Why the raunchy world of Bridgerton is more accurate than you might think
Bridgerton has proved a smash hit of staggering proportions, streamed by 82 million households within its first month, so becoming Netflix’s most successful series ever. Viewers clearly couldn’t get enough of its gripping plot, lavish aesthetic and refreshingly diverse cast – not to mention the abundance of spectacularly steamy sex scenes (for which it’s even earned the nickname, ‘Bonkerton’).
Yet thanks to the likes of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (published in 1813, the year the first series of Bridgerton takes place), the early 19th century is today more commonly associated with tight-laced morality and demure romance, an age in which sex was strictly consigned to marriage. The reality, however, was more complicated. As with many social mores at the time, quite what someone’s sex life might look like was heavily dependent on what strata of society they were part of.
Writing in the Daily Mail, academic John Mullan (a professor of English literature at University College London, who acted as historical consultant on Bridgerton) sheds some light on the secretive and shadowy subject. He notes that the Prince Regent himself (later King George IV), from who the period got its name, was certainly a fitting embodiment of the Bridgerton world conveyed in the show – although in the first series it’s only his mother, Queen Charlotte, and father, King George III, who appear on screen.
Serving as a stand-in ruler from 1811 to 1820 due to his father’s mental illness, the Prince had somewhat licentious tendencies. Professor Mullan writes: ‘He was a flamboyant, if corpulent, individual with a string of mistresses, including the actress Mary Robinson, and married women such as the Marchioness of Hertford and the Marchioness Conyngham, both of whom were blessed with compliant husbands.’ The Prince Regent’s brothers, the Duke of York, the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) and the Duke of Kent (Queen Victoria’s father) were also known womanisers, ‘notable for their extra-marital flings’.
This marked an abrupt departure from the standard set by their father, King George III, who Mullan notes ‘was devoted to Queen Charlotte… and, unusually for a British king, he never had a mistress.’ At an age in which new forms of publicly distributed press, such as Lady Whistledown’s letters in Bridgerton, were on the rise, Mullan explains that ‘no newspaper reader of the time would have been unaware of the tone set by the younger generation of royals.’
He recounts one of the major high society scandals of the day surrounding the Prince Regent’s brother, Prince Frederick, the Duke of York. While serving as commander-in-chief of the army, the royal ‘sold officer commissions in infantry and cavalry regiments through his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, who took a cut from each transaction.’ The scheme came to light after the end of their affair, when ‘the Prince stopped Mrs Clarke’s allowance and she took her revenge by making her story public.’
Indeed ‘Mrs Clarke’ was a renowned high society courtesan who frequently featured in caricatures by artists like Thomas Rowlandson, whose ‘satirical prints portrayed leading members of the ruling classes with a grotesque gusto unmatched in our own age.’ Something of ‘tabloid celebrities’, these women ‘would attach themselves to one man at a time and he, in return for sexual favours, “protected” her – that is, gave her an income, a pleasant place to live and possibly a promise of a pension.’
Perhaps the ‘number one courtesan’ of the day, says Mullan, was Harriette Wilson. The daughter of a Swiss clockmaker in London, among her 14 siblings three of her sisters were also renowned courtesans – ‘and the four of them would exchange aristocratic clients.’ At just 15, Harriette ‘became the mistress of the Earl of Craven and a succession of titled or powerful men followed, including Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.’
Mullan notes that there ‘was nothing secret about these relationships’ and it was even ‘a mark of status for such men to be seen with the sexually alluring Harriette, who was also clever and amusing.’ The most accomplished courtesans were ‘elegant and socially adept’, and so widely socially accepted that they might ‘attend gatherings where wives were absent’, such as ‘the opera… an evening of card playing’, or ‘special balls for men and their courtesan partners.’
The resourceful Harriette even found a solution ‘after her aristocratic clients reneged on promised pension payments’, when ‘she decided to cash in by writing a memoir.’ Mullan explains: ‘If former lovers wanted to keep their names out of the book, her standard fee was £200 (the equivalent of £15-20,000 now). Wellington’s famous riposte – “Publish and be damned!” – was in response to Harriette’s threat to publish his name and quote from his letters to her.’ A number of others did pay the anonymity fee, yet the book still proved a huge success. So much so, in fact, that ‘unruly crowds had to be marshalled into a queue outside her publisher’s shop’; not unlike the excitement that greets each new edition of Lady Whistledown’s letters in Bridgerton.
The resemblance between Harriette and Siena, the beautiful, clever and ambitious opera singer in the series, is also striking. After much will-they, won’t-they drama, Anthony Bridgerton’s lover ultimately moves on to her next socially advantageous attachment. Yet while Anthony’s mother sanctions him about behaving decorously as the eldest son of an eminent family, Mullan notes: ‘For many Regency aristocrats, sexual liberation was a badge of sophistication.’
Lord Byron, for example, is known to have had relationships ‘with women whose social status protected them from disgrace.’ Chief among them was Lady Caroline Lamb, ‘daughter of an earl and wife of the Honourable William Lamb, heir to a viscountcy,’ – famously said to have dubbed Byron, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. The affair only escalated to the level of a public scandal due to the drama that ensued once the relationship broke down, ‘when Byron insulted her at a ball and she tried to slash her wrists with a broken wine glass.’ Byron also had relationships with ‘worldly’ aristocratic women like his mentor, Lady Melbourne, ‘who had had youthful affairs with the Prince of Wales, Lord Egremont and the Duke of Bedford, yet retained her place as a doyenne of high society’. Another of his lovers was Lady Oxford, a woman 16 years his senior who effectively had what might today be dubbed an ‘open marriage’ with her husband, the Earl of Oxford.
The distinguishing factor between this and the more regimented world of Jane Austen’s books is, says Mullon, that though ‘we brush against aristocrats in her novels (invariably they are vain and foolish), almost all her main characters belong to the ‘middling’ classes.’ Other than the likes of Mr Darcy (the nephew of an earl), ‘Everyone else is a gentleman or gentlewoman, living modestly in provincial England.’ Indeed ‘Three of Austen’s six heroines marry vicars’, operating in a social strata in which respectability and ‘sexual propriety was essential.’ It is only ‘at the very edge of Austen’s world’ that ‘she allows glimpses of sexually permissive social circles.’
Somewhat surprisingly, notes Mullon, the Prince Regent ‘loved Austen’s morally conservative novels’. Following the publication of Mansfield Park, ‘he let Austen know that he wanted her to dedicate her next novel to him.’ Austen, however, was not a fan of the Prince. She’s said to have ‘despised him for his betrayal of his wife, Princess Caroline’, and it was only on the persuasion of her brother and sister that she agreed to the royal’s request (a dedication to the Prince Regent appears at the beginning of Emma).
And so, Mullan concludes, the ‘aristocratic sexual romps’ that have thrilled Bridgerton’s global audience are not such a stretch after all. Although they would, perhaps, ‘have made Jane Austen blanche’.
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