Six ways to get from Jane Austen to Bridgerton
Real romance, the Regency, and flowery fakery
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March blew through in a storm, April and spring are here, and we’re wrapping up a month of Jane Austen TV, here at the Austen Connection.
Of course, Sanditon and its seaside speculations, machinations, and romances are soldiering on, as are the many suitors of The Courtship’s Ms. Nicole Rémy in the UK’s Castle Howard with her waistcoated suitors vying for attention. So the TV conversations will likely continue, and as always let us know what you’re watching, what you’re loving, and what you’ve ditched - give us your reviews, at the end of this post!
But before we move on, we have to talk about Bridgerton. Many of you here likely binged the entire second season as soon as it dropped on Netflix March 25. If that was you - let us know about your viewing experience.
And here at the Austen Connection we have been devouring the settings, the costume design, the wigs, the romance - all joyfully, and when possible, also thoughtfully.
And some of our thoughts have followed an organizing principle, exploring the question: Where is Jane Austen?
In many ways, of course, Jane Austen is all over the production of Bridgerton, and also very far from the production of Bridgerton.
Bridgerton and its executive producer Shonda Rhimes of Shondaland - a television creation and innovation powerhouse behind successes like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, before Bridgerton - produce a Regency story where design, culture, costuming, and most importantly racial histories are reimagined in powerful ways. The artistry is superb; the representation - of people of color in roles at the top of a Regency-era society - is powerful.
And how much of Jane Austen is in all of this is something we can talk about and have talked about before. But suffice to say just a couple of obvious things, that while obvious to us are still being debated and disagreed with: Austen is challenging the structures, and shaking the symbolic foundations, of the world around her, including the patriarchy, the aristocracy, the Church, and you could say, and we do, imperialism and its economic reliance on the slave trade. You can’t say that plainly, simply, or often enough.
Austen is challenging the structures, and shaking the symbolic foundations, of the world around her, including the patriarchy, the aristocracy, the Church, and you could say, and we do, imperialism and its economic reliance on the slave trade. You can’t say that plainly, simply, or often enough. … As does Shonda Rhimes, so did Austen.
And if some out there feel that the British Regency history is a white one, that is because our adaptations have whitewashed this world, literally and figuratively. Austen herself challenged this in very contemporary novels that pushed the boundaries of her day. (What?! Yes. Austen did not write historical novels, as many, including our podcast guest and educator Damianne Scott, as well as Oxford professor and author Helena Kelly points out - she wrote her contemporary world, referencing contemporary people, problems and debates everywhere in her works.)
Austen responded to her contemporary world, and was a game-changer. Bridgerton is also, 200 years later, responding to that world, and is a game-changer.
Austen responded to her contemporary world, and was a game-changer. ‘Bridgerton’ is also, 200 years later, responding to that world, and is a game-changer.
And now that we have that out there, there’s also more: Even while giving us much to think about, as Dr. Danielle Christmas suggests, Bridgerton also deploys all the favorite escapist romance tropes - from hate-to-love and rags-to-riches, to Alpha Male and Forbidden Love. It does this all at once! And there are also some deep themes belonging to the Regency era that are being deployed and showcased in the Netflix series.
Let us count the ways! Here our six Austen themes powering Bridgerton, in order of appearance.
1. Mad, bad and Byronic - Romantic-era Regency men
We love the way that in the very first episode of season 2, Lady Danbury and the Sharmas host a salon that involves poetry reading by the guys. And this highlights a rather confusing yet complementary cultural force that powered Regency ideas and culture, and that is: the Romantic period and the Romantic poets.
Austen and other early 19th century women writers like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, were writing right alongside Austen, and have traditionally been excluded from the Romantic Period canon because the definitions of Romantic Period tend to encompass the poets, most of them men - Coleridge, Wordsworth, and yes, Shelley (husband of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley), and of course the “mad, bad” Byron.
But for decades scholars like Anne Mellor have questioned this, and pointed out that Austen, like Mary Shelley, is engaging with, but also examining, Romantic ideas in her works.
And the way we see this engagement, and examination, is through characters like Persuasion’s Captain Benwick, and Sanditon’s Sir Edward.
And if you know these stories - you will know that neither Benwick or Edward are entirely sympathetic characters. They, like the much more sympathetic Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, tend to go overboard with the poetry.
