There are plenty of reasons to be happy about the stunning success of Netflix’s lavish and rollicking new period drama, Bridgerton. It’s cheered us all up in lockdown. And it’s reminded us of Jane Austen’s genius. For Bridgerton, of course, is loosely based on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Without her it would never have come into being.
Bridgerton is so saucy it would have Austen “reaching for the smelling salts”, said the Daily Mail. For this new drama is so much sexier than anything she could have imagined.
Sorry, but that’s just nonsense. For the idea that Austen is a passionless writer we have to blame, first and foremost, the later 19th century novelist and author of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. Bronte, who was undoubtedly jealous of Austen, famously wrote that “she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her.”
The truth is the opposite. The point, as we’ve explained in The Connell Guide to Pride and Prejudice, is that sex was not a subject that an author in the early 19th century could openly discuss, but in her portrayal of Mr Darcy Austen comes as near to presenting sexual infatuation as she could within the conventions of the time. Go back to the novel and see for yourself. Darcy is utterly obsessed with Elizabeth; it’s there in the witty dialogue between them, in the way he’s always staring at her; in the narrator’s ironic, economical commentary.
Charlotte Bronte’s remark, then, seems almost wilfully perverse. Edward Neill, in The Politics of Jane Austen, gets much nearer to the truth when he calls Pride and Prejudice “almost indecently erotic”.
Bridgerton is huge fun but it’s not Austen and, to be fair, doesn’t pretend to be. But its writers recognise something which Andrew Davies also recognised when he wrote the screenplay for the BBC’s adaptation version of Pride and Prejudice: that the Regency world was full of buttoned-up passion. The famous plunge into the pool by ColinFirth as Darcy is not in the book but the series-makers responded to something that is there, a passion that the character only partially expresses in words.
In a way, then, it was harder for Austen to write about passion – but there were compensations. The writer Ferdinand Mount has shrewdly pointed out that novelists found it easier to write compelling stories when society was more rigid and more formal – when money and class barriers were exceptionally hard to overcome, when everyone had to behave in a restrained and self-sacrificing way. He calls those restraints “romanitas” and asks: “Is it possible that writers actually needed ‘romanitas’ as a great flawed project to grate against, as something that generated tragedies and ironies that were worth dealing with, and that without romanitas life seems to have less to it”?
He’s right. The endless appetite for costume dramas set in the 19th century, like Bridgerton, hinges partly perhaps on the wonderful clothes and sets. But it’s also because most of the truly great novels were written back then, in the world Mount describes.