You’ve probably never seen a period piece quite like “Bridgerton” before.
Set in 1813 London, the juicy drama, from executive producer Shonda Rhimes, follows beautiful young aristocrat Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) as she makes her social debut with the goal of marrying for love.
Based on the novels by Julia Quinn, “Bridgerton” consciously takes some license with history: The romantic lead, the dashing Simon Basset, a.k.a. the Duke of Hastings (Rege-Jean Page), is Black, as is Queen Charlotte — a real-life monarch believed to have descended from a Portuguese noble line with African ancestry but who did not bring about a sea change in race relations in Britain or its empire, which abolished slavery in 1833.
“Bridgerton” also goes there when it comes to sex — which, of course, was part of everyday life in Regency England.
“I was obsessed with the 1995 BBC ‘Pride & Prejudice.’ Obviously, Colin Firth coming out of that lake with the white shirt is seared in my mind,” says creator and showrunner Chris Van Dusen, a veteran of the Shondaland series “Scandal,” not exactly known for its restraint. “But I wanted to see a period piece that went further than that.”
Daphne — who is ignorant of the birds and the bees on her wedding night — might seem naive to contemporary viewers, but when it comes to courtship, marriage and sex, “Bridgerton” adheres to a certain level of social realism, even if it gets much more graphic than Jane Austen ever did.
Executive producer Shonda Rhimes gives Regency-era London the “Scandal” treatment in her first project for the streamer, based on the romances of Julia Quinn.
“I refer to this season as ‘the education of Daphne Bridgerton,’” says Van Dusen. “She starts out as this young innocent debutante who knows very little of love. And she knows nothing of sex. And over the course of the series we watch her transform entirely.”
Here’s a look at the realities of sex, romance and scandal in Regency England.
What was the marriage market?
Think of it as the high-society version of “The Bachelorette.”
Each year, a small group of aristocratic British families descended on London for the roughly six-month social season, when balls, concerts, dinners and other lavish parties brought together eligible young men and women, says “Bridgerton” historical consultant Hannah Greig. As depicted in the series, the season began when young women from noble families were presented before the real-life Queen Charlotte at the ball she first hosted in 1780, while standing beside an enormous birthday cake. (The tradition carried on with each sovereign until Queen Elizabeth II nixed the practice in 1958.)
Romance was in the air, but the real aim was to bring together wealthy, influential families and “keep the money and the power within a fairly small circle of society by controlling the pool of suitors,” says Greig. Women like Daphne would have had some control over who they danced with or agreed to court publicly, but the pool of candidates was limited, and perhaps only a few of the bachelors would have been especially desirable. “That’s what gives it the ‘market’ aspect,” she says.
Daphne and Simon stroll the promenade together in order to create the idea that they are a couple. Going public — with chaperones, of course — was a critical step in the courtship process. “People notice a couple together and it becomes taken as writ that they are engaged to be married,” Greig says. “Marriage teenchat coupons is not just a private contract, it’s about presenting yourself in public.”
For women, there was enormous pressure to secure a marriage within a single season. If you return for a second season, “You’re never really going to be seen as eligible,” she adds.
In Austen’s novels, courtship usually takes a year, says historian Amanda Vickery, author of “The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England.” Anything longer would “put female reputation at risk.”
There was not yet a formal age for debuting in society, but women were usually in their late teens, says Greig; men were a bit older, and had usually spent a few years on a “grand tour” of Europe — an extended gap year, basically — where they “pretended to look at art,” she says, and were known to visit brothels.
Would a single woman caught alone with a man be ruined?
If someone spotted an unmarried woman canoodling with a man in a dark garden — as happens to Daphne — she would have been in major trouble.
“No virtuous young lady could be alone with a man to whom she was not related. Not only should she be pure, she should be seen to be pure,” says Vickery. “Chastity, modesty and obedience were the preeminent female virtues. Her sexual virtue had to appear unimpeachable, or she would be ruined on the marriage market.”
Vickery cites James Fordyce, a minister who published an influential book called “Sermons for Young Women”: “Remember how tender a thing a woman’s reputation is; how hard to preserve, and when lost how impossible to recover.”
All this policing was more about money than morality, says Greig. “The point of marriage in the aristocracy is to produce a legitimate heir, so if there is any question abut the legitimacy of the person who is inheriting that estate, it throws the whole idea into disarray.”
Young women would be accompanied in public by a chaperone — an older family member or even a friend the same age. The point was to preserve their reputation and limit their contact with members of the opposite sex, lest they fall for an actor or footman or someone else inappropriate, Greig says. “There was a sense in which these women were considered property assets to be managed.”
So would Daphne know anything about the birds and bees?
“There would have been nothing in the way of formal sex education — mothers might have given some premarital counsel to daughters, but although it almost certainly wasn’t actually ‘Close your eyes and think of England’ it may not have been much more illuminating,” says Lesley A. Hall, a historian of gender and sexuality.
“Married sisters or friends might have provided some information. Also, it’s clear that servants’ gossip also conveyed knowledge, though not necessarily helpful or accurate knowledge, to children.” It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that feminists involved in the social purity movement began to argue “that it was wrong to equate ignorance with innocence and that girls should have some knowledge of sexual matters,” Hall says.