I have written previously about my concern that history is being misrepresented in popular media, first in Is Racism in Historical Dramas being quietly Erased? and then in Why Race in a Historical Context is Important. The arrival of Bridgerton on Netflix has not put my mind at ease. The television series departs from the novels by Julia Quinn in that it, according to creator Chris Van Dusen, is an alternative history set in a racially integrated London where people of colour are equal members of the British upper class. Colour and race are part of the show, only not in an accurate historical context despite the books seemingly being historical fiction.
It is more a subversion of British history to satisfy a current social agenda, excused by a claim to being just entertainment. This excuse also allows the show to avoid some rather uncomfortable historical facts, such as slavery.
From the 16th century through to 1833, when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in Parliament, Britain was at the forefront of the European slave trade and forcefully transported 2.6 million people from Africa. How is Bridgerton, with its representation of a black Queen of England, going to deal with that truth? The answer is; it does not have to because it claims to be an alternate history, and therefore it can ignore such questions. In doing so it does a disservice to the people who died and suffered as a result of the slave trade. The matter is neatly side-stepped, however.
I have written both historical fiction and alternate history novels. Julia Quinn has admitted that her Bridgerton books have suffered criticism for not being historically correct. When you choose to write a book set in a particular period of history then you, as the author, must accept responsibility for achieving a degree of accuracy in the representation. Readers are very quick to criticise any failings. So they should be. Why should anyone accept sloppy writing after investing money and time in a book?
Alternate history is a little different in that the writer takes a historical period as a starting point and then takes a leap of imagination following the question, ‘what if?’ The fact remains, however, that even in an alternate history, a certain amount of accuracy must be achieved to retain an acceptable degree of both logic and artistic integrity in the story. In Eugenica, I asked the question; what if eugenics had become a part of British social policy in the 1930’s? Historically, despite the expectation otherwise, this did not happen, but in the book it does. Everything else, however, is accurate to the time period in which the story is set, even the treatment of Tom, a blind boy of mixed race.
Bridgerton, the television series, is not asking any such questions. It is titillation only. It is, however, also a misrepresentation of history without any real justification. Like several other dramas before it, it is suggesting that a golden time existed when Britain was a country of racial equality; something that it has never been. Look around you today to see the truth of that statement.
The problem for me with shows like Bridgerton is that despite being so remote from reality people can and do start to believe in what they appear to represent. I once had an argument with someone over whether people ever lived alongside dinosaurs. Being an amateur palaeontologist I insisted that they never had, the other person, citing the film ‘One Million Years B.C.’, insisted that they had! Popular culture can be that seductive if you really want to believe in a fantasy. I think that the people who are making this current crop of socially inaccurate pseudo-historical dramas do not have any interest in facts or even the truth. Perhaps their programmes should come with disclaimers similar to those warning of violence, bad language, and sex, only declaring that the show is not historically accurate.