Madeira Mondays: Bridgerton (TV Show Review)

Happy 2021, my friends! I wanted to kick off this year’s ‘Madeira Mondays’ series with a discussion on the hit TV drama set in the Georgian era: Bridgerton. But first…

a brief announcement regarding ‘Madeira Mondays’…

I’ve made the decision of switching these ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts from every Monday to every other Monday in 2021. I thought long and hard about this decision, especially considering that some of you have reached out to me and said that reading this series is something that you look forward to each and every week. I loved hearing that. I love writing them. But I’ve got a rather full spring ahead of me, and I just don’t think I can maintain the quality of these posts while still posting each week. And I’d rather cut down on the quantity than cut down on the quality. And I’ll be posting a little more this year about writing reflections and my life as an author, so those posts will take up some time too.

So I hope that’s all okay with you! There may be a time when I can go back to every Monday – we shall see! – but for now it’ll be every other week (or once a fortnight, for those in the UK and/or for those like myself who just enjoy using words like ‘fortnight’). And I’ve got so many posts I’m excited about planned for you – posts on 18th century medicine, more recipes, and hopefully some site visits whenever it’s possible to visit places again! If you find yourself missing the weekly posts, you can always have a look through the back catalogue of ‘Madeira Mondays’, which has now amassed around 70 posts (!), covering everything from historical fiction book reviews, to my historical cooking disasters. I hope you enjoy. Now, back to Bridgerton

What is Bridgerton?

So many people – friends, family – have asked me if I’ve seen this show. I totally get why they ask. I volunteer as a historical tour guide (and occasionally a costumed character) at a restored Georgian House in Edinburgh that depicts exactly the time period when Bridgerton is set. I have been known to enjoy frothy and fun TV shows, and I write about and study this period of history…I get it! However while Bridgerton has its charms – we’ll get to that in a sec – and ticks a lot of my boxes on paper, the first episode wasn’t my cup of tea.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Bridgerton? It’s a TV series (apparently based on a series of 8 books by author Julia Quinn). It was released on Christmas day 2020 on Netflix and produced by TV titan Shonda Rhimes (who created Grey’s Anatomy). It’s basically a soapy drama following the lives of the elite ‘Bridgerton’ siblings as they make their way through Regency London, trying to find socially advantageous marriages (I only watched Episode 1, so perhaps it becomes about more than that, but I think that’s probably a fair synopsis!). I’ve broken my thoughts into different categories so let’s dive into the sumptuous world of the Bridgerton siblings…

Characters and acting

I gotta say that the tone of the acting was great. Maybe the best thing about the show. It’s mostly a set of hilarious and broad performances, which suits this cheeky and fun story just fine! It’s very lively and no-one seems to be taking it very seriously.

The young woman playing one of the daughters, Eloise, reminds me of young Carrie Mulligan. Her name is Claudia Jessie and she brings a very feisty energy and I always enjoyed it when she was on screen.

The hottie playing the Duke of Hastings, actor Regé-Jean Page, was particularly good too. He’s giving me a grumpy Duke Orsino vibe. He actually gave me very ‘Shakespearian actor’ vibes overall, and when I looked him up, I saw he began this career on stage in plays like Merchant of Venice! I knew it! (I did a lot of acting growing up and all through my uni days, including many Shakespeare plays, and I was happy my hunch proved correct!)

The characters are standard fare for this type of drama, nothing special there, but the actors all seem pretty top notch.

The look and sound

The costumes were also good to me. I’m not an expert here, of course, but most people were wearing period appropriate Empire waist dresses, while some of the queen’s ladies and the queen herself were wearing older styled gowns with stomachers etc. The gowns were VERY colorful, particularly for the comical Featherington family, and I got the sense that the costumer was leaning into the fantasy element and trying to almost make them look like costumes. Which I really liked.

