A flurry of fans eagerly waits in anticipation for the next periodical from Lady Whistledown, the omniscient narrator in Netflix’s latest period drama, Bridgerton. For admirers of Jane Austen, Bridgerton arrived as a sigh of relief at the dovetail of an unexpected year. The enchanting period piece situates itself within the hubbub of Regency London, combining the beloved elements of Gossip Girl with subtle hints of Austenian prose, alongside the dulcet tones of Julie Andrews’ narration. We are “transplanted” as Augusta Elton remarks in Austen’s infamous novel Emma.
“Whenever you are transplanted, like me, you will understand how very delightful it is to meet with anything at all like what one has left behind.”
The series is faithful to Mrs. Elton’s remark, and audiences continue to be charmed by a distant but tangible past. Yet one does begin to question why the revival of the Regency continues to delight audiences? The 1990s witnessed a surge of Austenmania, with the emergence of delightful productions of classics, such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility. The traditional marriage plots, quaint countryside settings, empire waist gowns, and elegant balls resonated with audiences across the globe.
The BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice (1995) was so fervently admired that it attracted 11 million viewers per episode and upon its VHS release, sold 120,000 copies within two days. Although past opinions have remarked that the penchant for period pieces arose from signs of social and moral decline, such conclusions appear rather simplistic. Whilst, perhaps, their popularity derives from individual attempts to grapple with and uncover a seemingly pristine past, we must also situate them within the rise of the “marriage-plot”, which was bolstered by Hollywood romantic comedies. Consequently, the costume drama and romance plot function within a symbiotic thread, providing a sense of escapism to a period of gentility and etiquette. The flurry of period pieces prompted an occasion for women to pick up the pen and collaborate in the writing experience. Emma Thompson constructed the innovative screenplay for Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and, most recently, we saw Autumn de Wilde’s re-awakening of Austen’s Emma (2020.)
Shonda Rhimes is the mastermind behind Bridgerton and she has brought much-needed diversity to period drama casting. The series is based on Julia Quinn’s best-selling series of books which begins with The Duke and I. Each book within the series follows a member of the renowned Bridgerton family who are placed within the upper echelons of British society. Series 1 centres around the ingenue Daphne Bridgerton and her emergence within the marriage market and the felicitations of scandal which arise from this. Mirroring the box-office success of adaptations from the 1990s, Bridgerton has stimulated a succession of Regency-esque dresses within the fashion world. To recreate the “Bridgerton look”, designers such as Needle & Thread, Valentino and Erdem have envisioned intricately embroidered gowns, puff-sleeves and empire-waistlines which became staples for a societal debut.
Yet one may be intrigued to discover that Bridgerton’s costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick gathered inspiration from colour palettes from the 1950s and 60s. I couldn’t help noticing the subtle homage to Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova in the 1956 adaptation of War and Peace within Daphne’s evening ensemble. The feathers adorning this look also form an allusion to caged birds, illuminating the imprisonment women felt within this era. One can’t resist pondering over Jane Austen’s reference to Laurence Sterne’s ‘caged bird’ in Mansfield Park:
“I stood looking at the bird; and to every person who came through the passage it ran fluttering to the side towards which they approached it, with the same lamentation of its captivity–‘I can’t get out,’ said the starling—-God help thee!”
An aspect of Regency dramas which we ought to acknowledge, is how they project and transport us beyond our current situation, into a place of escapism. As Lady Gordon remarked upon the initial release of Mansfield Park in 1814:
“In most novels you are amused for the time with a set of Ideal People whom you never think of afterwards or whom you least expect to meet in common life, whereas in Miss A—‘s works, & especially in MP. you actually live with them, you fancy yourself one of the family; & the scenes are so exactly descriptive, so perfectly natural, that there is scarcely an Incident or conversation, or a person that you are not inclined to imagine you have at one time or other in your Life been a witness to, born a part in, & been acquainted with.”
In spite of this source of escapism, we must acknowledge that Bridgerton and Austenian works project visions of societies where behaviour is closely moderated and policed. Coming out into society and the marriage market were a form of masquerade – a spectacle which we can resonate with today when we consider the ways we are examined and probed through online platforms. Strangers can like or dislike our appearances, clothing choices, opinions and formulate their own judgements about us. Yet the enduring appeal of the Regency era with its grand balls, captivating prose and alluring traditions, reminds us of our own daydreams of a distant past which may not be as far away as we once thought.