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Apr 11, 2022

'Bridgerton' Brings the Regency Novel Back Into Fashion – But Did It Ever Go Away?

The brooding men and the naive women are very much there but this multi-cultural production is also aware of current issues and even music.
A still from season 2 of Bridgerton. Photo credit: Netflix

With a little help from the viscount’s tortured sighs and Kate Sharma’s lavender satin bloomers, Bridgerton season 2 has quickly broken the record for most-viewed English show in a week on Netflix. Second only to Squid Game in viewership, Bridgerton is a bonafide global phenomenon. Dialogue as glittering as its gowns and ballrooms, meet-cutes as natural as the ladies’ waistlines, hot gossip that travels faster than all the hot young men and women can promenade, mothers of unmarried children with ambitions as towering as the Queen’s wigs – there’s a lot to love about Bridgerton, even if you’re doing so only ironically.

On screen, it’s been a while since a romantic drama saw the kind of success Bridgerton is enjoying currently. This is significant because Bridgerton is also a period drama. To be sure, Shondaland alum and Bridgerton creator Chris Van Dusen has updated it for a 21st century audience, and specially for the Gen Z, with its race-blind casting, its rather on-trend revisionist approach to history, and the very fetching quirk of a 19th-century orchestra playing Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.

But, unlike The Kissing Booth, Sex Education or Euphoria, all of which are also wildly popular and speak to the, uh, persuasions of self-involved hormonal adolescents in contemporary high school settings, Bridgerton has won the popularity stakes despite depicting a distinctly outdated, outrageous way of life. Indeed, the series is credited with (or accused of) bringing the Regency romance back into vogue.

The incredible popularity of Bridgerton has boosted the sales of Julia Quinn’s novels as well. Twenty years after they were first published, they don’t just refuse to budge from the top of bestseller lists – they are perpetually sold out. But the larger fact is that romance – every type of it, from the 2000s’ Sweet Valley High style teen love drama to the 1970s’ era bodice ripper with rapetastic men and annoyingly naive women – remains the highest selling genre in paperback books. The Regency romance is to date the most popular sub-genre. It begs the question: Did Bridgerton actually resuscitate the Regency romance or did it ever even go away?

Julia Quinn, author of the Bridgerton series. Photo: Roberto Filho via juliaquinn.com

A little history

First, a little history. The Regency era refers to a sliver of time in England, between 1811-1820, when the reigning King George III was deemed mentally unfit to rule. His eldest son George IV was installed as the Prince Regent, a proxy ruler. What ensued was a period of untamed revelry and prosperity for the aristocratic class, packed with extravagant fashion and decadent food and balls and parties. It was a time of exacting inequality – the gap between the rich and the poor had never been wider. It was also the time when certain social modalities, regarding courtship, class hierarchies and the marriage mart, came into being; things that would only be further cemented in the Victorian era.

At the turn of every century since, at least one Regency romance writer has risen to great fame, and their influence on the genre has stretched far beyond their own existence. Jane Austen wrote and published during the actual period of the Regency. She captured the scenes of her times evocatively in her sharp, sassy descriptions. More importantly, she created the template for this type of romance – a la Pride and Prejudice – featuring a bright, intelligent young woman, invariably something of a wild child, who’d run into a handsome man of wealth, but almost always lacking in charm. The instant dislike would be mutual, perhaps intensified because the sexual attraction is also mutual. Despite heated arguments, misunderstandings and a lot of bullheadedness, this roller-coaster engagement would end, obviously, in a proposal.

Over a century later, Georgette Heyer, heavily influenced by Jane Austen and William Thackeray, established the Regency romance as we know it today. Even Stephen Fry is a hardcore fan. While she also dabbled in detective fiction (particularly fashionable for women writers of the time, such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers), the Regency era was her personal favourite. Built on meticulous research around that decade – the way people dressed, ate, talked, the mannerisms of the ton and the slang of the times – Heyer’s novels boasted scenes somewhat grander, her dialogue more witty, her heroes a shade more leering but, in the end, honourable, and her heroines as individual-minded as their circumstances allowed them to be. She’d even throw in a kiss or two between her lead actors, to the great delight of her readers.