Queen Charlotte (center) portrayed by Golda Rosheuvel, wearing a more ‘old fashioned’ gown, which would have been more fashionable in the late 1700’s, rather than the early 1800s, when this is set.

A lot of the score is from the Vitamin String Quartet, which I think says a lot about what they were going for with the show. I, for one, love Vitamin String Quartet: they do innovative musical versions of pop songs. I like their Regina Spektor covers myself! In Bridgerton, we hear instrumental versions of things like ‘Thank you, next’ by Ariana Grande. So instead of actual historical tunes we get pop songs reworked with a classical edge (straight out of the playbook of something like Reign). Good choice, again suggesting that this is a modern fantasy version of the Regency.

Historical accuracy

This is where we get into some trickier territory. Something notable about the series is the racial diversity of its cast. I have no idea if race becomes a theme in the series, which could be very interesting, but we see a lot of actors of color in episode one, portraying characters at all levels of society, from servants to the Queen herself. On the one hand, it’s good to see diversity in a period drama because of course people of various races populated a city like London in the early 19th century. And all too often period dramas don’t explore the lives of people of color in the historical past. Also, this is so clearly a fantasy in all respects and it isn’t striving for historical accuracy (for more of my thoughts on ‘historical accuracy’ in film and TV, see my review of Dickinson).

But there was an also unexpectedly sad edge, for me, to this casting. This drama is set in elite London society, the richest of the rich, at a time when racism would certainly have prevented most people of color from rising to this level of wealth and social influence.

I don’t like the idea that some viewers might be watching this show and thinking that racism didn’t exist in Georgian Britain because it absolutely did. And while sometimes extraordinary women like Dido Belle (who had an interesting film based on her life, called Belle) were able to exist in elite British society, despite their racial background, it sadly wasn’t the norm.

I’m hopeful that people watching the show understand that this is a fantasy in multiple ways and one of those ways is the idea that the color of your skin wouldn’t impact your life in elite British society – because it would have. Remember that even though this show isn’t set in the U.S, slavery was still alive and well over there, in Britain’s former colony, and the wealth that the Bridgerton siblings and their friends are enjoying is a wealth built from empire. 

ANYWAYS, I digress, but this choice which, initially, I quite liked, also had an unexpected sadness for me too. So…mixed feelings!

Plot/Story

This is where the show really fails for me. If you’ve seen this type of film before or read this type of book then you can guess what the plot will be. Thus far, there weren’t any surprises or unusual twists and turns regarding the story. It’s what you’d expect. This was the most disappointing element and probably the number one reason I don’t think I’ll be watching more of the series. (This is all just going off Episode 1 alone!). Nothing about the story felt fresh at all.

*

In conclusion, overall…Bridgerton is fine.

This is absolutely the type of show that you could easily pass a happy afternoon or evening ‘binge’ watching, especially if you enjoy Jane Austen novels. Or if you like, for lack of a better word, ‘marriage market’ stories where wealthy English people are trying to figure out who to marry and how to strike that balance of romantic happiness versus social security.

Those aren’t my favorite types of historical stories – I admire someone like Jane Austen though, for her cutting wit and understanding of human nature. But she was writing about her own society and her books provide a really unique (and critical!!) perspective on it – that is very different from a modern show like Bridgerton which romanticizes the historical past to this extent.

Basically, it just didn’t win me over. I found myself very bored halfway through the first episode. I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and I found myself wishing that I was watching that instead. I found myself wanting to check my email. I found myself feeling sad that this wasn’t floating my boat, because I often love silly and fluffy historical dramas, but ah well!

I’ve seen it compared to Downton Abbey, but I don’t think that’s fair. Downtown Abbey was a soapy drama, sure, but I’d argue that the writer and creator Julian Fellowes was deeply interested in the real societal changes happening at the time he’s writing about and often those themes are reflected in the storylines (whether that’s more women entering the work force or the breakdown of noble titled families and the selling of their estates, etc.). The writing was also full of surprises. Those surprises were often bonkers, yes, but they made for engaging viewing.

