That Mis-Imagined Era

In Tolstoy’s fictional, but much-based in fact, War and Peace (written in 1869, and set between 1805-1820), having had an affair a major character desperately drinks an abortifacient… and she bleeds to death; and another early on dies shortly after giving birth.

[War and Peace. Photo by me, La Clusaz, France, 2019.]

In straightforward real-life, living in France unmarried English Mary Wollstonecraft had an affair with a similarly unmarried American in the early 1790s… and she ended up pregnant, had their child, and he later abandoned them both.

Also in real-life Jane Austen died at age 41 in England in 1817 quite likely still a virgin: she was never married and had only one recorded romance, which seemed much like those she often described in her novels.

Have I gotten your attention for a Monday morning? I felt those examples were necessary to point out. For now we have this so-called “re-imagining” of that era dropped into our Netflix viewing suggestions:

[From Twitter.]

“Silly” seems an apt description from the LA Times there. Yet I have the impression having watched an episode that Bridgerton is NOT meant as an “Airplane!” version of a Jane Austen novel. It is termed a drama, and is meant to be taken seriously, with words and phrases from the LA Times like “prudish,” “uptight decorum,” and “modern lens” justifying this “re-imagining” of a time and a world that actually existed.

“Re-imagining” Star Trek or Star Wars or Marvel is no big deal. Those are unreal. However, history is another matter.

In the full article, we are also told that:

…based on the romance novels of Julia Quinn, [it] is set in the competitive marriage market of Regency London’s high society…

In British history the Regency period officially is the near-decade King George III was considered incapable of rule because of his “madness,” so his son (the future King George IV) was Prince Regent formally from 1811 until George III’s death in 1820. I have not read those “Bridgerton” novels. I will also admit here I never heard of them until seeing that LA Times piece on this Netflix adaptation; but if the books do indeed portray that Regency world as this Netflix adaptation does, those books are basically, well, fantasy.

Perhaps I am sticking my neck out here, but I feel I must. I am sorry but having watched the first episode, I did not like it. It is a clichéd and frenzied near-panto that reminded me often of a high school stage production that is always moments from turning into a “Saturday Night Live” skit. For an hour, I sat there stunned: I could NOT understand the praise for it. I could not wait for it to end. Another Downton Abbey it is definitely not.

Wikipedia notes of the books’ author:

[She] considers herself a feminist and gives her heroines feminist qualities that are not necessarily true to the attitudes of the times her novels are set in.

So apparently despite abundant evidence to the contrary from Abigail Adams to Catherine the Great to Mary Wollstonecraft to Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun to Jane Austen herself and to so many others staring us in the face if we only READ, they were not “feminists?” Therefore women of that period must be “modernized”… by making stuff up about them; their actual doings we know of are not “heroine”-enough? So we well know then with what we are dealing with here and a Netflix adaptation of that output is likely just to be the same, just lots more so.

Back to the LA Times:

The series naturally moves from stolen kisses in the garden one moment to torrid sex romps in the parlor the next. Bashful glances at the ball live in the same world with orgies at a clandestine gentlemen’s club. Historians and Jane Austen purists may take offense, but this well crafted, escapist drama — where orchestras play covers of Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish hits — is not meant for them.

Also up for reinterpretation are race relations in snobby old England. Black and white leads abound, as do interracial relationships. The rest of society is a blend of every skin tone and ethnicity: neoclassical ringlets and jewel-adorned chignons mingle with powdered Afros and flowing dreadlocks.

I suppose I must be one of those annoying historian busybodies, ruining everyone’s Netflix Regency parlor sex fantasies. So you may be surprised to read the non-racial casting and soundtrack bits are NOT an actual problem. Actors are just people playing roles, so a Black actor can certainly play George Washington – look at the smash hit musical Hamilton. And music is merely mood background and may be modern-written and superimposed on period fiction, much as, say, the 1920s-set BBC’s Peaky Blinders did – and often quite effectively – a few years ago.

Because the series seems reliant on them to drive the story, it is the “torrid sex romps” that constitute the REAL historical problem.

