The opening of “The Courtship,” USA Network’s newest foray into the canon of high-concept reality dating shows, ends with a cheekily revised quote from a beloved author: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in search of a husband must go to Regency-era England and live in a castle with sixteen eligible suitors. –Jane Austen, probably,” the words on the screen read. The “probably” appears a moment later, as a glib afterthought.
In “The Courtship,” Nicole Rémy, a Black cheerleader–turned–software engineer from Seattle, seeks love in a format best described as “The Bachelorette” meets casual Regency cosplay. The show frequently references Austen and the time period she chronicled: the turn of the 19th century. The author lived and wrote during the reign of George III (1760 to 1820), also known as the Georgian Period. Her novels were published during the Regency, an 1811 to 1820 window in which George, Prince of Wales, ruled as regent in lieu of his father, whom Parliament had deemed mentally unfit to rule.
“The Courtship” takes its cue from the Regency period—“the most romantic era of history,” as the host informs the audience in a crisp British accent. Another spun-sugar springtime television release clearly shares the belief: season two of “Bridgerton,” Netflix’s pastel-hued, racy adaptation of contemporary author Julia Quinn’s romance novels. The Regency-set series broke Netflix viewership records and made representational strides by imagining protagonists of color as British royalty and aristocrats. Similarly, the second season of “Sanditon,” a lower-profile import from the United Kingdom that uses Austen’s unfinished novel of the same name as a point of departure, features the writer’s only prominent Black character, an heiress from the West Indies. The season premiered March 20 on Masterpiece PBS.
All three series revel in the trappings audiences associate with Austen novels: soirees where eligible singles swan about, horse-drawn carriages, the watchful eyes of rivals and family on a couple as they twirl around a ballroom, conversations over tea, ample opportunities for dramatic speeches about undying love. On “The Courtship,” where everyone is formally referred to by title and last name, would-be-husbands write “Miss Rémy” handwritten letters, and episodes end with choreographed dances that double as dismissal ceremonies. (“Farewell. Your carriage awaits,” Rémy proclaims to spurned men dressed like they’re Cinderella’s footmen.) “Bridgerton” and “The Courtship” even share a set; the same estate that serves as the site of a long montage of Daphne Bridgerton and her new husband, the Duke of Hastings, in, ahem, marital bliss, is the location where Rémy’s suitors woo her.
The appetite for the Regency is such that Netflix is even selling tickets to an event called the Queen’s Ball. Held in four North American cities, the experience promises to transport dressed-up attendees to 1813. They can curtsy to a bewigged actress portraying the queen, watch choreographed performances set to string covers of pop hits, sip champagne, see costumes from the show, pose for a "portrait," and buy tiaras, teacups or other "Bridgerton"-branded souvenirs. The streaming giant has also ordered a spinoff series about the life of Queen Charlotte, whom “Bridgerton” presents as England’s first Black royal (a creative choice with some basis in history) and the catalyst for the show’s integrated aristocracy.
Austen adaptations are nothing new. But why are the novelist and this particular era of history so synonymous with romance in contemporary pop culture? And what sets the current crop of Austen-influenced shows apart from their predecessors? Read on to learn what Amanda-Rae Prescott, a Black journalist who covers period dramas and advocates for the inclusion of people of color in “Austen and Regency spaces,” and Juliette Wells, an expert on English literature at Goucher College and the author of Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination, each have to say about the enduring appeal of the Regency. Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Smithsonian magazine: Where do series like “The Courtship” and “Bridgerton” fit in with other Regency-era period dramas?
Prescott: Every decade or so, there’s an Austen or Austen-inspired adaptation that grabs the public’s attention. What makes this era different is that we have streaming services bringing period dramas into people’s screens in a way that PBS and others haven’t done before. The productions are also taking a different approach. Where before it was, “Well, we’re going to adapt Austen again,” people have now decided to adapt more modern romance novels that are inspired by Regency culture and history and not necessarily depicting the exact novel that was written at the time. People are adding their own fantasy interpretations to the era, and that is appealing to people in a way that the previous ones haven’t.