Sorry for the first ‘Madeira Mondays’ to be a bit of a ‘bad’ review, but I honestly expected to enjoy Bridgerton and was disappointed when I didn’t! It’s the number one thing viewed on UK Netflix at the moment right now, so evidently a lot of people are really enjoying and engaging with the show! And I get that. It’s fun! It just wasn’t for me.

What did you think of ‘Bridgerton’? Should I give it another try and watch Episode 2? What holiday viewing did you watch over the break?

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (a novel published in 1847 and set in the same time period as Bridgerton, full of social climbing, dalliances at Vauxhall, hot rich people in late Georgian England!)
  • Vanity Fair, the 2018 TV series starring Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp (I really enjoyed this adaptation and thought Cooke was brilliant. It was the first time I liked that character. Although I did watch this on a plane while exhausted and drinking a lot of complimentary wine – but still! I think it’s good!)
  • The BBC Pride and Prejudice from 1995 (A hugely enjoyable adaptation, full of wit and fun)

PS Today’s Featured image is:Tom and Jerry and Logic making the most of an Evening at Vauxhall: 1821, Etched by I.R. and G. Cruikshank, accessed via The Museum of London’s website

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Christmas in a Georgian Townhouse

For the last few months, I have been volunteering at The Georgian House. Situated in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town, The Georgian House is a restored late 18th century townhouse, once owned by John Lamont (the 18th chief of the Clan Lamont). Today it is a show house, designed to show what life was like for those above and below stairs in 18th century Edinburgh. Each room is full of Georgian furniture, rugs, knickknacks and art, giving you the genuine feeling of stepping back in time.

IMG_8950

Step on into the drawing room at The Georgian House!

IMG_9361

The Dining Room

I have loved volunteering there and will do a longer post next year on what to expect from a visit to The Georgian House (and why you should definitely pop in to say hello if you’re ever in Edinburgh!), but I wanted to tell you about this month in particular because we’ve been doing some pretty cool stuff this Christmas! For one thing, I have been dressing up, along with some of the other volunteers, as members of the Lamont family for our event ‘Meet the Lamonts’. Visitors could interact with us (we’re in character the entire time!) and learn about life for the Lamont family and their servants. I was dressed as Georgina, the 2nd daughter of John Lamont, but we also had people portraying the butler, our housekeeper, the cook, and more.

Processed with VSCO with 5 preset

Me (as Georgina Lamont) looking out our window at Charlotte Square, which would have been under construction during the Georgian period

The house was also decorated for Christmas and part of our job was to discuss with the visitors how a family like the Lamonts would have celebrated Christmas in Georgian Edinburgh.

So how would the Georgians celebrate Christmas?

For the rest of this post, I’ll talk a bit about Christmas festivities in 18th century Edinburgh and then next week, we’ll look at how it was celebrated over in the American colonies. Let’s explore!

Carly 2

The staircase at The Georgian House, decorated for Christmas

Firstly, when is Christmas?

For the Georgians, Christmas was not two days (Christmas eve and day) but in fact an entire season. Christmas was a month long celebration that involved parties, dances, meals etc. It ran from December 6th (St Nicholas Day) until January 6th (Twelfth Night). Our modern shortened Christmas came into being when employers needed their workers to work throughout the festive period (remember how angry Scrooge gets when his employee, Bob Cratchit, wants the day off for Christmas?) So it was a festive, party-filled period for socializing and family get-togethers, which readers of Jane Austen novels might be familiar with, as the characters are always visiting friends and family (and celebrating!) during this time of year.

How was it different from modern Christmas celebrations?

A lot of the Christmas traditions that we associate with the holiday today did not come into practice until the Victorian period. The Christmas tree, for example, was not widely practiced outside of Germany until Victorian times, when Prince Albert famously introduced the tradition into English society. Christmas cards as well did not really come in until the Victorian period. We didn’t have Santa Claus as we know him yet either (more on that next week).