They fall into it and lose their heads - they are perhaps passionate, gallant, full of love; but they are also irrational, inconstant (a favorite send-up trait of Austen’s) and not to be trusted with themselves.
And, friends, all this subtlety and send-up is also happening in the very first episode of Bridgerton! Is it not?
Our leading-man Lord Anthony Bridgerton would like to woo a Sharma sister, Edwina, so he steals some lines of poetry from his artistic younger brother Benedict (Go Benedict! Do we kind of love Benedict?) and attempts to read it for the salon.
So it’s a minor scene, but one where we have not only the Male Poet archetype before us, but also its subtle satire showcasing the hypocrisy and affectation, and that satire of course is Pure Austen. And then what happens?
2. Flowery fakery and the romantic hero
What happens is Anthony crashes his own performance.
Which brings us to the duality that runs through all of Austen, that struggle in her characters, her stories, her motivations, between the authentic and the real vs. the flowery and the fake.
And this is also going on in that very first episode and that very scene with Anthony Bridgerton attempting to read Benedict’s poetry.
Anthony quickly abandons the effort, seeing himself as ridiculous, not getting the flowery words that seem to speak not to a real woman but to a “lady,” and he gives up, and speaks from the heart.
It’s not quite as romantic as it sounds. This is not Capt. Frederick Wentworth’s letter (and if you are not acquainted with that letter, go asap and read it just to get through the weekend). But it does draw on Austen’s classic dichotomy between plain, inelegant speech - speaking from the heart - and the jargon of romantic love that she repeatedly, and hilariously, portrays as offensive, possessive fakery.
When we see an Austen character - or a Bridgerton - failing for words and stumbling into their real feelings, we are getting a signal that true love is in the air.
3. Heroines in mud
Did anyone else notice that this season’s Bridgerton heroine likes jumping horses, speaking out awkwardly, getting herself in scrapes with the authorities and the Great Ladies, and literally falling in the mud, repeatedly?
Lest anyone think this is a radical retelling of an Austen character, let’s take a minute to point out what many of you can count off by heart - and that is the many ways that Austen characters are challenging and scrapping with the Powers That Be. And also sometimes being just plain awkward.
To grab the most obvious example: We all love Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice for getting the hems of her skirts muddy by walking - walking! - to the Bingley estate, horrifying the snobbish Bingley sisters and also Darcy himself who is at this point of the novel in the “before” stage of the journey toward reform that Elizabeth will set him on.
Did anyone else notice that this season’s Bridgerton heroine likes jumping horses, speaking out awkwardly, getting herself in scrapes with the authorities and the Great Ladies, and literally falling in the mud, repeatedly? … Austen characters are challenging and scrapping with the Powers that Be. And also sometimes being just plain awkward.
We cringe when Elizabeth is told off by the Great Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and cheer when she gives it right back.
Our Season 2 Bridgerton heroine Kate Sharma (played by Simone Ashley) similarly comes up against the great ladies by falling out of bounds of the very social structures she’s worked so hard to succeed in.
This makes us root for her and cheer for her - especially as, like Elizabeth Bennet and the Austen heroines, she deploys her most astute judgment against the suitors that come her way, defends her sister, and follows her true heart and affections - straight out of Austen.
4. Great Ladies working the remote
You may have heard that Regency-era women had no choices, inherited no wealth, had no agency, and no options.
And if so, you may have heard wrong.
Yes, there were fewer options for women of the Regency. We’ve come a little way, baby. And - as Elizabeth Gilliland points out in this recent post “It’s Raining Regency Men!” - there were also fewer options for second sons, and we can see these limitations and also the freedoms of the younger sons through the character of Benedict Bridgerton, who is able to hang out in artistic salons rather than taking both the wealth and the responsibility handed down to the oldest brother, Anthony.
But as the wonderful Oxford scholar and YouTuber Dr. Octavia Cox points out, there were instances in the Regency of women inheriting wealth, estates, and wielding power - including instances of wealthy, powerful women of color, as we can see in the biography of the heiress Dido Belle, the work of author Vanessa Riley on Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, and the scholarship of historian Gretchen Gerzina.
