Netflix’s new “Bridgerton” historical romance series has captured the worlds’ heart with its diverse and expansive cast of characters, exquisite ballrooms, carriages, fancy dresses, and even glimpses of Queen Charlotte. Oh, and sex. A lot of sex. (It’s tastefully done, but if you have an aversion to seeing sex scenes, this isn’t the show for you.)
By the end of January, more than 83 million viewers have watched “Bridgerton,” ranking it as Netflix’s most popular original release. The first season of the show is based off of the first book in Julia’s Quinn’s “Bridgerton” series titled “The Duke and I,” which originally released in 2000 and hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, 21 years after its initial publication, on January 17.
The fake-relationship-turned-real-love story of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and the Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), takes the viewer on a roller-coaster ride through the trappings of 1800s England high society, from arranged marriages to propriety to duels to the importance of one’s lineage.
I read Quinn’s “The Duke and I” (quickly followed by the remainder of the series) back in 2015, and re-read the first “Bridgerton” book the week before the show launched to refresh my memory. Having followed show updates on social media throughout 2020, I was aware that the material would not be completely faithful to the book, that there would be modern tweaks and a diversity infused into high society that simply didn’t exist in England two centuries ago.
The show absolutely delivered, especially with the diversity: Queen Charlotte is played by Black actress Golda Rosheuvel (historians contend that the queen was mixed race), which allowed the showrunners to work in how the Black community obtained high standings in their fictional English society. The dresses have modern flair, and even some of the classical songs in ballroom scenes are actually modern songs reimagined into classical ballroom dance music.
For me, changes like this are fine in the transition between a book and TV—as long as we’re getting the core plot and it’s entertaining, then the creators did their job well. Not all reader fans of the series felt the same. I saw comments from fans who refused to watch “Bridgerton” simply because one or more characters didn’t look as they envisioned they should, as well as fans who watched and vociferously complained about every little deviation from the book’s plot.
Two subplots were introduced in the TV show that don’t appear at all in the book: one subplot involving an illicit romance between Daphne’s eldest brother, Anthony, and an opera singer, and a subplot involving a major secret that the Featheringtons’ (neighbors of the Bridgertons) cousin, Marina Thompson, is harboring. Anthony’s subplot seemed to be more filler and made him act out-of-character compared to his characterization in the books, whereas Marina’s subplot was a clever way to introduce characters and a story that will involve one of the later Bridgerton sibling romances. These additions did something essential for TV viewers: they provided a much more engaging story experience compared to what the result would have been had the show been 100% faithful to the book (because who actually wants to watch Simon and Daphne ignoring each other for two months?).
Most importantly was the core plot of Simon and Daphne’s relationship. They begin as strangers, who become friends that concoct a fake courtship to ease both their circumstances in society: Daphne starts getting attention from better suitors and Simon has less women pawing over him. Simon doesn’t want marriage and children, while Daphne wants it all. They’re quite happy helping one another until something new and unexpected gets in the way: love. The pair struggle through the trials of a real and unexpected relationship with each other. All the riches in England (which I imagine Simon has a lot of, his houses—yes, plural—are ridiculously huge) doesn’t make the journey any easier for Simon and Daphne.
Accompanying each episode are narrations from a gossip writer, known only as Lady Whistledown, voiced by Julie Andrews (who does not appear on screen). Whistledown keeps tabs on everything in high society and has no fear of dragging someone through the mud (or, occasionally, praising them). Her rumors propel some of the plot and even become an obsession of Queen Charlotte. Unlike the book series, which doesn’t reveal Whistledown’s identity in “The Duke and I,” viewers get the satisfaction of discovering who she really is during the final episode of season one.
In the end, despite all the glitz and glamour and sex and rumors and fighting, historical romance is known for its theme of love overcoming the odds, resulting in a happily-ever-after. The characters discover who they are and who they want to be, and for each other, they become the best versions of themselves. It’s a theme that is echoed in the real world, in our dreams and desires for our own happily-ever-afters. It’s a theme of hope that we all desperately need right now.