This isn’t to say that Austen was ever unpopular. But sometimes people have a preconceived notion of Austen. Her novels are old. Especially if you’re talking about people of color or other marginalized groups, it’s like, “Well, Austen was only writing for white people. Why should I care about Austen?” When people see themselves on screen in shows like “Bridgerton,” they’re like, “Well, okay, now I can believe that I could totally be a part of this because I see myself reflected on screen.”
Part of the reason why Regency-era television and streaming is so popular is that it’s an era where people have a lot of ideas about how romance was back then—not all of them historically accurate. Mr. Darcy, communicating in letters … that notion of old-fashioned romance is an enduring one, for better or worse.
“The Courtship” directly equates Austen’s work with sweeping romance. (The looking-for-love lead actually says, “We’re in a Jane Austen movie; we’re in a fairytale.”) How did we get from Austen’s novels to the pop culture view that both Austen and the Georgian period in which her novels are set are shorthand for “epic romance”?
Wells: Women’s lives during the Regency were terribly far from being “romantic” in that sense. Even if you didn’t have to worry about money—as most women did—your life was greatly restricted by what was considered “proper” to do. For example, an unmarried gentlewoman, regardless of her age, wasn’t supposed to travel unless escorted by a relation or chaperone. For a woman, having artistic ambition was frowned on. Even writing novels for publication was considered questionable. Austen was the daughter of a clergyman who didn’t own property of his own and left only a small legacy to his wife and unmarried daughters. So she knew firsthand what it was like to live on very little and to be dependent on the kindness of family members.
How did we get here? Through pop culture, in ever-increasing circles from Austen’s actual novels. Before the 1990s, few adaptations of Austen’s novels had much broad or lasting influence, except the 1940 feature film Pride and Prejudice, which gave a huge international boost to Austen’s fame and readership. The prime mover behind Austen’s turn-of-the-millennium popularity was the 1995 BBC/A&E “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries. Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy launched countless further adaptations, beginning with Bridget Jones’s Diary, plus sequels of all kinds. Joe Wright’s 2005 feature film Pride & Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley, appealed to the next generation. Today’s young people love Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. film, from 2020. Plenty of people who happily call themselves Austen fans have never read one of her novels. What they love are television and film adaptations, which really foreground the love stories and leave out a lot of the substance that readers get to appreciate.
And then, of course, during the pandemic, 80-some million people around the globe watched "Bridgerton," a fantasy without any substantial connections to Austen at all, in spite of being set in 1813, the year Pride and Prejudice was published.
Would you say there’s truly been a recent boom in interest in this time period, or has the interest always been there?
Prescott: The interest has always been there. … The difference this time around is that it’s not just interest in Austen herself. [These series are] inspired by her, and are also beyond, even in some cases, contrary to, what she made Regency out to be. The difference is either the overt or covert realization that historical narratives have to now include people of color in some way, shape or form. What distinguishes this new crop of interest is people of color saying that we have a right to imagine ourselves in the fancy ballgown, in these grand spaces as well, and that we know that not everybody was a slave or servant. We know that from history. We also realize that the wealth generated for all these people was from slavery or colonialism.
What keeps people intrigued by Austen?
Wells: Austen has the magical ability to interest a lot of different readers for different reasons. Her novels have humor, yet also real moral seriousness. Her characters are marvelously recognizable to readers around the world in spite of having been created more than 200 years ago by an Englishwoman. Her writing style is wonderful in being complex yet clear.
Her life offers inspiration in many senses, too. She persevered as an author in spite of receiving little encouragement outside her enthusiastic family for many years. She chose not to marry, a decision that seems very modern to us.
In the context of past period dramas, how is the representation of people of color in “Bridgerton” and “The Courtship” significant?
Prescott: Austen and Regency-era period dramas are not the only places where the past decade or so of social justice movements have increased representation in Hollywood and the U.K. film industry. ... Those movements have been going on for years and years. Any conversation about this has to go back to Hamilton and theater. Hamilton popularized specifically taking a biography and casting real historical figures as people of color in a way that, especially in film and TV, we hadn’t seen that done before.