They did however sing Christmas carols. Elite young ladies and gentlemen would often be taught to play an instrument, and the family could gather round and sing. ‘Joy to the World’ was already around, as was ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. (I wonder if people got as sick of hearing these same tunes as I do of modern Christmas songs…)

People of all social classes could decorate their homes for Christmas because decorations were often natural elements brought in from the outside. People brought in evergreens (holly, mistletoe, ivy etc.) and festooned the house with them. Greenery was a symbol of the promise that life would return in spring (if that sounds vaguely pagan, then you’re right! The idea comes from pagan traditions.).

IMG_9689

The mantle in the parlor decorated for Christmas

One tradition practiced by many in this period was the Yule Candle. It was a big white candle lit by the head of the household at sunset on Christmas Eve and then allowed to burn throughout the night. It was believed to be bad luck if it burned out before Christmas morning. In Scotland, the Yule candle was not to be purchased, but given as a gift to the family and typically sat on the dining table where Christmas Eve dinner was eaten. And speaking of which…

What did they eat?

Obviously this would vary widely depending on region and social class. For a wealthy family like the Lamonts, vension might have been the meat of choice. Other typical Christmas foods were cheeses, soups, and minced pies (which were made with real mince in them! And similar spices to our modern mince pies: cloves, mace etc.). A popular drink was a Wassail bowl, similar to a mulled wine: cooked with spices and sweetened wine or brandy, served in a large bowl garnished with apples. I’ll talk a bit more about Christmas food next week, in my post about Christmas in the American colonies.

So that is a bit about Christmas festivities in Georgian times! I hope that it was informative and if you want to pay a visit to The Georgian House, I believe it will be decorated until January 5th. Be sure to check opening times on The National Trust’s Website before you go! Alas, I will not be there dressed up (our ‘Meet the Lamonts’ reenactment events are finished for the year), but there will be helpful volunteer guides in each room and it would be fun and Christmas-y nonetheless. A lot of the information from this blog post I learned from a very informative little booklet The Georgian House has made this year about Georgian Christmas traditions, including recipes, which you can pick up there for a small donation if you’re curious! I have also included some further reading below if you want to learn more about Christmas in Georgian Britain. Next week, we’re sailing across the Atlantic to British America!

Thanks very much for reading. I hope you’re having a great holiday season. Cheers!

PS

If you’re still looking for Christmas gifts, might I suggest giving the gift of poetry? I have a new poetry pamphlet coming out next year (!) and my publisher, the wonderful Edinburgh-based Stewed Rhubarb, is offering a subscription service called marvelously The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb. Members of the ‘fellowship’ get each of Stewed Rhubarb’s new poetry pamphlets mailed out to them as they are published next year. That’s four, new Scottish poetry books (mine included!) which will arrive in the mail to you throughout 2020. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

This subscription service is a new initiative to support Scottish poetry and writers like me, and if we don’t get enough subscribers, we won’t be able to go forward with the project. So if you have a literature lover in your life, or if you are one yourself, it would be lovely if you joined us! Support the arts in Scotland and get four great books out of the deal. You can find all the details here. Thanks!

Further Christmas reading:

Blogs:

‘Christmas 1819’ from All Things Georgian blog

‘Christmas in Jane Austen’s Time’ from Regina Jeffers’ blog

18th century podcast Episode 25: Christmas

Books:

Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders

The Keeping of Christmas: 1760-1840, published by Fairfax House in York, England, text and design by Peter Brown (I got this little book as part of Fairfax’s house exhibition ‘The Keeping of Christmas’ and it’s very useful. Can’t seem to find it online, but here’s the link to Fairfax House)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Okay so it’s not Georgian, but I believe that everyone should read this. It’s entertaining, compassionate and timely. I re-read it every year)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!