Season two of Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton is out on Netflix—and eager viewers will waste no time immersing themselves in its remarkable candy-colored London ballrooms and countryside estates. Bridgerton’s setting is a version of Regency England with a multiracial, bright, and sexy modern overlay, a place where the marriage market is a game to be played with cunning—until, of course, love (and lust) show up to mess with everyone’s plans.
The hit Shondaland show based on Julia Quinn’s romance series isn’t the only Regency-era confection to grace our screens this year. SanditonThe Jane Austen adaptation was returned to PBS by the Jane Austen television series in March. It had been canceled in 2019 but has since been revived. This is the reality dating show. The Courtship, currently airing on the USA network, dresses its bachelors in breeches, flies them to England, and makes them pay homage to a hopeful bride and her family—wooing her the old-fashioned way.
The Regency era, named so because England’s Prince Regent sat on the throne due to his father’s illness at the turn of the 19th century, is once again popular right now. What is it that makes 2022 the most appealing time period in European history, a time best remembered for its Napoleonic wars?
Jane Austen’s influence on the future
Jonathan Bailey at Bridgerton
Regency romance is alive and well in popular culture, particularly for independent-minded heroines who find love in unexpected places. Jane Austen’s novels such as Pride and PrejudiceAnd Emma continue to inspire adaptations, and the popular Regency Romance genre, which encompasses period-accurate novels in the style of writer Georgette Heyer as well racier, more modern-feeling novels with Regency settings, like Quinn’s. That instant association—divorced from the broader scope of history—has allowed creators like Rhimes and BridgertonChris Van Dusen will deliver romantic heat to an especially elegant plate, in order to satisfy a hungry audience for escapism.
The COVID-19 pandemic drove readers to “the comfort food” of Regency fare, according to Laurel Ann Nattress, who runs the fan site Austenprose. Nattress claims that her website saw an increase in interest in books and movies about Regency times when COVID-19 lockdowns started, which was a few months prior. Bridgerton released. Once it was launched in 2020. BridgertonIt quickly became a cultural phenomenon, and was the number one show on Netflix when it premiered. Popularity played an important role in its revival. SanditonMargaret Sullivan (author of) says “Yes.” Jane Austen HandbookAustenblog editor.After fan organizing, which included massive beach art projects, 88,000 signature petitions, and many social media campaigns, the show was renewed. “SanditonIt was put to rest. There was a very persistent fandom, but I think they should thank Shonda Rhimes,” Sullivan says.
Learn More: Jane Austen’s Advice on Staying At Home
Austen’s six novels, which appeared in 1811-1818, have long been a staple of the culture. Regency Romance, a popular genre of Regency Romance, is filled with witty lines that reference Austen’s writings. The first episode of It Courtship, Austen quotes are mangled for “comic” effect, every few minutes. The social conventions of her novels—women’s dance cards being filled up by suitors, hunting parties, dinners around long tables—are familiar enough to viewers that the universe is easy to slip into. It was fascinating to see Regency England’s low-cut and narrow breeches. The Courtship likely evokes Matthew MacFayden’s Mr. Darcy flexing his hand with desire in Pride & Prejudice, or a similar scene of longing from another Austen film (In fact, there’s a tumble into a lake in season 2 of Bridgerton that directly references the infamous Colin Firth “wet shirt” scene in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries).
In 2022, a new Regency-era is being reimagined
An image from the film ‘The Courtship.
Beyond Austen, the Regency era remains “vague” in the popular consciousness, says Lynn Festa, a professor of English literature at Rutgers University. “Everyone knows the Victorian period, the British Empire. But the Regency is a bunch of bonnets,” she says.
In reality, Festa says, the Regency era was built on vast “structures of exploitation.” Austen’s writing includes brief references to the way slavery’s profits fed the lifestyle of British society, a bitter truth that is examined more openly in the new season of Sanditon. Also, the Regency era saw social stratification, extreme poverty and oppression for women that we may associate with Victorians. Yet our cultural imagination doesn’t go to these troubling places as quickly, opening the door to what Bridgerton’s creators have described as a “fantasy” Regency that, while rooted in history, is actually more tolerant and harmonious than what you might find in 2022 America—a universe where interracial relationships receive no condemnation, women speak their mind, escape to the seedy side of town, and flirt with few lasting consequences, while every good parent ultimately counsels their child to choose love over convenience. Season 2 of BridgertonThe heroines of the story are the Sharmas. They’re sisters who have just arrived from Bombay. They are easily welcomed, despite a few raised eyebrows about their mother’s hasty marriage. This isn’t Brexit-era England.
Both The Courtship And SanditonThey also feature characters and casts that are racially diverse, a break from Austen’s previous efforts. Sanditon‘s supporting cast features a Black heiress (as written by Austen) who is best friends with the heroine, and The Courtship gives its heroine, Miss Rémy, also a woman of color, regal authority over not just her love life, but the whole conceit. These series reflect the ideal of harmonious racial coexistence. Regency Romance is characterized by optimism. In Regency Romance, happy endings are often able to settle interpersonal tension. Heroines can sometimes be criticized for flouting the rules, while heroines have the ability to satisfy their wives in bed. These are the characters. BridgertonTeam gestures are made at this point: string quartets in contemporary pop music, technicolor costumes, cheeky cutaways, and string quartets playing modern pop songs remind the audience that, even when things get serious, it is meant to be fun. It’s hard to forget, especially in the lighter, more humorous second season.
Why fans love Regency stories with well-crafted wedding scenes? SanditonThe premise of the series was an Austen fragment. It was passionately reorganized after it’s first season ended with heartbreak. The “Sanditon Sisterhood’’ expressed a yearning that many fans of onscreen romance feel. The well-made, classic rom-com, which is itself a descendant of Austen, has lost its place in film history, with the exception of a few charming instances. There are shows such as BridgertonAnd Sanditon can offer us the kind of swoon-worthy moments we don’t see elsewhere, like the Duke and DaphneHolding hands in a gallery Bridgerton’s first season, and in SanditonThe scene in which the lovers row a boat with their hands together was the topic of numerous fan-made Youtube videos. The new season of Bridgerton, the heroine herself flashes back to these “slow burn” moments where she almost kissed the hero—rattling her porcelain teacup with the heat of the memories. To make it even more fun, the heroine also remembers those “slow burn” moments when she almost kissed her father-in-law. BridgertonThe characters will eventually get further.
“I think that’s what appeals to a lot of people that might not even like Jane Austen,” Sullivan says. “Actual sex scenes.”
Many critics and writers have pointed out that there’s a fine line between progressive and conservative approaches to this kind of approach. This is true for any art form that examines the history of humanity with an inclusive, modern twist, such as Hamilton. Itn the face of deep society-wide issues like America’s unfinished racial reckoning, #MeToo, and the pandemic, the romance plot is undoubtedly a kind of retreat from the broad to the narrow. The Courtship is honest about this, offering Miss Rémy the world of ballrooms and sitting rooms as an explicit antidote to the complexity of modern life, and especially modern dating.
It’s a bit retrograde, to be sure. But there’s also something delightful in the way these Regency shows openly cater to a largely diverse, largely female audience, so much so that this historical era, which was deeply oppressive for people of color and women, has become a vehicle for their enjoyment and fantasy fulfillment. It’s an impressive feat. No wonder we’re all tuning in.
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