Sanditon superfans: this one’s for you!
Which is to say: if you’re really, really into the Regency period as it really was–the clothing, the intricate dances, the subtleties of communication and class distinction, this may leave you a bit cold.
BUT, if you’re here for bright colours, smouldering looks, bare chests and a touch of al-fresco nookie, Merry Christmas from Netflix!
I’m not saying this as a criticism–Lord knows a lot of us could use some escapism right now. Was this my particular cup of tea? Eh, I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. But I can definitely understand the appeal.
So: we have two families, the Featherstons and the Bridgertons, and they both have a squillion daughters (the Bridgertons also have a squillion sons, because apparently the late Lord and his lady were VERY MUCH IN LOVE and super fecund as a result). Most of these offspring are highly interchangable and fade into the background so much I only managed to catch a handful of names, but the important ones seem to be Daphne, Eloise, Anthony, and Colin Bridgerton and Penelope Featherington (and their mothers). Daphne is the eldest Bridgerton daughter and is quite pretty in a delicate, wide-eyed sort of way. She also has a titled family and a huge dowry, so she should be fine. Her sister, Eloise, is a bit of a snarky bitch and, despite being one myself, I mostly just found her annoying. Anthony is the eldest son and has recently inherited the title. We’ll talk more about him later. Colin seems…fine. Penelope seems like a sweet girl who deals with her sisters constantly fat-shaming her. She’s not into the whole social scene, preferring to spend time with her books. She’s friends with Eloise and has a crush on Colin.
The Featherstones also have a cousin from the countryside, Marina, who’s come to stay with them. She’s prettier than the Featherstone girls, and seems less awkward, so she gets a TON of attention from the gentlemen of London despite her extremely small dowry. Which isn’t quite right: a dowry was quite important, especially at these levels of society. A pretty face wasn’t enough for the vast majority of eligible young men.
But into the social whirl these girls must go, because the only thing there is for a girl at this time is to marry. It’s pretty much the central story of EVERY Regency-set novel ever, although if you want something of a variation on the theme, do check out the novels of Maria Edgeworth. I feel I should point out that many women at this time and others managed to live quite full and fulfilling lives without being married (see: the aforementioned Miss Edgeworth, and Jane Austen herself), but it is true that for ladies of a certain class, marriage was the endgame.
Lady F and Lady B take their respective daughters to St James’s Palace (I believe. It may have been Hampton Court) to be presented to Queen Charlotte. There’s a moment of oddness here, because despite the fact that we have no reason to think that Lady F has spent any part of her life outside high society, she apparently forgot to teach her own daughters how to curtsey properly before being presented to the Queen of England, which…no. That’s almost her only job. I’m guessing this was just to highlight how awkward these ladies are, but it was just unnecessarily jarring. We get it. I like escapist TV, I really do, but I hate TV that treats its audience like we’re all morons.
Daphne, on the other hand, is so lovely and naturally graceful that the queen bestows both favour and a kiss. So, it seems like the world will be at her feet.
And it is, for about two minutes. But then in comes Anthony, and boy, is he a piece of work. He has a mistress–an opera singer–whom he apparently drove out to the countryside or something just so he could bonk her up against a tree with his poor footman standing about three feet away looking like he knows he is NOT paid enough for this. Another odd moment. Anthony understands that it’s his job to make sure his sister is steered into a suitable match, but he decides to accomplish this by being incredibly, horrifically, astonishingly rude to everyone he knows and also forcing his sister to leave a ball about ten minutes after she gets there, to leave all the guys wanting more. Talk about mixed messaging.
Within about a day he’s managed to scare off everyone except for this one awful lord who’s basically Mr Collins with a title. Not great. Anthony decides this guy is the only acceptable match for his sister because he’s debt free and wouldn’t beat an animal or woman. High praise indeed.
But onto the scene steps Simon, who has recently become the Duke of Hastings and doesn’t seem to know how shirts work. We know he’s a rebel because he’s all brooding and shows up to everything with a bunch of buttons undone and a sad cravat kind of thing just jammed into his waistcoat. He’s good friends with Anthony and the two of them further bond over their desire to never get married. Simon, it seems, had a bit of a tense relationship with his late father, and there’s some lightly alluded to sad history involving his mother. I’m going to guess she was poorly treated by her husband, ran off with a lover, was disgraced and died, because that’s usually how those sorts of stories go. Because he’s a duke, all the mothers are after him for their daughters, and the daughters are beating a path to his door too. But not Daphne, because as soon as she hears he’s friends with Anthony, she’s like, ‘Oh, ok, so you must be a fuqboi too,’ and wants nothing to do with him. She’s definitely got her brother’s number.
Anthony’s behaviour with Daphne’s suitors draws the attention of Lady Whistledown, who’s literally Regency Gossip Girl here. She produces a daily gossip sheet that the bored rich people of London read religiously every day and which we get to hear via voiceover. Her reporting on Anthony’s jerky behaviour is apparently enough to create a scandal that sullies Daphne’s reputation which is kind of a letdown, if I’m being honest. When I saw the preview, I thought there was going to be an actual scandal, as in, Daphne would actually get involved in something that would call her reputation into question, but this really isn’t it. Anthony’s behaviour would definitely harm her marriage prospects (for this season, at least) but calling it a scandal and her reputation damaged feels like a bit of a stretch.
You know who has a real scandal on her hands? Lady F. Turns out her houseguest hasn’t had a period in more than a month. Now, there are definitely reasons why a young woman, particularly one shoved into a stressful situation at a time when nutrition wasn’t all that great, might have irregular cycles, but Lady F immediately jumps to the conclusion that Marina’s pregnant and she is NOT HAPPY. Which is understandable: having a young woman supposedly under her protection get in the family way would seriously damage the other young ladies of the house (hey, if one’s sleeping around, they all must be!) and could get Lady F in a fair bit of trouble with the girl’s parents.
