There has always been a certain prejudice towards romance novels. It’s a genre that has been looked down upon, seen as only a holiday read or a small distraction to help you accept your latest break-up. As a Literature student especially, you’re expected to read, admire and treasure the classics with little room for questioning, and it’s these classics that are usually first in line when it comes to adaptations. Nobody wants the ‘trashy’ romances or the frivolous historical tales of forbidden love; they want room for interpretation, unpredictability. That is, until Bridgerton came along.
Brought to Netflix by super-producer Shonda Rhimes, Bridgerton is the adaptation of Julia Quinn’s best-selling novel series featuring a family of eight children, all of whom must make their way through the perilous waters of the high society social season in Regency London. From just that small introduction, you can’t deny that there’s an automatic expectation for a Byronic leading man with an enticing heroine by his side, put together with smouldering looks of passion cast across a ballroom. Executive producer of the series, Betsy Beers, admitted to this when Rhimes first recommended the novels to her: “I didn’t take what the books were as seriously as I could’ve initially, but there should be no pejorative association with romance novels.” Bridgerton quickly became more than just an adaptation; it was also a challenge to destigmatise a genre that doesn’t wholly deserve the condemnation it’s received.
A sense of freshness is established almost immediately within episode one. The social machinations are narrated and often abetted by the scandalous Lady Whistledown, voiced by Julie Andrews, whose true identity becomes an object of unveiling that can only be described as an amalgamation of Jane Austen and Gossip Girl. The music score holds classical string arrangements of contemporary pop songs, from Ariana Grande to Taylor Swift, bringing life into a feature that often remains un-commented on. The costumes are radiant, accompanied by the most delicate hair arrangements without a bonnet in sight. However, it’s the show’s casting that brings the biggest breath of fresh air.
There undoubtedly will be critics who will roll their eyes at the ‘colour-blind casting’ they see before them, but it is so much more than that. By just looking at the score, the costumes, the plotline, we can see that Bridgerton isn’t a history lesson. Rhimes’ decision to include people of colour in the cast allows history to be reimagined, handing the characters more power than historical assumptions allow. In a genre that has previously been the exclusive domain of white actors, the tide is turning. Casting a person of colour in a historical setting no longer means they automatically play the role of the enslaved.
Rhimes herself recognised the prestige gap between the classic adaptations and historical romance, took it on as a challenge, and eventually squashed it through producing the beauty that is Bridgerton. It is safe to say that this is a series that has set a new standard for other productions in the genre to follow, and I hope that it’s one to stay.
Illustration: Verity Laycock