In period drama, people want to at least pretend they’re seeing history on screen, even if it’s impossible to create a historically accurate period drama, because nobody had electricity back then. No one’s going to not brush their teeth for five days straight. … So in Hamilton onstage and of course when it moved to Disney+, people for the first time saw pictures of people of color playing these traditionally white characters, and it hit the public consciousness in a way that previous U.K. period drama productions weren’t able to.
Alongside Hamilton, there were calls in the U.K. industry for more representation and more actors and other creatives to have more opportunities, because in the past there’s a reason why a lot of Black British actors moved to America for roles. These period dramas were not casting people of color. And when they were, it was as slaves and servants only.
Past period dramas were very white, and it wasn’t just in terms of casting. They were ignoring historical narratives that were contrary to that [perspective]. In every era of British history, there was a presence of people of color in various forms. And all that history was whitewashed and swept aside. It’s only now, in recent years, that people are rediscovering and reclaiming their lost past. And it could be by depicting real people, or it could be through alternate history–fiction like “Bridgerton.”
You can’t dismiss how recent social activism has fed into the industry on both sides of the Atlantic. I think if “Bridgerton” [had been] adapted for television on cable like a decade before, it every character would've been white, with maybe one side character of color. Now close to half the cast are people of color. We have season two with the Sharma sisters. Representation of people from South and Southeast Asia is, given their population and how long the history is, it’s even worse than the lack of Black representation. Like every time India is brought up in a period drama, it is always the Raj, the British Empire and how they’re inferior to the British in some way, shape or form. And it is only very, very recently that any period dramas have attempted to change that narrative.
What’s your perspective on “Bridgerton” and “The Courtship” as Austen homages with major 21st-century touches?
Wells: I think it’s a considerable stretch to see either “Bridgerton” or “The Courtship” as Austen homages, since I don’t think a lot of thought about Austen went into either show. I don’t mean that as a criticism.
I’m really looking forward to seeing Joel Kim Booster’s film Fire Island, which is coming out in June. [The comedian has described it as “Pride and Prejudice set on Fire Island,” a resort town east of New York City that’s a beach destination for the gay community.] Booster is a self-proclaimed Austen fan who wanted to make a joyful film about queer Asian American men. I know I’m biased, but I do think there’s no better source of joy than Pride and Prejudice. And there’s definitely no better way to introduce your own culture to a wide global audience than by mapping that culture onto P&P.
Prescott: Although I love period drama, I actually welcome modernization because that’s how the genre stays relevant. Many of the reasons why people love [period dramas are] actually because of the mirror they hold up to history. Yes, it’s the fashion and the furniture, but a lot of the writing is often inflecting modern sentiments of how we view relationships. It’s thinking about the past in a way that doesn’t dismiss the horrors of slavery and colonialism.
I’m against the traditional, historical mindset of “it has to be what was written in books,” because for me, especially, the books are written by white people. So why are we taking their word for what happened and not going back to find the other perspectives that have been ignored over the years? What makes these productions more interesting is that they’re using modern styling. “Bridgerton” has all the top pop music covers in an orchestral style, which I actually think was fun. … Sometimes historical recreation or just being obsessed with it to the point of having no creativity just does not make a more interesting production, either visually or audibly.
What Austen book/adaption (for Wells) or period drama (for Prescott) would you suggest fans of “Bridgerton” or “The Courtship” dive into first?
Wells: Definitely Pride and Prejudice. It’s Austen’s wittiest novel, and chances are, you already know who’s who and what happens. From there you can go on to Emma or Persuasion—for those, I recommend the “reader-friendly” editions that I prepared for Penguin Classics, which give you just what you need and nothing you don’t.
Prescott: The “Vanity Fair” miniseries from 2018 with Olivia Cooke. Shondaland also worked on an inspired-by piece before “Bridgerton.” It’s called “Still Star-Crossed.” For folks who appreciate “Bridgerton” and its use of characters of color in a normally white context, that would definitely appeal to them. I recommend “Sanditon” if people haven’t seen it yet, as well. And Austenland and “Lost in Austen” because they play with that modernization.