It is I, Lady Whistledown, here to provide you with every conceivable detail on the unexpected cultural sensation that was Netflix’s 2020 romantic drama series, Bridgerton…
On Christmas Day 2020, Netflix released a splashy, vibrant, Regency-era show that was hotly anticipated by those who usually like that sort of thing: romance novel fans, Jane Austen fans, and all of those who fall somewhere along that Venn Diagram were ready for a frothy, bingeable look at love — and lust — in high society 19th century London.
What no one expected, however, was the way the show absolutely took the streaming service by storm. I had personally expected to text about it with two of my friends who, like me, had read the eight-book series on which the show is based. What I did not expect was to spend the week between Christmas and New Years hopping between group chats and private messages with half the people I know, repeating things like “don’t worry, it gets better in a later book”, “I know I love them too!” and perhaps most commonly: “OK, but don’t watch episode 6 with your family”.
The first season of the show focuses largely on Daphne Bridgerton, the fourth child but the eldest girl of the titular Bridgerton family, as she makes her debut into London society. She is determined to marry for love, the way her mother did, but her meddlesome eldest brother Anthony keeps getting in the way, doing what big brothers do best and driving away any reasonable chance she has at meeting someone. She eventually meets — and of course falls in love with — Simon, Duke of Hastings, who happens to be Anthony’s best friend.
Though there are of course obstacles and drama, the plot of the first book largely focuses on only Daphne and Simon, so the series makes the very wise and necessary decision to flesh out the other characters that inhabit their world. And that choice worked in their favour, by giving viewers a wide cast of characters to follow and root for (or against!). As of late January 2021, over 80 million households had streamed the 8 episode series centered around the Bridgerton clan, and the show proved so popular that Netflix renewed it for a second season.
With eight books, each focusing on one of the siblings, it might seem like a natural decision to simply make each subsequent season about the next book in line and so on. But I would also argue that that’s riskier than some might realize. In choosing to introduce most of the siblings and their internal struggles right away, they’ve all become inextricable from the storylines of future seasons. And while I personally would watch eight seasons of this show, I cannot say with any certainty that wider public interest would last that long.
What then, O Reader, can the showrunners do to sustain public interest? As a paragon of taste in our fair society, I humbly offer my suggestions. Though be warned, fair reader, I shall not make any effort to conceal from you any details savoury or sordid (translation: book spoilers below!)
First Suggestion: Combine books 2 and 3 into one season
The second book in the series, The Viscount Who Loved Me, focuses on Anthony resolving to marry a woman suitable to be his Viscountess and falling in love with her sister instead. Sienna Rosso, his mistress in the Netflix series, is not a character from the books, but his heartbreak over losing her will provide him with more compelling motivation when it comes time to marry out of a sense of duty.
Marrying because you have to? We’ve seen it. Marrying because you have to, but also you’re hung up on your ex and need to learn to love again? We’ve seen that too, but it’s so much more interesting.
It is not, however, interesting enough to sustain an entire season. Especially not when the show has gone to great lengths to set the plot in motion for many of the characters who do not receive story arcs until later books. I do think it could be more gripping, though, if they decided to adapt book two as well as book three — the Benedict-starring An Offer From A Gentleman — into a single season.
Benedict’s story is pretty much a Cinderella retelling: he meets a woman at a masquerade ball, falls in love at first sight, and cannot find her again. The woman, it turns out, is the daughter of a gentleman who has died leaving her in the care of her stepmother and stepsisters.
We have seen this story done before and we have seen it done well.
In all honesty, I initially thought the show was taking things in a wildly different direction with Benedict. His friendship with the artist, the longing glances, and the secret parties? I definitely thought they were writing Benedict as gay. Or bisexual at the very least — which to be fair, could still happen. Not much else about him would have to change. He could still be the sweet, sensitive artist who wants to leave society behind and hole up in his country house with the love of his life.
While neither of these books are enough to make a full season on their own without rehashing things we’ve seen before, combining them into one season would actually illustrate how similar the two brothers are, despite appearances to the contrary. Especially if they pursue the queer route for Benedict: Both would be young men having to reconcile what they want with the different expectations society has for them, and finding that they can in fact have it all.
Second Suggestion: A redemption arc for Miss Penelope Featherington
For the first three books of the series, Penelope Featherington is nothing more than Eloise Bridgerton’s best friend, and occasional societal punch line. But viewers of the show know that there is so much more to the youngest Featherington sister than meets the eye. After all, readers had to wait until the Colin-and-Penelope-centric Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, the fourth book in the series, to learn that the quiet Penelope leads a double life as Lady Whistledown, the anonymous Gossip Girl-style columnist who has been publishing stories about London’s high society.
Penelope’s feelings for Colin Bridgerton are set up very early in the show, something I was delighted to see since their book is my favourite. Prior to that, not much time is dedicated to either of them, but the first season of Bridgerton puts them in something of a love triangle with Penelope’s cousin Marina Thompson.