On the other side of the Atlantic, popular historical romance writer Julia Quinn’s An Offer From A Gentleman made the New York Times bestseller list in 2001. It was the third in the Bridgerton series. The Duke & I and The Viscount Who Loved Me, upon which Shondaland’s Bridgerton‘s first and second seasons are based, were released in 2000 – by which time Quinn (nee Julie Pottinger), a Harvard dropout, had already built her name as romance writer with a feminist bent. Quinn’s heroines are the spiritual successors of Austen and Heyer’s protagonists. But these young ladies are also blushingly okay with lessons in copulation.

Also Read: History vs Fiction: How the Quest for Historical Accuracy Is Ruining Entertainment

Readers loyal to a fault

As with generations of Regency romance writers, there have been generations of Regency romance readers – loyal to a fault. My mother, now 61, tells me of her induction into this cult at the age of 15. Growing up in 70s Dehradun, she borrowed three Heyer novels from a friend’s grandfather’s library. Hooked, she and her sisters soon began to trawl through the paperback collection of a bookseller on Dispensary Road. Having made her way through every Heyer novel – Lady of Quality, Frederica and Black Sheep becoming particular favourites – she also read Austen, Barbara Cartland (Heyer’s contemporary, who Heyer thoroughly detested) and eventually, inevitably, Mills & Boon. But Heyer remained a particular favourite because she had a sense of humour, channelled through the strong women she wrote, dripping sarcasm as they made their way through a society bent on living it up, all the time.

In households where reading popular fiction is encouraged, the Heyer novel was (perhaps is) a particularly womanly rite of passage, just like Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Louisa M. Alcott. Unlike Austen (whose novels get repeat screen adaptations in the way Batman or Star Wars do) and Julia Quinn (who’s now part of a historical moment with Bridgerton), Heyer never did get her big-screen moment. That hasn’t stopped millions of women from passing on trunks full of paperbacks, Heyer novels prized possessions among them, to their daughters – codes to the secret of a certain kind of womanhood.

Shelves with Regency and romance novels. Representative image. Photo: Bjørn Bulthuis/Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

Austen, Heyer and Quinn are by no means the only Regency romance writers out there, but they’ve dominated the genre, no matter the medium. Sure, some of the reasons for this are the vicarious thrills and escapism they offer – and one need look no farther than Karan Johar’s filmography, including Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham whose title track has also featured on Bridgerton, to see why a happily-ever-after arising from a rigid class-oriented society grabs eyeballs. 

Feminist enterprise or not, the Regency romance’s endurance has a lot more to do with the women they are built around, the women who perhaps didn’t set out looking for love. Elizabeth Bennett (Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), Venetia Lanyon (Heyer’s Venetia) and the Sharma sisters (of Bridgerton S2, Kate and Edwina Sheffield in the book), written across a span of 19 decades, all exist at a time when appearances mattered more than realities, sexual agency was the preserve of stomping, brooding, bad-mannered men, and their only chance at a good life was to catch a husband with a title, land or money. They are, however, each more aware of their restrictions, and wiser to their potential. 

Bridgerton, passing through the hands of Quinn, Shonda Rhimes and Chris Van Dusen, certainly underlines this last: in Edwina Sharma’s winning speech about choice and finding herself, in Penelope Featherington’s secret enterprise as Lady Whistledown, in Eloise Bridgerton’s efforts to engage with the radical politics of this time. They may or may not get very far in the end, but they do try. Above all else, that makes them relatable – the lifeblood of all modern storytelling. And is it not, after all, a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a brain and a heart must be in want of a man who’ll take her for what she is – the bane of his existence and the object of his desires?

Nidhi Gupta writes on culture, tech and lifestyle. Find her on Instagram @_niddee_ and @nee_dhee on Twitter.

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