Worlds Colliding – Austen & Bridgerton
Would Jane Austen have recognized the world portrayed in Bridgerton? This month our guest blogger, Robert Morrison, British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University and author of The Regency Revolution, muses on the differences and the surprising similarities.
The smash Netflix series Bridgerton announces its allegiance to Jane Austen in the first sentence of the first episode of the first series: ‘We’re soaring over this illustrious neighbourhood in all of its splendid, 1813 Regency glory!’, announces Julie Andrews as the voice of Lady Whistledown, an anonymous author of a gossipy scandal sheet. The year is significant. All six of Austen’s published novels appeared at the time of ‘Regency glory’, the short but remarkable period in British history that covers the years from 1811 to 1820, when the dissolute Prince of Wales became Prince Regent (and in effect the sovereign of Britain) following the descent into madness of his father, George III.
The year ‘1813’ rings out because—by no coincidence—it is also the year that Austen published Pride and Prejudice, her most celebrated and influential novel. William Makepeace Thackeray is clearly indebted to Austen in his great Victorian novel Vanity Fair (1847-48), most of which takes place in the Regency. Georgette Heyer, who under the inspiration of Austen founded the literary subgenre of the ‘Regency Romance’, published two dozen novels set in the period, beginning with Regency Buck (1935) and An Infamous Army (1937). Julia Quinn produced The Duke and I in 2000, the first of eight Regency novels in her Bridgerton series.
Would Austen have recognized the world portrayed in Bridgerton? The many historical inaccuracies in the series—large and small—would no doubt have irked her, but there is plenty of overlap between the world of her novels and the world of Bridgerton.
Both Austen and the Netflix series are drawn to Bath. ‘Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?’ cries Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, most of the first half of which is set in the city. Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion, is far less keen: ‘She disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her’. But it is in Bath, where the second half of the novel is set, that after seven lonely years Anne is reunited with her love, Captain Frederick Wentworth, and it is in Bath that they take one of the most memorable walks in all of Austen, winding their way together up the Gravel Walk toward the Royal Crescent, ‘where the power of conversation would make the present hour a blessing indeed’.
Netflix, too, is fascinated by Bath, as its beautiful buildings, and cobblestone streets, and elegant parks still bring vividly into view the world of the Regency as Austen knew it. The city had a leading role in season 1 of Bridgerton, and made a brief appearance in season 2. In January 2023, Netflix returned again to Bath to film scenes for season 3, and for four days worked at a variety of locations around the city, including No. 1 Royal Crescent, which serves as the home of the Featherington family, and the Holburne Museum, home to Lady Danbury.
Bridgerton and Austen are also united by their focus, not on Regency society as a whole, but on only its upper echelons. In Bridgerton, this means the world of the court, including the monarch and wealthy aristocrats. In Austen, this means the world of the landed gentry, a group that enjoyed high social standing but that ranked immediately below royals and nobles such as Viscount Bridgerton, Baron Featherington, and the Duke of Hastings. The gentry was comprised of families such as the Elliots in Persuasion, where Sir Walter is the most important man in the neighbourhood, but only a baronet, the lowest of all hereditary titles. In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine is the daughter of an earl and the widow of a knight, but her nephew Darcy has no title, despite his wealth.
Even if taken together, the number of people in these three classes—the royals, the aristocracy, and the gentry—was tiny, and an immensely disproportionate amount of the country’s wealth was concentrated in their hands. In 1816, when the population of England was roughly 11 million, Lord Byron declared that ‘the fashionable world’ was made up of just ‘1,500 fillers of hot rooms’. Concentrating—as Austen and Bridgerton do—on such a very small and highly privileged proportion of the overall population enables them both to create a world of elegance and poise that is well insulated from the violence and many injustices of Regency society.
Not, however, that the social aggression and political turmoil of the era make no appearance at all. Austen features the Napoleonic Wars most prominently in Persuasion, where Captain Wentworth makes his fortune through the legalized piracy of ‘prize money’, while in Bridgerton, Marina’s lover Sir George Crane is away fighting in Spain. Closer to home, Austen incorporates the ritualized violence of the duel—a common Regency practice—into Sense and Sensibility when Colonel Brandon and John Willoughby meet over the honour of Marianne, as in Bridgerton Anthony and Simon take aim at one another over the honour of Daphne, though in Austen the scene takes place offstage while in Bridgerton the ‘Affair of Honour’ is front and centre.
Austen and Bridgerton also reveal the enormous pressure on young women to avoid sullying their reputations in the arms of a rake and so destroying their chances on the marriage market. In the words of Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, ‘loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable’ and ‘one false step involves her in endless ruin’, especially a ‘false step’ with a rake. The most treacherous libertine in Austen is Willoughby, while in Bridgerton Daphne is well aware of Simon’s reputation as a womanizer: ‘you are a rake through and through’, she bluntly informs him. Marianne lacks the riches needed to satisfy Willougby, and—thankfully—he discards her. Daphne, on the other hand, has the wealth necessary to secure Simon, and she does, but not before effecting one of the key plot points of the modern Regency Romance: Daphne, unlike Marianne, reforms her rake.
Perhaps most searchingly, both Austen and Bridgerton confront the issue of race. Austen addresses the subject most overtly in Sanditon when she introduces a young, ‘half mulatto’ woman from the West Indies named Miss Lambe, who immediately attracts interest because of her wealth but not because of her race. In treating the appearance of Miss Lambe as unremarkable at a time when slavery was still legal throughout the British empire, Austen critiques racism in Regency Britain. Bridgerton’s approach to race has been perhaps the most discussed aspect of the entire series. Casting a black woman, Golda Rosheuvel, as Queen Charlotte is historically inaccurate, but Bridgerton’s multiracial approach to casting in this and several other instances has produced—like the introduction of Miss Lambe in Sanditon—passionate discussions about racial stereotypes, social injustice, colonialism, Eurocentric narratives, and multiracial relationships.
The biggest issue which divides Austen and Bridgerton is their respective treatment of sex, for whereas Austen creates tension through suggestion—the longing, the blushes, the physical energy, the intense stares—Bridgerton opts for far more explicit representations. But the worlds of Austen’s novels and the Netflix series are much more deeply aligned than might at first appear. Not only do they share an interest in Bath and the social elites that flocked to the city during the Regency, but they also concentrate on young women who are trying to navigate a route to personal happiness amidst often acute financial, social, and familial pressures, and on bold, thought-proving depictions of race, Austen in Sanditon and Bridgerton as an abiding concern of the series.
The Regency Revolution by Robert Morrison
The Regency Revolution is Robert Morrison’s latest book. It was named by The Economist as one of its 2019 Books of the Year and shortlisted by the Historical Writers’ Association for its Crown Award for the best in historical non-fiction. He is also the author of The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, which was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography. His edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was published by Harvard University Press