Lady F confronts the girl, who cries and then starts spewing a lot of hate Lady F’s way, telling her she’s basically too sheltered to understand, but in an insulting enough way that Lady F slaps her. I don’t feel like I’ve had enough of a chance to get to know Marina, who’s maybe had three lines before this scene (maybe) so I don’t feel particularly invested in any of this.
Back to Daphne, whose first social season is fizzling badly. Her concerned mother takes her to the opera one night, where they’re invited to join Lady Danbury in her box. Lady D is by far my favourite character so far, even though she, like pretty much everyone else, is fairly unformed. But she seems cool and takes no shit. I think Simon is staying with her. She and Lady B start talking about maybe setting Daphne and Simon up.
To that end, Lady B invites Simon for a family dinner which Simon seems to really enjoy. Family time! Something he clearly never got to have! But Daphne is pretty chilly towards him.
After dinner, Anthony gets an earful from his frustrated mother, who basically tells him to stop messing around with his sister’s marriage prospects and also get his act together because he has some family obligations too.
So Anthony, being the stand-up guy he is, goes and has sex with his mistress one last time and then brutally dumps her right afterwards. The understandably confused woman stammers that he promised to take care of her and, with increasing distress, asks him what she’s supposed to do now. He coldly tells her to GTFO. Anthony is a dick. I’m starting to hope he gets run over by a carriage so Colin can become the new Lord Bridgerton. Colin’s bland AF but at least seems like a decent guy.
Off to Vauxhall! Because every drama set in London in this period needs to go to Vauxhall at some point! Colin has a cute and sweet moment with Prudence. Anthony informs his sister that she has to marry this awful lord, and Daphne, to her credit, is like, ‘Absolutely never ever will that happen.’
Anthony doesn’t care about her opinion, so she goes to a very dark part of the garden to pace and be upset. The lord finds her there and starts to get a bit threatening, so she punches him in the nose. It’s enough to knock him out, which is laughable (I’m starting to think he’s super inbred and maybe has some kind of fainting problem, because no way could this girl ever punch someone his size hard enough to knock them out).
Simon, walking through the darkened part of the garden brooding, like you do when you’re a brooding duke who broods a lot, witnesses this scene and rightly thinks it’s kind of hilarious. Daphne panics that being in a dark part of the garden with two men might reflect badly on her (yes! See? THIS is a reputation-threatening scandal.) She and Simon bemoan their problems: she has no suitors, and he has too many.
So, Simon proposes the usual solution which, if you stop to think about it, is ludicrous: they’ll pretend to be attached to each other! That way, she’ll be super desirable, which will attract me, whereas he’ll be off the market, which will repel women! Win-win! Except not! Because any woman knows that one of the best ways to get a man to back off when she’s just not interested is to pretend she has a boyfriend. Women don’t wear fake engagement rings when they go out just because they like the bling. It’s because men tend to respect another man’s ‘property’. It’s icky as hell, but sadly works more often than I think most of us like to think.
And why should the women not try to detach Simon, if the men think they can detach Daphne? This is such an old gambit, but one that never really seems to make much sense to me.
But that’s where we’re going here. The pair of them dance a highly anachronistic waltz in front of everyone, and Lady Whisteldown takes notice, so pretty soon EVERYONE will know.
So…thoughts? Look, I’ll be honest: I’m not a fan of Regency romances. I read novels from the period, yes, but not many modern-day novels set in the period. They just aren’t my thing. I do, however, like some of Shonda Rhimes’s work. I watched Grey’s Anatomy for years and saw Scandal through to the end. And I didn’t come to this with extraordinarily high expectations. I knew it was going to be soapy and escapist and that is fine.
And there were certainly things to like! The diverse casting is great–more of that, please! When done right (as I feel it is here), I don’t find it confusing or distracting or in any way taking away from the feel of a story. It’s just the right actors in the right roles.
Costumes: well, there were some certifiably bonkers things going on here. For the most part, the lines were right, although I don’t know what the hell was going on with Lady Featherston. All of her clothes looked like 1890s but filtered through the mid-1980s. I mean, she basically has a marabou feather robe. But I really liked Daphne’s presentation gown, and Queen Charlotte and her ladies’ OTT 18th century court gowns were fantastic. They’re also somewhat accurate: this was required court dress at the English royal court looooong after these gowns went out of fashion. It’s also a rather cheeky way of indicating how out of touch and separated from even upper-class reality the monarchy is. See? Subtlety! It can be done!
And there’s certainly something to be said for a bit of escapism. This is definitely a nice break from the grittiness, gore, and gloom that seems to be so pervasive in television series now. I like a bit of light, and there’s plenty of it here.
But I think what left me feeling a little flat was that there was no zip. The characters were not particularly interesting to me. The dialogue was flat and uninteresting. What I loved about Grey’s and Scandal was that they focussed a lot on strong, whip-smart, capable women. Those women (and the other characters around them) were flawed. They had their good points and bad points, just like real people. I could connect with them. I could root for them, even as I rolled my eyes at some of the things they did. I’m having trouble connecting with any of these people. Maybe because the whole thing seems so unreal, it’s kind of hard for me to get stuck in. It all just feels so divorced from any sort of reality, it’s hard to connect. And I long for some witty dialogue. Where’s my witty Shondaland dialogue?
It’s hard to say how much of this can be laid at the feet of the author of the novels this is based on, but you’d think they’d have jazzed it up a bit, in the adaptation? I don’t know, maybe it’ll get better as it goes on. We’ve got a few more episodes for this to unfold. We’ll just have to see.