And we can even see this in Austen’s novels - with characters like Pride and Prejudice’s Lady Catherine, Sense and Sensibility’s Mrs. Ferrars, Sanditon’s Lady Danbury, Sanditon’s biracial heiress Georgina Lamb, and our favorite eponymous heroine, Emma.
And you have this Lady Power base in full force in Bridgerton, where we have calling the shots not only Lady Danbury (played by the awesome Adjoa Andoh), Lady Portia Featherington (played by Polly Walker, who is wonderful and - full disclosure - we’re somewhat biased there), and we have at the very top of the Regency hierarchy Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel, worth watching all on her own). These women are not flat archetypes but instead are given nuances and complex story lines - thank you, Shondaland.
They reveal, as Austen did, that women are not morally superior goddesses on a pedestal, but can be in fact just as powerful, just as dangerous, and just as wrong, as any man.
And sometimes they are holding the remote.
5. You have a Choice - take it
We’ve already talked about this, how Austen’s heroines deploy agency - sometimes radically so - to exercise what power and what options they can access. Possibly the most feminist thing Jane Austen did was to simply center the lives and navigations and consciousness of women of the Regency, presenting them, again, as complex beings - not morally superior, as the poets (and Sanditon’s Sir Edward) would have it, and also not inferior. Just human, thank you.
This complexity and human-ness is centered and celebrated in Regency romances as it was in Austen, and of course it’s very much here in Bridgerton-town too.
One of our favorite instances of this is with the character of Marina, who has been swept away by an “amiable” lord, and is living the dream as a mother and mistress of a grand estate. We love this ending for Marina - yet, this is Bridgerton, and this is romance, so what is needed is none of this but rather True Love, and with the arrival of Colin Bridgerton (lovely Luke Newton) to her estate for a catch-up visit, she falters a bit.
Possibly the most feminist thing Jane Austen did was to simply center the lives and navigations and consciousness of women of the Regency, presenting them, again, as complex beings - not morally superior, as the poets would have it, and also not inferior. Just human, thank you.
Ultimately, she faces down her choice, and declares to Colin: “What I need is to face up to my life and make my own practical decisions.”
That’s right! And in that declaration, there’s a lot of Austen: Even in our romance, giving us the psychological realism, the complex humanity of a woman navigating the world, and the complicatedness of our happy endings.
6. Colin Firth, meet Anthony Bridgerton: Big, bad proposals
Which brings us to: Happy endings.
Specifically, after the long simmer of this Kate Sharma-Anthony Bridgerton season, we have not just one proposal, but several. But of course it’s the last one that counts.
And did anyone else notice that this lineup of bad proposals is straight out of Austen?
Colin Firth, 1995, anyone?
As soon as you think of this, you just have to watch it, right?
So, obliging as ever, here it is - and we realize many who click on this have already watched it DOZENS of times, but if you have not - we envy you. (Enjoy, and if this is your first viewing of this iconic scene, please share your first impressions, below!)
But to recap: Darcy offers a proposal that is “against his better judgment,” even as it is “ardent” and filling him with “misery” - and so, even though Darcy is a wonderful catch by the world’s standards, Elizabeth Bennet is way too astute to assent to a marriage based on what appears to be pure lust by someone who displays so little respect as to speak of his love as an unmitigated disaster. She thinks too well of herself to sign up to be anyone’s disaster.
The other big bad wrong thing in his first proposal is that Darcy so obviously has not considered the possibility of rejection. Someone has mentioned this - is it the women of the wonderful podcast The Thing About Austen? (Update: It’s in UCL Professor John Mullan’s book, What Matters in Jane Austen) - that the successful proposals in Jane Austen always anticipate and admit the possibility of refusal.
Complacency will kill your plan, in Austen.
Elizabeth Bennet is way too astute to assent to a marriage based on what appears to be pure lust by someone who displays so little respect as to speak of his love as an unmitigated disaster. She thinks too well of herself to sign up to be anyone’s disaster.
And now, we interrupt this rant to go back to Bridgerton.
Anthony’s first proposals are disastrous, and offensive on a Colin Firth (bless him) level. Anthony basically tells Kate Sharma: “You are the bane of my life, and the object of all my desires” - and just like our Eliza Bennet, she says no thank you and gets her ticket back home to India.
