Readers Write In #327: Bridgerton is no Jane Austen

Posted on January 18, 2021

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(by Doba)

Those of us who were not satisfactorily entertained by the drama at the Capitol – no offence to the fine performances of the ladies and gentlemen, there, but they were sadly lacking in sex appeal – have turned to Netflix’s period drama Bridgerton in the last few weeks. With the devastatingly handsome leads (I am looking at you Rege Jean Page), shimmering costumes and steamy sex, the show has been described, by numerous reviews as Jane Austen meets Gossip Girl. Now, I have no clue about Gossip Girl but I plunged in for Austen. And what I did discover is that the series is a very faithful rendering of a Mills a Boon novel, which of course I have never read (“You insult me, dear reader!”). All that I know of it comes from my “Mamma” (sighing tremulously).

So, like any self-respecting romantic novel, you have the devastatingly sexy leads (have I said that before?), the ingenue looking for love, and the filthy rich rake looking for sex. When they first meet, they spar with each other, so that the audiences can realize that the girl is spirited and not vapid. The girl also has a fine sense of humour. Of course, she does not say or do a single funny thing in the series. But her “Mamma” promises us that she is funny. So, there’s that.They (the rake and ingenue, I mean, not the mamma) get hot and heavy, where the rake teaches the ingenue about sex and the latter teaches him tenderness. They quarrel over something and after thestipulated tears, quivering lips, heaving bosoms and hand wringing, there is a passionate declaration of love that washes away a lifetime of angst making way for a happy ending (more sex!). I am not complaining. If an actor can render predictable, trite and silly lines (“In the mornings you ease, in the evenings you something else, the dreams you inhabit…”), without a diminishment of his appeal, he is worth watching. In fact, I highly recommend the show, especially on mute.

But Jane Austen it is not! Just because it is set in the 1813, doesn’t make it Austenite. That’s like someone, two hundred years from now, saying Breaking Bad and Curb Your Enthusiasm are the same because they belong to the same era. Austen did not do romance. Some mean commenters have said that it is because she was a spinster and did not know passion. I rather believe that it is because she had too much of a sense of irony, the ridiculous and the absurd. Seinfeld and Curb are more Austen than Bridgerton.  Those of us who return to Austen multiple times, do so, for the comedy. For the priceless gems of wisdom from Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice), for the machinations of Mrs. Norris (Mansfield Park), the friendship between Isabella and Catherine (Northanger Abbey) and the utterly unstoppable Mrs. Bates (Emma). There are no passionate declarations in Austen. In fact, Edmond and Fanny (Mansfield Park) are like brother and sister for most part (not the Lannister version); the declaration of Wentworth to Anne (Persuasion) is a couple of lines in a letter and when they do meet, their speeches are passed over; no love speeches in Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey or Emma that I can recall. Austen heroines, had too much sense to enroll inproject “reformation of rake” and no character transmogrifies from frog to a prince from the kiss of love. Fanny turns down Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park), Willoughby and Marianne (Sense and Sensibility) do not get together, and Elizabeth ends up feeling repulsed by Wickham (Pride and Prejudice). Like many normal level headed women, then and now, more than romance books would have us believe, Austen women did not romanticize poverty. But neither were they stupid enough to think that marriage was the only way out for “genteel” women to be happy. In fact, Austen draws great fun from the vulgar husband hunting ways of the Steeles (Sense and Sensibility), the silly infatuations of Kitty and Lydia (Pride and Prejudice), and the more sophisticated tactics of Miss Crawford (Mansfield Park) and Miss Bingley (Pride and Prejudice). Women, then and now, had other interests besides men. They liked people, art, music, books, conversation and dancing. Every woman, who entered the dance floor looking for a good time, was not calculating her chances of getting married in three weeks. Many women knew, I would like to think, that the life and lot of a dependent spinster could not be a whole lot worse or unhappier than that of a woman married to someone of little sense or principles. If Austen had written Bridgerton, Simon would have, in a short while, gotten bored of the utter domesticity of it all and returned to his rakish ways and traveling. And Daphne, would have found herself busy with her children and the distinction of her title. Their marriage would have been as happy (or unhappy) as the average couple that marries for such stupid reasons as title and honor. In fact, I could never understand in the series, why Daphne and her mother are so desperate that she marries in the first season. They seem very well off. So why did she not have the “privilege” (as she calls it) of taking more than four dances to fall in love and get married? Anyway, such questions are not to be asked. The good news is that the Americans, and the rest of us republicans, apparently, love the regency England and its aristocracy with is fine clothes, dancing and sexy people tearing their clothes off each other. The even better news is that there will be seven more seasons.

p.s. Have I set a record for the number of times sex is mentioned in a review? I hope so.