John Clarke writes
Bridgerton. Bridgerton. Bridgerton.
As a family name, it’ll pass. It’s not as convincing as the strong character surnames that we could expect from a series based on actual classical literature.
By this I mean the traditional good-stock names. Earnshaw and Earwicker. Wyckham and Woodhouse. ‘Bridgerton’ is the more crediblein bunch of flowery specimens (Whistledown and Featherington) that sound like they were crafted in a Georgian wet dream.
Then again, maybe the classical literature has been overdone. Perhaps it’s now time to wallow in the second-hand scraps that Jane Austen left behind.
In truth though, who are any of us to fault the series if we ploughed through until the end? And in my case, I didn’t just plough. I “scorched earth policy(d)” my way across those eight episodes. Seizing my chance whenever the much-coveted TV became available over the Christmas season.
Having been reared on stilted period dramas, this show was both comfortable to watch as well as entertaining beyond anything else I’ve seen in the genre. I’m ashamed to say, I couldn’t get enough.
I struggle to believe this series pushed the bar in any capacity besides making nudity even more acceptable. It joins the ranks of Normal People and Game of Thrones in normalising near-pornography on the small screen. However, there was one element to the show that sets it aside from its ‘corset’ cousins.
Bridgerton, unlike other stories, gives us a glimpse of unrequited love that most romantic film and TV refuse to address. This is delivered through the character Penelope Featherington. When we first come across Penelope, she is making her debut in society – unleashed on the various galas and events in the hope of bagging herself a husband.
If we were choosing a horse to bet on in this competitive marital arena, Penelope would not be it. She suffers the brunt of her mother’s outlandish clothing tastes and is overlooked when presented to the queen. Suitors do not appear to be fighting over a spot on her dance card. To put it bluntly, she doesn’t enjoy the same good looks as the series’ heroine Daphne.
It seems Penelope’s hopes for emerging from a season happily married are slim to say the least – but not totally extinguished. Her chances for a happy outcome reside in Colin – the boy next door, and third Bridgerton son, who early on in the series plays the knight in shining armour.
Hereafter, Penelope is evidently lovesick for Colin, but he has most likely friend zoned her as much as a boy can friendzone a girl in the confines of 18th century chaperone-culture. He leaves her forlorn when he quits London to go travelling at the end of the season.
In spite of her misfortune, or rather because of it, Penelope’s place in the vanguard of main characters is a big deal. It is hard to think of many books or films that place the victim of unrequited love at the axis of it all. You may be able to hit back at this statement with an example of one here or there.
But the truth is, losers in love being treated in narratives are the exception and not the norm. If ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is our means of comparison, then the plainest Bennet sister, Mary, is probably our answer to Penelope. She appears only as a marginal character and, because of her lack of male attention, is rendered forgettable girl number one. In this sense, Bridgerton is more progressive than at first glance.
What is more, Bridgerton writer Julia Quinn goes one further than simply allowing the unrequited lover a spotlight in her work. By revealing that Penelope is in fact the anonymous gossip columnist ‘Lady Whistledown’ (spoiler alert), she celebrates this character. This revelation of the story gives agency to the underdog and champions Penelope as someone who need not be vindicated by love or companionship – but one who is able to create herself in a massively limiting environment.
So why is it that we are not satisfied with Penelope’s lonely end to the season?
Surely her double life as the most widely circulated writer of her day is victory enough! Will the viewer not be content until Colin Bridgerton gets the travel bug out of his system, marches back to London and whisks Penelope off her feet?
Is ‘Bridgerton’ simply a period drama edition of Love Island where no-one can win unless they couple up? If so, it appears the marriage-oriented 1800s that the series portrays is not so different to our own couple-centric ideals today.
Whether ‘Bridgerton’ advances the unrequited love story in coming seasons remains to be seen. Either it will go on championing Penelope as an independent individual, thereby supporting the underdog. Or it will bend to public expectation and have her success defined by landing Colin Bridgerton – taking its place as just another period romance (with more ridiculous names of course) which we hate to love.