Fans of the Regency romantic drama Bridgerton were delighted this week when it was confirmed that it would be returning for a second season.
Bridgerton was released on Christmas Day and has reached number one on Netflix’s most-watched list in 76 countries. It’s still at top spot in the UK today.
Its popularity has largely been put down to the raunchy sex scenes involving the handsome Rege-Jean Page as Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings. It has also been praised for its racially diverse casting and noted for its sumptuous costuming and sets.
Prioritising entertainment over historical accuracy, the mostly light-hearted show has provided some much-needed escapism from life in lockdown.
But one of the reasons I most enjoyed watching Bridgerton doesn’t seem to have been mentioned elsewhere: it put the restrictions on our freedom that we’re currently facing in our day-to-day lives firmly into perspective.
2020 was a horrific year for countless personal, family, community, national and international reasons. I’d still rather go through it all again than live in 1813. But let’s focus solely on the freedom issues.
Like most other people, I’m not happy that I’m not able to go round to a friend’s house for a cuppa, visit a different area for a change of scenery, enjoy a meal in a restaurant, buy clothes after trying them on in a shop, or go to the hairdresser’s. These are things that everybody took for granted until 2020. But one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we’ll be able to do these things again.
The members of Bridgerton’s high society of 1813 – particularly the girls – have very little freedom indeed.
Some aspects of their lives seem appealing. They live in beautiful houses (well, I like the size and architecture but the décor isn’t to my taste), have servants to do all the cooking and cleaning, and spend their time socialising and dancing at balls. The girls are courted by well-mannered, well-dressed men bearing flowers.
But the girls have no purpose in life besides marrying a suitable man and providing him with an heir. The balls are simply a marriage market.
Lady Whistledown says, ‘This is what they’ve been raised and trained for since birth… We shall discover which young ladies might succeed at securing a match, thereby avoiding the dreadful, dismal condition known as the spinster.’
Violet Bridgerton tells her daughter Daphne, ‘I’ve taught you to believe that marriage is the best that life has to offer, and that remains true. But it is not simply a partner that marriage provides. You will have comfort and a house to tend and most importantly, children. You will throw yourself into raising your family and you will find much joy. I am certain.’
Daphne has no other aspirations besides doing her duty. She tells the Duke of Hastings that having a family of her own is all she ever wanted and says, ‘Unlike you, I cannot simply declare I do not wish to marry. I do not have such a privilege.’
And she tells her brother Anthony, ‘You have no idea what it is to be a woman. What it might feel like to have one’s entire life reduced to a single moment. This is all I have been raised for. This is all I am. I have no other value. If I am unable to find a husband I shall be worthless.’
However, she wants to marry for love and she’s not happy when it seems she has no choice but to marry the ‘loathsome toad’ Nigel Berbrooke.
Lord Berbrooke doesn’t love her either; he says he needs her, unlike the Duke of Hastings who already has ‘the money, connections and standing’. When the Duke says it should be up to Miss Bridgerton, Lord Berbrooke says, ‘When I’m buying a horse, I don’t negotiate with the horse.’
Women are clearly not respected by men. Daphne’s sister Eloise says men see women as ‘nothing other than a decorative object’. Violet says Lord Berbrooke will back off when he realises the seriousness of the Duke’s intentions as ‘he may not respect a woman’s choice but he certainly will respect a man’s.’ When Anthony says Daphne should have told him what Lord Berbrooke attempted with her, Daphne says she didn’t think he would have believed her, although he believed another man (Simon).
Eloise, who is younger than Daphne and not quite ready to be matched with a man, and who has not yet learned how to breathe while wearing a corset, feels that once a woman is married, ‘life is over’. With one of the most quotable lines in the show, she says, ‘Why must our only options be to squawk and settle or never leave the nest? What if I want to fly?’
She says ‘having a nice face and pleasant hair is not an accomplishment’ but attending university, which she could do if she were a man, would be.
Sitting outside, so she can smoke in secret, she says to her brother Benedict, ‘Suppose I desire for something different. I watch Daphne prepare for these balls with all of those dresses and the many suitors and I am exhausted. Suppose I want a different life. That I truly believe I am quite capable of something more, even when I am not allowed to have anything else.’
Benedict’s response is, ‘Then I would say that you’re not the only one.’
Sir Henry Granville also confides in Benedict about the life he desires but cannot have. He tells Benedict that he is married to a woman, which gives her ‘freedoms and protections’, but he loves Lord Wetherby.
‘We live under a constant threat of danger. I risk my life every day for love,’ he says. ‘You have no idea what it is like to be in a room with someone you cannot live without and yet still feel as though you’re oceans apart. Stealing your glances, disguising your touches. We cannot so much as smile at each other without first ensuring no-one else is watching. It takes courage to live outside the traditional expectations of society.’
Not even the high society heterosexual couples have the freedoms that unmarried couples enjoy today. Young women aren’t even allowed to be with a man without a chaperone.
Talking to the Duke of Hastings about her encounter with Lord Berbrooke, Daphne says, ‘Even the rumour of my being alone with a man, let alone punching him, will ruin me.’
As Lady Whistledown says, ‘One scandalous move between an unwed couple, a wayward touch or heaven forbid, a kiss, would banish any young lady from society in a trail of ruin.’
When Anthony sees Simon kiss Daphne, he insists he marries her, having ‘defiled her innocence’. Simon refuses and they duel over it.
The debutantes are certainly innocent. Daphne has to ask her maid how a woman ‘comes to be with child’. Simon says it’s not his place to tell her about sex and says, ‘I’m laughing at the absurdity of how little mothers tell their daughters.’
Marina Thompson, a cousin of the Featherington girls, is confined to her bedroom once Portia Featherington discovers that she’s pregnant outside of wedlock.
Baroness Featherington does not approve of girls reading books either. ‘Penelope, put down that book at once. You shall confuse your thoughts,’ she tells her daughter.
Penelope is not allowed to play with her friend Eloise (‘A lady does not play, Penelope’) but she is allowed to ‘go promenade for suitors’ with Eloise.
Violet Bridgerton is shocked to hear that Daphne has been to see a boxing match. ‘A boxing exhibition is no place for any young lady,’ she says.
I enjoyed Bridgerton for its spectacular production and compelling story but above all, as an unmarried, child-free, bisexual, book-reading, trouser-wearing, sport-loving university graduate, when it finished I realised I’d never felt luckier to be able to openly be who and what I want to be.