“Bridgerton” may delight most of all in upending the historical realities of women’s repression with a detailed narrative of Daphne’s sexual awakening. Much of its lively, fast-paced story is filtered through her gaze, with longing, conquest, passion, sex, love and loss all hers to explore, enjoy and agonize over. It’s a welcome flip of the script from TV’s traditional period romances.

One of my fundamental rules is to avoid arguing with dead people, but instead to look to understand what they were and why they were as they were – both good and bad. What I asked myself about this “re-imagining” is why was this “re-imagining” deemed worth doing at all? Is it trying to “reinvent” our ancestors into what we actually wish they were: meaning much more like us?

And is that because so many of us are dissatisfied with ourselves, look back at how those people are described in novels like Austen’s, and resent them and their era because secretly we do not like the fact that we have discovered, for example, that sex without commitment and consequences is fundamentally unfulfilling? Or is it that we must believe that all of their supposed “restraint” and “decorum” were just an UNNECESSARY act IMPOSED (mostly by men) on women merely as a way to “repress” those women?

[Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence – an “1870” set tale, written in 1920. Photo by me, 2020.]

Evidently easily overlooked by so many today is THE MAJOR REASON for what we see as the 1700s-1800s excessively “restrained” and “formal” social norms, but it should be obvious to anyone who has read a history book. Austen did not have “Mr. Darcy” and “Miss Bennet” tearing off each other’s clothes and having intercourse on the drawing room sofa at Pemberley because Austen lived in THAT world. And in that world that behavior was not nearly as commonplace as it is in ours because any such casual sexual liaison might well have led to pregnancy, which is WHY such behavior was so socially FROWNED upon THEN.

What Austen could not have known was reliable birth control was in the future; but she and her contemporaries had had to accept the reality we do not need to: that children were unpredictably a product of sex. That is at least partly why real 1700s-1800s families of ten and more children were then not uncommon. Many married women spent most of their “fertile” years (mostly between ages 18-49) childbearing again and again and again and again in a way that is utterly alien to most of us in 2020. Martha Jefferson, for one, married to Thomas from 1772-1782, was pregnant for MOST of their marriage: she had six children in those ten years and a couple of recorded miscarriages. She died at age 33 after a pregnancy and from what little evidence they have historians (those annoying people again) believe she had developed post-natal diabetes for which there was no treatment in 1782. Poorer women died much the same way she did; regardless of how much money you had, before about 1880 there was simply no such thing as medical care as we today understand it.

So I am sorry once again to be the, err, killjoy historian. The social distance kept between men and (especially unmarried) women of childbearing age we read of in those Austen novels and others like Austen’s existed PRE-birth control for the SIMPLE reason that men and women who came together and had sex might well have a child as a result. The women’s “restraint” in particular was therefore neither “prudish” nor “uptight” to them, but was common sense and even a necessity. Today some seem determined to see “repression” in the inescapable fact casual sex did NOT generally exist for a single woman before reliable birth control. Yet if she had a child without a man to assist her, to whom realistically could she turn for help (beyond family which was likely to be rather unhappy at what she had done)? Governments everywhere then provided NOTHING in terms of state support for unemployment, much less for maternity assistance. An attempt at viewing those Austen-like characters through our “modern lens” is, frankly, historically clueless.

[From my Instagram Stories.]

Indeed they were “repressed?” Really? Nonsense. Women were actually more likely to engage in affairs AFTER they married because they knew any child that resulted THEN could have been passed off as her husband’s child. Men knew that about married women, of course, too. Remember there were no DNA tests in those days; the father was assumed to be the man on the birth or baptismal certificate. Hopefully her illicit love interest at least resembled her husband so he did not ask: “My dearest, I cannot believe how dark-haired our daughter is?” (Today if you go back using DNA far enough in your family tree, I can almost guarantee “Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather” is NOT who you think he was.)

Assuming the first episode is a good indicator, Bridgerton did not feel “genuine” to me. It struck me far more as pastiche, and with its writers seeming to be serious but actually parodying and poking fun at its subject matter while getting a sneaky “insider” kick out of wondering how many of those watching will not actually catch that. Much worse (to me) it comes across as punching down at the real women of that era for failing to behave as if it was our 2020: Essentially belittling those women’s mores as “repressed” because they knew a child could result from a “hook-up” in the back bedroom with the handsome rogue soon to leave to join the Duke of Wellington’s division in Spain or the Emperor Napoleon’s staff in Warsaw, and not therefore being all that keen to engage in such (what should honestly be termed) promiscuous sex, is, frankly, lazily futurist and a cheap shot.

