It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Regency romance must be in want of glittering ballrooms, witty banter, a dashing leading man, and a piquant heroine.
Bridgerton, Netflix’s first scripted title with über-producer Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland production company — under its headline-grabbing $150 million deal — has all of this in abundance. Not to mention a diverse cast that’s a far cry from the typical lily-white hues of Jane Austen adaptations and their ilk. Oh, and the narrator is a Regency-era Gossip Girl voiced by Julie Andrews. As showrunner Chris Van Dusen puts it, “It’s not your grandmother’s period [piece].”
Based on a series of romance novels by Julia Quinn — beginning with The Duke and I, which offers the season 1 blueprint — Bridgerton follows Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), a debutante who’s thirsty for a love match. Buoyed (and slightly overprotected) by her family, including her marriage-obsessed mum, Violet (Ruth Gemmell), and her seven siblings, Daphne embarks on a fauxmance with Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). “When we first meet her, she’s this young, naive woman who’s been in this little bubble and doesn’t know anything about love or sex,” says Dynevor.
Simon, meanwhile, is hell-bent on avoiding matrimony, as part of a vengeful vow he made to his execrable father. Page drew inspiration from the classic Romantic poet Lord Byron to craft a character who is part aesthete, part brooding enigma. “You have this beautiful, shadowy, broken, thoroughly complex man, who is as glamorous as we all wish we were on the outside,” notes Page. “But [he’s] trying to figure out who he is.”
It’s standard fare for Shondaland: men and women looking to find themselves within the social confines of their reality. This time it’s in a completely different world, one that shares the female-gaze ethos that often defines Shondaland series — think Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and more. Romance novels account for nearly a quarter of all fiction book sales, yet they’re rarely fodder for splashy screen adaptations. “I never thought this would happen to me,” Quinn says. “Nobody was adapting romance novels, and if somebody was going to do a period piece, they wanted to do another adaptation of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters.”
That prestige gap between Austen and mass-market historical romance was something executive producer Betsy Beers admits she bumped up against when Rhimes first recommended the novels to her. “I didn’t take what the books were as seriously as I could’ve initially,” she says. “But there should be no pejorative association with romance novels. Nobody sneezes at suspense, at action, at true crime. These are just good stories about relationships, about emotional politics, about how you juggle duty, love, and lust.”
For Van Dusen, the 280-year evolution of romance writing was something to exploit. “I wanted to infuse everything with my own unique, modern lens,” he says. “The tone is very spirited and daring. Everything’s fresh and youthful. There’s a little effervescence to everything.”
That freshness manifests throughout — from the score, which features classical string arrangements of contemporary pop songs (Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next,” Shawn Mendes’ “In My Blood”), to the costumes (“Jane Austen loved her bonnets, but Bridgerton is a bonnet-free world,” quips Van Dusen). But nowhere is it more evident than in the casting.
The series looks like any Shondaland show: multi-hued and reflective of the world we live in. Romance novelists like Vanessa Riley and Diana Quincy are challenging the established narrative of who inhabited the 19th-century aristocracy. Austen herself featured a mixed-race heiress in her unfinished novel Sanditon. But such a cast is still dismayingly rare in period pieces.
Though the casting here is a far cry from the source material, Quinn wholeheartedly endorses it. “Bridgerton isn’t a history lesson; it’s a show for a modern audience,” she notes. There were, of course, people of color who existed in this time and place, but the show hands them more power than historical assumptions allow. It imagines a British aristocracy where Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) is of mixed race (a fact some historians suggest there’s evidence for), thus elevating other people of color to dukedoms and positions of status. “It’s not color-blind casting,” explains Beers. “We try to imagine history and the world in the way we wanted to see it.”
It’s what allows Page to play the powerful, devastatingly handsome duke, a role that previously would have been the exclusive domain of white actors. For Page, who made his U.S. TV debut as Chicken George in the 2016 remake of Roots, it makes Bridgerton’s romantic narrative even more potent. “With color-conscious casting, I get to exist as a Black person in the world,” he says. “It doesn’t mean I’m a slave. It doesn’t mean we have to focus on trauma. It just means we get to focus on Black joy and humanity.”
That joy opens up another narrative component often left behind closed doors in period drama: intimacy. Typically, the Regency’s idea of sexual tension is the brush of a gloved hand, but in the world of Bridgerton, audiences find themselves in an opera singer’s boudoir within the first 10 minutes. “The sexiness and the steaminess was always going to be there,” says Van Dusen, adding that it’s core to the “education of Daphne Bridgerton.”
Dynevor echoes this, explaining that the show’s sex scenes, overseen by an intimacy coordinator, were as intricately choreographed as a fight sequence. But for Dynevor, it was a key part of Daphne’s arc, one that foregrounds her character’s wants above any objectified desirability. (What other Regency literary adaptations feature a heroine experimenting with self-pleasure at the suggestion of her suitor?)
“It’s not often you see sex [treated] in that way,” Dynevor reflects. “It wasn’t gratuitous. It was so essential in Daphne’s journey and sexual awakening. I love the fact that it is very much the female gaze.”
That gaze is the connective tissue between Shondaland and romance publishing, a match so fortuitous it could only end in happily ever after. “[The show] is not going to be so different from the experience of reading a romance novel,” Van Dusen concludes. “It’s sexy and a little dangerous and fun. It leaves you a little hot and bothered and breathless.” Fetch the fainting couch — and the remote.
© Maureen Lee Lenker