Bridgerton, race and history

* No plot spoilers! *

I have just finished watching the second season of Bridgerton, which dropped on Netflix last month. I am a fan, which is perhaps unsurprising as I’m a historian of the period: my interests in masculinity and material culture are well catered-for by a show that is all about the marriage market of Regency England.

Bridgerton is a lot of fun, with engaging characters, gripping plotlines and very high production values. This is luxury TV, with huge sets, stunning cinematography and gorgeous costumes. It also deals with some serious issues, such as the position of men and women in society, class hierarchies, and the major financial considerations involved in making an appropriate match.

The issues raised by the drama ensure that it is much talked-about. It is a common topic on twitter, and in recent weeks historians have engaged in really interesting discussions about topics as diverse as corsets or dog breeds in response to the show. There are also reaction videos on YouTube, myriad blogs, fansites, discussions on TV and thinkpieces in the press.

Much of this commentary has focused on the issue of race. For those who aren’t aware, Bridgerton has an unusually diverse cast for a costume drama. There were of course plenty of black people in Georgian England, but Bridgerton portrays a parallel universe where Queen Charlotte was black, and therefore polite society became very accepting of people of colour, admitting them to every level of society including the highest reaches of the aristocracy. (This draws on the ongoing debate about the heritage of Queen Charlotte, who descended from the Portuguese royal family that had Moorish connections.)

Inevitably, this has made Bridgerton the focus of rightwing commentators, who have dragged it into the current culture wars. The Spectator has railed against ‘fake history’ and has accused it of peddling ‘a vision of the past crudely shaped by present-day preoccupations’. Portraying black aristocrats on TV is apparently on a par with removing statues or noting that country houses were funded by slavery.

It is fairly straightforward to dismiss such complaints. Firstly, it is not fake history as it isn’t history: it is historical fiction, which uses an imagined version of Regency England as a context in which to tell a story. Secondly, any history student will tell you that our understanding of the past is always shaped by present-day preoccupations.

Photo by Alex Toi on Pexels.com

When I watch historical dramas, I tend not to get hung up on issues of accuracy. (I’m aware that this possibly puts me in a minority among historians.) What is more important is whether it evokes the spirit of the age, or has something interesting to say about it. Whether everything is factually ‘right’ is neither here nor there, so long as a complex and convincing world is evoked in which a story can be told.

As such, I have been wondering why the handling of race in Bridgerton concerned me, and I wasn’t able to put my finger on it until I had finished the current series. The production company were clearly trying to do something progressive here, and it strikes me that they had three options:

  1. Highlight the presence of black people in Georgian England. In the spirit of early black history, tell the stories of the thousands of black British people who are generally omitted from the historical record (and, indeed, period drama). As the opening credits of the black cowboy movie The Harder They Fall declares: ‘These. People. Existed.’
  2. Acknowledge that racial oppression and injustice existed, and tell the stories of characters who are having to face that reality in their everyday lives.
  3. Do genuinely colour-blind casting, where race isn’t an issue.

To my mind, you can do any one of these, or you can do 1 and 2: you can’t do all of them at once, since race is either an issue or it isn’t. But Bridgerton does try to do all this, and therefore rather has its cake and eats it where race is concerned.

The show depicts black people in roles that they would typically have occupied at the time. We see black servants and musicians, for example, and a prominent character is a boxer (probably modelled on the historical figure of Bill Richmond). But depicting this as part of a society where people of colour are also occupying every other social role makes the specificity of their experience seem irrelevant.

There are occasional hints that characters of the show experience disadvantage as a result of their heritage. Will Mondrich struggles to persuade the gentlemen of the ton to join his club, and there is a suggestion that Mary Sharma brought scandal on the Sheffield family by marrying their son. But this does not make sense if black people can move in the very highest circles of society without anyone batting an eyelid.

Colour-blind casting is absolutely a valid approach, and it can be a really good way of providing representation of communities who are traditionally under-represented, particularly in period drama. But if it is combined with tentative or clumsy attempts at black history, then it doesn’t really work.

Some of the detail here is indeed clumsy: commentators have pointed out that the Sharma family are from ‘India’, but the languages and traditions that they reference are drawn from right across a diverse subcontinent. And their privilege rather sidesteps the reality of British colonial violence in India, just as the ubiquity of black aristocrats sidesteps the fact that Georgian society was bound up with the institution of transatlantic slavery.

To say this is not to fret about historical accuracy. Rather, the approach taken by the show undermines the internal consistency of the universe that is being depicted, as well as its claim to be doing something progressive. I still enjoy Bridgerton and look forward to season 3. But part of what I enjoy about it is the way that it generates discussions like this one. It is good to talk about and therefore, to my mind, it is good TV.

Matthew McCormack

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