Perhaps series creator Shonda Rhimes decided she wanted to take a swipe at Jane Austen for reasons of her own and I will not try here to guess what they might be. Yet doing that through our “modern lens” is merely knocking down low-hanging fruit: it is not difficult to do if we want to. However, it is an effort that falls flat on its face the moment anyone bothers next to consider we know this is 2020 and how we got here, but the likes of Austen, who DIED in 1817, obviously missed out on our last two centuries.

Curiously this seems not to have dawned on the creators of this series either. We have just spent most of 2020 and are entering 2021 keeping our distances from each other because of a spreading deadly virus for which there is no cure. In our efforts to stay “six feet” apart when we feel self-preservation is in order, we are behaving no differently and just as sensibly as those two centuries ago did when they too were faced with no alternative but to stay apart, and at whom its writers seem to be snickering at in their decidedly unserious series here.

To conclude, Wikipedia also says:

Kristen Baldwin of Entertainment Weekly . . . wrote, “Bridgerton, it seems, is a wonderful diversion for those who love Pride & Prejudice but wish it had more stairway sex.”

If you are looking for something truly “sexy” which actually aims to reproduce that era seriously, but still feel Pride and Prejudice is just too “sedate” viewing, there is plenty else out there better than Bridgerton.

Three recent examples jump to mind: 1) the Colombian-produced Netflix-distributed Bolívar (2019, in Spanish, with English subtitles), about the life (and loves, novella 60-episodes style, true; and I have not finished it myself yet) of the South American independence fighter of the early 1800s; 2) Le Bazar de la Charité (The Bonfire of Destiny, in French with English subtitles, or dubbed into English), a French TV and Netflix-distributed 2019 production based initially on a true 1897 (so a bit more recent than “1800”) Paris massive fire and its fictional aftermath seen through the eyes of three women striving to cope with their changed lives; and 3) Ekaterina on Amazon Prime (in mostly Russian, with English subtitles), the Russia TV-produced 2014-2019 series about Czarina Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762-1796 (and who had quite a busy – and REAL – sex life, as did many around her).

Honestly, just about any serious such similar productionWar and Peace (I prefer the 2007 “international” version to the 2016 BBC one), Versailles (which is the 1600s), John Adams, etc. – is probably a far better place to begin if you seek “escapism” in that time. In those and others, note that sex often leads to pregnancy. That is because THAT WAS THE NORM in the pre-1900s, PRE-birth control world.

Just because something is “escapist” does not have to mean it must be ludicrous and fantasist. It may take us away to see norms that we do NOT live and thus cause us to reflect on how we do live (and perhaps on how fortunate we also may be in various ways). If we are going to binge watch, we might as well also actually LEARN a few things here and there too.

Have a good Monday, wherever you are. 🙂

3 thoughts on “That Mis-Imagined Era

  1. Your review alone would have stopped me in my search for the remote, but after reading “orchestras play covers of Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish hits,” I was beyond horrified. No, no, and no. 😱 Whose idea was that? Good grief, at least choose appropriate music! Reminds me of the soundtrack for the 2013 remake of the Great Gatsby. No offense to Jay Z, but “No Church in the Wild” can’t compare to Irving Berlin’s wistfully haunting “What’ll I do.” I can’t imagine covers of Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish hits would work for me. 😁 

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    1. Ha! But it is not for you if you don’t like that music – says that LA Times person. I know I can perhaps “overreact” and smash an eggshell with a sledgehammer, but I did not like the near universal praise of it when nothing I saw linked up with that praise. What I also I detect is a huge PR spend here to TELL US it is great. But I have spent so much time researching in “that time” for nearly 40 years that what I saw REALLY irritated me. It was to me also neither sweet nor insightful; it was too often to me rather a lampooning of the time and people and THAT offended me.

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