By Matthew Kresal
If you follow pop culture in the slightest or merely have a Netflix account, you've very likely heard of Bridgerton. Based on the first book in Julia Quinn's eight-novel series, its eight episodes follows the fortunes of the titular family in the Regency era in what Entertainment Weekly described as a "wonderful diversion for those who love Pride & Prejudice but wish it had more stairway sex." While a tad harsh perhaps (there's only such bout in eight episodes), that description sums up neatly the appeal of the series and why, as produced by Shonda Rhimes (whose given us such shows as Grey's Anatomy), it has become Netflix's most-watched original series to date. Such a success that a second season is already in the pipeline.
But why, you may be asking, am I reading about this on an alternate history blog? Well, for the same reason that this author wrote about The West Wing last autumn. Bridgerton is, beneath all the pomp and circumstance, an alternate history series.
Not that you would know it at first, potentially. The series opens in costume drama fashion, with the young women of two families presented to the Queen at the start of the 1813 social season in London. It's only at the presentation itself, when we meet the Queen, that it might dawn on viewers that this isn't quite history as we know it. This Queen Charlotte, the real-life wife of King George III, is of definite African descent. But what one might assume was an act of "color-blind casting," given the casting of Regé-Jean Page as the debonair Simon, Duke of Hastings and Adjoa Andoh's insightful Lady Danbury. Or in supporting roles Ruby Barker as Featherington cousin Marina and Martins Imhangbe as the Duke's boxer friend Will Mondrich.
That is until this exchange between the Duke and Lady Danbury in the fourth episode. “Look at our Queen," she says to him. "Look at our King. Look at their marriage, look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us. Love conquers all.”
In a single line, audience assumptions and the series's very genre turn on their ear. A second, equally as a fleeting reference, comes in episode seven in a conversation between Lord Featherington and Will Mondrich. During this, Featherington reminds Mondrich of his father being one of Lord Dunmore’s soldiers in the colonies. It's a single line in a conversation and, with the earlier reference, about as far of an explanation as viewers receive across the eight hours of screentime. But what a world those lines paint.
The reference to Lord Dunmore is our first port of call. The last colonial governor of Virginia, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, issued in November 1775 a document that history has come to know as Dunmore's Proclamation. In it, he not only declared all revolutionaries traitors to the crown but asked that "all indentured servants, Negroes, or others...free that are able and willing to bear arms..." do so. By December, as noted in an article on the companion website for the PBS series Africans in America, "300 black men had been inducted into "Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment," armed, and outfitted in military uniforms inscribed with the words "Liberty to Slaves." By early June (1776), however, Dunmore's forces had been decimated by smallpox and the patriot's defenses. In August, the British destroyed over half of their own ships and sailed out of the Potomac, taking the 300 healthiest blacks with them." All of which suggests that a minor POD for the series would appear to be a number of them, including the father of our future boxer, settling in Britain after the war, still presumably lost by the British.
The larger POD, the one on which it seems much of the Bridgerton TV series hinges, has to do with Queen Charlotte. And, surprisingly, this might be only a slight one. Historian Mario De Valdes y Cocom's research into the Queen Charlotte of OTL raised the fact that, to quote a piece for the companion webpage for the PBS series Frontline, "was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House." Vales has also noted a number of portraits of the Queen painted during her lifetime, in addition to sources such as her physician's autobiography, to make the case.
It is worth mentioning that Vale's claim has not received universal acceptance, as this 2017 article from the Washington Post from the time of the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle notes reactions ranging from denials to shrugs, including from the current members of the Royal Family, for example, highlights. Even Julia Quinn, who did not feature the monarch in her original novels, noted the controversy in comments published last December. And as tempting as it might be to lump this idea with such conspiracy theories as those found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, or its fictional successor in The Da Vinci Code, a slight change in either genetics or history is very much a POD for the television series. As Quinn herself noted in that article: "But let's say she was Black. And what if that was accepted at the time and people acknowledge that, and then she used that position to lift other people of color to higher positions in society. What would society look like?"
It's worth mentioning further to that that the alternate history element is something owed more to those making the series, in particular showrunner Chris Van Dusen, than to Quinn's original novels. As she admitted in an interview, "I will be honest: I wrote the books 20 years ago. I wasn't necessarily thinking about [being inclusive] in my own work." She also noted the surprise of readers as, "A lot of them were like, 'But Simon has blue eyes.' And I think, for some of them, it truly was that Simon had blue eyes. And for others—whether they realized it or not—it was something with racist undertones. The truth is, I didn't even remember that Simon had blue eyes. I wrote the books. Obviously this is not the most important thing." Nor was she bothered by that or any of the other changes made in adapting the first book, noting in that same interview, "It's not a word for word adaptation, and it shouldn't be. I never expected that. I didn't want that. It's not what television should be about." As such, and with a second season based on the second book in the works, there's a chance that we may well learn more about the show's alternate history when its sophomore season arrives (whenever that shall be).
Bridgerton, as a series, has also been recognized as an alternate history by wider media, including by The New York Times shortly after its release. In it being so, it stands as an example of using it not as a genre but as a setting. The series is, ultimately, about people and life in this world, not how history changed. For all of us complaining that alternate history is too focused on Nazis and Confederates and the wars they fought, Bridgerton suggests that there are other approaches to take, times and places to be explored in ways big and small. A call to proverbial arms but also a chance to welcome people into the community, if we choose to do so.
And that might be its greatest legacy to us.