But after more close encounters, some of them at night among the wisteria and involving some very explicit things that only happen off the page in Austen, our Bridgerton season 2 hero gets his act together and his final proposal rather than assuming an affirmative, instead involves emptying his heart when he feels all may be lost.
His “bane of my life” theme has changed to a different song, verse, and tune. It’s simple, inelegant, and, like all great Austen proposals, gets right to the point as Anthony tells Kate: “I cannot imagine my life without you.”
And there it is, friends. Six ways to get from Austen to Bridgerton.
And we’re not even going into the many varied tropes - hate-to-love, forced proximity, Alpha Male, and all the rest - that also can be traced right back to Austen.
So, you tell us - What are we missing here? What were your favorite romance tropes from Bridgerton and from the series of novels by Julia Quinn? What are you watching, reading, and talking about? Let us know!
Highlights to keep a look-out for!
Here comes the Bridgerton Universe! Reports are circulating that Queen Charlotte is getting her own spin-off on Netflix, a Bridgerton prequel exploring Charlotte’s courtship and marriage to King George, and the friendship of a young Lady Danbury and Lady Bridgerton - so these episodes, and accompanying conversations, will continue. We’ll be tuned in.
Also, we still have stuff to say about all the Jane Austen TV! First of all, is anyone out there watching The Courtship? We’re going to weigh in, next post, about a spin-off idea for this show (hint: we need more Mr. and Mrs. Rémy wisdom in our lives.) And, we’ll discuss being “pro-Bochoccio.” Or not. And we’ll discuss the most tearful farewell in reality TV history, the farewell dance from pizzeria-owner Mr. Castronovo, because it’s a farewell that involves the entire family - as break-ups in strong families often do - and this is not something from Jane Austen, but only because there are so few strong families in Jane Austen, right?! Her strong families are all in the future (read: the imagination of the artist) and not in the real time, sad but true.
And friends, when it comes to Austen TV, who’s watching Sanditon?
As the PBS Masterpiece series has rolled out I found myself going rogue and actually taking to the book. Yes, and it’s a sadly short fragment of a novel, something that is worth reminding ourselves about amidst all the Sanditon hype - Austen herself did not get a chance to fully build out this world. But nevertheless it’s exciting to find that in her last fiction project Austen’s themes are in full force.
So, coming up this month, we’re going to take some time, in conjunction with the PBS Masterpiece episodes roll-out, to roll out some discussion about what’s going on - on the page - in this story.
We’ll tackle topics like: Nonbinary Thinking in Sanditon and Northanger Abbey; Romanticism and how Austen’s examination and challenge to some of the Romantic precepts show up in Sanditon (as they do in Bridgerton); and we’ll also dive into Jane Austen and Conspiracy Theories. Yes, Austen tackled this very contemporary topic - and as always, she did not hold back. She tells us exactly what to think about Conspiracy Theories and also Medical Quacks!
Stay tuned - all that is to come, here at the Austen Connection. To make sure all these conversations land right in your Inbox, subscribe here.
Meanwhile, enjoy a happy, healthy weekend, full of good things to watch, read, and talk about.
Yours sincerely, truly, and inelegantly,
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Cool Community and Links
Dr. Gretchen Gerzina brings scholarly work on history to discussions about Bridgerton, and you can join the discussion at her upcoming talk on Black lives and histories from the Regency and beyond, with JASNA St. Louis. See you there!
Jennyvi Dizon and JASNA-Southwest Region are hosting event April 30, featuring a discussion with Jennyvi Dizon about “Designing the Regency” and Dizon’s Jane Austen Collection designs being showcased at New York Fashion Week this autumn.
Here’s a wonderful website that is all about women authors, and it’s created by the powerhouse that is artist Nava Atlas - enjoy the Literary Ladies Guide
Looking for more books newsletters to drop into your life? Check out this wonderful Substack, from one of my fellow Bookstackers, Gayla Gray, who eats, sleeps and dreams Books - you’ll love her delicious newsletter SoNovelicious
Dr. Octavia Cox’s Close Readings in Classic Literature on YouTube is wonderful - here’s another link to her video lecture on women, money, power as examined through the character of Sense and Sensibility’s Mrs. Ferrars.
Thank you all for being in this community!
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