Marina doesn’t appear in the books until much later, and even then only indirectly. In the series, however, she is one of the central characters of the first season. She confides in Penelope when she discovers she’s become pregnant out of wedlock and needs to marry a man of means quickly. Unfortunately for Pen, Marina has decided she wants Colin, leading Penelope to expose the whole ordeal in Lady Whistledown’s column.
It doesn’t do much good to harp on minor differences between a book and its TV adaptation. Things must necessarily change in order to translate from one medium to another. But in this case, it fundamentally changes who Penelope is as a person. In the books, she is the sister everyone mocks, the one forced to wear unflattering colours, and the one that everyone writes off as doomed for spinsterhood from the get-go. Her way of hitting back, then, is to start a gossip column that makes all of London society feel as small as they’ve made her feel.
The key thing here is that Book Penelope always punches up. While this is never made explicit with Marina, she is already in a precarious societal position because of her race — despite initial appearances, the series is not as colourblind as many originally assumed.
Others have spoken more on this, and with greater expertise than I have, but suffice it to say that Series Penelope taking the one society woman on the show with a lower standing than her and throwing her under the bus — carriage? — all for the sake of a crush is a Bad Look. It also leaves those who read the books and those who haven’t with wildly different opinions on one of the central romantic leads of the series.
I’m not saying all romance heroines must necessarily be flawless individuals. That isn’t especially engaging to watch. What I am saying is that future seasons need to show Penelope putting in the work to make right what she did, so that by the time we get to her season, viewers of the show love her just as much as book readers do.
Third Suggestion: Scrap the plot of book 5 entirely
Shifting away from needing a course correction in order to line up with the books, my third suggestion is that should the series reach Eloise’s story, To Sir Philip, With Love, they scrap the bulk of the plot entirely.
Sir Philip is actually where readers hear about Marina for the first time, though they never actually get to meet her. She is a Bridgerton cousin, rather than a Featherington cousin, and we only hear about her after Eloise writes to Marina’s husband Sir Philip, offering her condolences for the death of his wife.
Yes, that’s right. Book readers never meet Marina because she’s dead before they ever get the chance to.
The plot of the book revolves around Eloise deciding to visit Sir Philip after the two have corresponded for some time and he then proposes to her sight-unseen. What unfolds is a Beauty and the Beast-esque love story.
However, it goes very dark very fast when readers realize Marina didn’t die of physical illness, but rather suffered from depression for years before taking her own life. Adapting this book exactly — or approximately — as written is made very difficult when taking into account the characters of Eloise and Marina as portrayed in the show.
As touched on above, of all the young women, Marina is already at a disadvantage socially. By the end of the first season, she is unhappily engaged to Sir Philip Crane — shown as a small, mousey man, which is in some contrast to the large, hulking one in the books — pregnant with her dead lover’s child and disgraced in the eyes of London society.
To have this miserable turn of events conclude with Marina’s ultimate fate in the books is not at all in keeping with the frothy, romantic tone of the rest of the series. Not to mention she is the only young prominent society woman of colour we have seen so far.
As for Eloise, the issue comes more down to our interpretation of her rather than anything made explicit onscreen. Eloise is by far the most vibrant Bridgerton sibling in the show. Her subplot of trying to unearth Lady Whistledown was especially funny for those that knew it was her best friend all along and she somehow missed that entirely. While Penelope seems resigned to spinsterhood because others in society think she’s a joke, Eloise’s similar resignation seems much more voluntary.
I personally hate when people automatically assume that any independently-minded woman must automatically be queer just by virtue of her independence. But as Eloise’s plot and character developed on-screen, I got the distinct impression that she is not especially interested in men. Or possibly not in anyone at all. For her to disregard her family and risk her reputation all for the sake of a man would not be in keeping with the way the character has grown and changed on screen.
Fourth Suggestion: Set up the last three books much sooner
The first four books flow into each other relatively well, tied together by the central Lady Whistledown mystery. Even the fifth book has Eloise reeling from the emotional fallout of Penelope marrying Colin when she’d assumed the two would grow into old spinsters together. The final three books in the series, Francesca’s When He Was Wicked, Hyacinth’s It’s In His Kiss and Gregory’s On The Way To The Wedding feel the most disassociated from the rest of the series.
Francesca’s book is set in Scotland, away from the rest of the family, and Gregory and Hyacinth are separated by time, being so much younger than their other siblings. None of these are necessarily bad things, but the three youngest Bridgerton siblings need to be brought into the show and given significant roles much sooner if the audience is to care about them the way they do their older siblings.
And so Dear Reader, whatever can you do as we anticipate our next foray into the London social season? You might read the novels and speculate on where the story is going. Perhaps you might listen to the violin quartet covers of modern pop music tracks on a near-constant loop. As for me, Lady Whistledown, I must bid you adieu until the second season of Bridgerton hits Netflix…or at least until your next rewatch!
Looking to catch up on all the juicy details of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton Collection?