Life is hard for fans of Regency novels. Jane Austen, whose influence pervades the entire genre and indeed all of romance writing, wrote only six, and despite yearly re-reads, you’re always left wanting more. You discover Georgette Heyer and steadily devour her books, and although she was more prolific than Austen with 32 historical Regency romances, they, too, must give out at some point. Then you start looking for contemporary writers who follow the prototype set largely by Heyer, whose novels, though witty and clever, are after all Austen Lite, and find that there is a whole subgenre of writers who can best be described as Heyer Lite.
Julia Quinn falls squarely in this category. Her books are essentially modern romances that happen to be set during the Regency period of England (when King George III was incapacitated by his madness and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled the kingdom in his stead) and make generous use of tropes and settings largely created by Heyer—the endless balls of the London ‘season’, the opera boxes where members of the haute ton went to show off their new dresses and jewels, the gentlemen’s clubs where games of chance were played for high stakes, and the ‘meetings at dawn’ where high-born men would settle fights and disputes with a bout of illegal duelling using swords or pistols.
Quinn’s novels have all this in spades, but unfortunately none of the biting social satire of Austen nor even the wit and cleverness and compelling characterisation of Heyer’s works. Her heroes and heroines are mostly humourless ‘types’ and they blend into each other. For the true Regency fan, who looks for perfectly plotted books with a large and varied cast of characters, Quinn and the many, many writers like her are mere imitators.
It is surprising then, that when Shonda Rhymes decided to make a Netflix show on Regency romance, she chose Quinn. The set of novels that serve as source material for Bridgerton focus on members of the Bridgerton family, who are all looking for love but are thwarted by various highly unrealistic circumstances. There’s our heroine, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), who falls in love with the dashing Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), who has taken a “vow” not to get married and have children because he had a neglectful father (which would describe around 90% of fathers in that era); her brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who is in love with an opera singer and talks relentlessly of his “duty and responsibility” towards his family who don’t actually seem to be much in need of his help; Eloise (Claudia Jessie), who is intellectual and disaffected, which we know because she sits in a garden and sneaks a smoke; Colin (Luke Newton), who is determined to elope with and marry a girl whom he has barely known a few weeks, and so on. It is all very sentimental and melodramatic; Heyer would scoff.
There are several deus ex machina that move the sluggish and flimsy plot along: the anonymous writer of a scandal-sheet and, bizarrely, the queen of England (Golda Rosheuvel), who takes too personal an interest in the goings on of high society. This bit is pure fantasy.
In its first half, Bridgerton stretches out all the Regency clichés into tediously long episodes without even the leavening of funny dialogue. It does have some good things going—it’s absolutely refreshing to see a mixed-race cast with no heavy-handed explanation of how this came to be; it is bursting with beautiful scenery, beautiful people and gorgeous clothes (not to mention the Queen's outrageous wigs, though confusingly more Marie Antoinette than any actual queen of England); and it is not squeamish about sex, which is something older Regency novels decorously side-stepped.
The show picks up pace midway when the delightful romance and sexual awakening between Daphne and the Duke is finally allowed free reign without all the ridiculous social obstacles that are thrown in their way. Their steamy bodice-ripping sexual chemistry is spectacular enough to satisfy the most hardened romance addict, even though the central conflict that creates the tension in their relationship is absurd in the extreme. If, however, the purpose of romance is to make the reader cheer for the main couple to come together and stay together despite all their (largely made-up) troubles and misunderstandings, Bridgerton succeeds.
And that’s where the lover of Regency needs to set the dial of her expectations: This is not a sparkling and witty comedy of manners, it is Mills and Boon with a dash of Barbara Cartland, and while it will not make us swoon with pleasure, neither does it deserve a haughty snub right at the start of the season. For want of better adaptations, this debutante will have to do.