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Bridgerton—just a raunchy Downton Abbey?

Jan Nielsen picks up on recent debates around Bridgerton & argues there is more to this costume drama than meets the eye

Many reviews of Bridgerton tend to dismiss the Netflix blockbuster as a raunchy version of Downton Abbey. It certainly treads a well-worn costume drama theme—coming out to society, the Bath season and its obligatory balls, romantic flirtations and the marriage that must surely ensue. But there is more to this series than immediately meets the eye.

On the surface, the extensive cast of glorious female characters are on the key quest to find a suitable marriage. But it also serves a huge dollop of matrimonial and extra matrimonial sex, where women have agency and seek pleasure for themselves as well as their partners. All the female characters—from mothers to daughters and maids—are located in their material circumstances and share a desire to change them for the better. And despite the suffocating sexism and superficial social conservatism of the period, the women in Bridgerton display intelligence and powerful human agency.

The Regency era was a distinctive time in Britain’s social and cultural life. It spanned the four decades from the start of the French Revolution in 1789 to the passing of Britain’s “Great Reform Act” in 1832, which gave some middle class men the vote.

The French Revolution represented the high point of the Enlightenment, with its call to destroy the old order. Women participated in virtually every aspect of the French Revolution—and not only in the rioting and demonstrations which they often led. They were also in the plethora of political clubs, sometimes setting up their own. They were writers and publishers of newspapers and pamphlets and demanded the same liberty, advantages and rights as men. This included the right to own property, access to education and divorce and personal and sexual freedom.

In Britain the revolution inspired artists and writers, such as William Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. They all attempted to challenge conventions in their words and deeds. Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft visited Paris during the revolution, he fathered a child and she became pregnant with Mary Shelley all outside marriage.

In Bridgerton Eloise—Daphne’s younger feminist sister—is clearly influenced by the publication of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. She personifies these new female aspirations. Wollstonecraft argued, in the language of Enlightenment thinkers, that women should be treated as the rational equals of men. Eloise is passionate about living this dream and breaking away from the stupefying boredom of traditional married life.

The literary explosion that took place at the time rested on the expansion of print and the increase in literacy levels. It saw the growth of newspapers, pamphlets and books. Just like today, sections of the press were obsessed with the private lives of the titled and famous and their sexual adventures. Scandals about the affairs of the nobility and their courtesans were followed and discussed at every level of society. In Bridgerton Lady Whisteldown’s gossip sheet, which acts as the narrator in the series, would have circulated freely and been read by many.

Arts and culture also flourished during the 19th Century. Theatres and opera houses were opened in grand purpose-built settings, which facilitated a new freedom of social interaction in London and other cities.

The sexual politics of any period are shaped by material circumstances and can manifest themselves in contradictory ways. The Regency period is no exception. Superficially social conservatism around personal matters dominated polite society, but its sexual underbelly was also glaringly on show.

The explosion of sexual freedom didn’t mean many relationships weren’t oppressive. Men had the sexual freedom most respectable women were denied and this resulted in the flourishing of prostitution. It was estimated that one in five women worked as prostitutes at some point in their lives. For poor women, this might mean subsidising an inadequate income from domestic work by occasionally selling sex. While for some women it meant an elevation of your material and social status by becoming mistresses of wealthy and influential man.

Historian Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Covent Garden Ladies, which the TV series Harlots is based on, tells the story of the 18th century directory of the same name. It provided information about where the women were located and rated them on looks and performance. Between 1757 to 1795 it was a best seller—the Trip Advisor of it’s day. This male pleasure seeking wasn’t restricted to London. During the season top-rated brothels in London would send women down to Bath for holidaying men.

Illegitimacy rose throughout this period while an estimated third of women were pregnant when they married. Most people at the time would be familiar with a variety of contraceptive methods. Simple withdrawal was commonly practised, condoms were available in a variety of qualities and sizes, and sold in apothecaries, pubs, barber shops, shops and open-air markets, and theatres. Women used sponges, usually soaked in lemon juice or other acid solutions, thought to kill sperm.

However, this explosion of sexual license was not to last. The impact of the French Revolution and its support amongst ordinary people terrified the rich and powerful. Tory prime minister William Pitt’s “reign of terror” had introduced repressive laws against freedom of the press and assembly in the 1790s. Other laws were used to arrest those who stood in solidarity with the French Revolution, such as the radicals of the London Corresponding Society.

While capitalism had created the possibility of freer relationships, it had begun to undermine the working class family. This terrified the capitalist class, because in class society the family is how the next generation of workers is reared. The church and state joined forces to impose a new order, which would involve a “revolution” in manners and morals. The aristocracy and poor were attacked for licentiousness and loose morals. The reinforcement of a uniform family structure was the goal.

A plethora of laws and regulations were enacted to the eradicate the “sexual excesses” of the Regency period. Marriage laws, laws against beastiality, buggery and prostitution, regulations governing the work of women and children all combined to regulate people’s personal behaviour and keep it within strict confines. Of course, many people got around these restrictions. History shows that legal repression doesn’t end the undesirable behaviour it just drives it underground.

The ideal had been just that—an ideal not a lived reality—but the party was definitely over. I’m hoping the next series will deal with these important changes.

Multiracial casting has drawn the usual criticism for being “inaccurate”. The series is fiction not history but there was a significant black population in Regency London. A small number lived among the aristocracy such as heiress Dido Elizabeth Belle. Others became famous, such as freed slave and composer Ignatius Sancho and the champion boxer Bill Richmond. If the casting is a nod in the direction of BLM, then good.

I recognise that many of the other criticisms of this series are right. At the heart of Bridgerton is a frothy romantic fantasy on steroids, which arguably drifts into soft porn on occasions. And there is a limit to how often anyone needs to watch two very privileged people devour each other in the luxurious settings only their class can afford.

However, I loved that the writers turned the tables on sexual stereotyping by depicting the Duke as the sexual, if somewhat dull object of desire. Most of all I cheer on a series that has women centre stage. They’re taking charge of their own lives—although in circumstances not of their own choosing—and forging relationships based on equality and a good dose of romantic sex.

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