) doesn’t extend to his own torrid affair with opera singer Siena Rosso (Sabrina Bartlett). The Ton calls him a “rake” (and smile).
Eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), with whom this season concerns itself, is adverse to being married off, as tradition dictates, to someone who looks good on paper. Anthony’s choice for her is horrid on all counts but money and heritage. (You’ll cringe.) We feel her pain. Women were chattel. Marriages rescued a family in financial need, promoted status, or, in what was then best case scenario, set a woman up with security regardless of age, attraction, or compatibility in order to produce heirs.
The rest of the family: Middle daughter Eloise (Claudia Jessie), a terrific character, longs for a life of the mind. She hates dressing up and rebels against coming out (next year/series). Eloise is smart, caustic, adventurous, and observant. Her efforts to unmask Lady Whistledown, a woman whose independence she greatly admires, capture the interest of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuval), wife of King George III.
Second son, Benedict Bridgerton (Luke Thompson) has artistic aspirations and talent we may yet see blossom. He’s as yet naïve in matters beyond his own circle. Colin (Luke Newton), the third boy, is sweet, charming and wants most to travel – though is having too much fun at the moment. This season, he gets involved with the wrong woman. Leisured, upper crust men mostly gambled, went shooting, drank, and slept around. Gregory, Francesca, and Hyacinth are too young to be anything more than peripheral presences.
The return of Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings = family #2, (Regé-Jean Page) causes a great flutter among the young, unmarried Ton. Not only is he rich, but utterly gorgeous. (Be still my heart!) Having purposefully stayed away to avoid his cruel father, he arrives upon the Duke’s death to assume the title, take care of business, and visit clever, tough-minded Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh). Now a dowager, she acted as emotional support, teacher, and guardian in his youth. Simon’s dreadful childhood was such that his experience dictates the somewhat irrational shape of his adult life. The newly anointed Duke has no intention of marrying anyone.
Ladies Bridgerton and Danbury decide Daphne and Simon would make a perfect match (and beautiful children). They push. After judgmental first impressions, the young people make a pact, they’ll pretend to court. Simon thus avoids a swarm of mothers and daughters while Daphne is suddenly called upon by every eligible member of the Ton, thinking what’s fine enough for the Duke must be eminently worthy. (Oh the gifts!) Daphne knows what society requires to believe the liaison and directs their social life. She has her pick of suitors who, alas, seem a motley bunch.
The couple grow closer than intended, but neither veers in resolve, she to find love, he to avoid ties, until an unforeseen incident forces the next step. Things look rosy but history rears its ugly head and vows conflict.
The Featheringtons, whose wardrobe is extraordinarily decorative, are family #3. Lady Portia (Polly Walker) will do pretty much anything to marry off her three daughters, Philippa, Prudence, and lively, sensitive, chubby Penelope (Nicola Coughlan – terrific), but no one is biting. The older girls remain in the background, while Penelope falls in love, joins with Eloise on her search, and helps their visitor, distant cousin, Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), with her love life. (Lady Portia, a widow in the books, is here saddled with a gambling-addicted husband.)
Got all that? Honestly, keeping track comes easily in the series. Gossip and threats abound. Good intentions go awry, bad ones erupt like springs. Main characters are vivid. Period depiction is enjoyably lavish from architecture to gardens, interiors to fashion including outrageously elaborate wigs. Awareness of society’s dictums regulate credible decisions.
There’s a jealous meangirl, a discreet modiste, and a good guy Prince. Simon spars with boxer friend Will Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe) who offers a glimpse into aspirational life below the Tons.
Casting is wonderful and diverse. No surprise since Bridgerton is from Shonda Rhimes whose successful TV series, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, cast Black actors in high profile roles. And while Regency romance novels rarely included Black or mixed race characters, some historians believe that Queen Charlotte (played by Gold Rosheuvel), was Black or mixed race. (King George II was white.) Besides Queen. Charlotte, Black actors in Bridgerton play Simon, Marina, Lady Danbury, and Will, as well as appearing as members of court and servants.
*Ton: A term for the upper class strata of Regency society derived from a French word meaning “manners” or “style”. The complete phrase is le bon ton means “good manners” or “good form.”
Top photo: Regé-Jean Page as Simon Basset and Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton. Credit: Liam Daniel/NETFLIX © 2020
Bridgerton is now available for streaming on Netflix.