Nothing about Bridgerton, Netflix’s raunchy answer to Downton Abbey, has attracted quite as much comment as just how much sex is in it.
So while the stunning costumes that the characters rip off each other at every opportunity may be accurate to the last buttonhole, what about the bedroom (and beyond) adventures that have helped it claim the crown of Netflix’s most watched original series ever, with a staggering 82 million households worldwide tuning in?
Isn’t it, after all, set in the demure age of Jane Austen, when sex outside marriage was unthinkable?
Well, when it came to sexual romps, it depended on who you were.
The ruling classes of Regency England might not have been as physically attractive as the lead characters in ‘Bonkerton’ (as one reviewer has dubbed it), but many were just as uninhibited.
I can say this with confidence, having spent much of my academic career researching the literature of this period, and as a historical consultant to the makers of Bridgerton on the social and sexual mores of London in the 19th century.
Nothing about Bridgerton, Netflix’s raunchy answer to Downton Abbey, has attracted quite as much comment as just how much sex is in it
After all, the period in which the drama is set takes its name — ‘Regency’ — from the most hedonistic of British Royals, George, the Prince Regent, who took the place of his mentally-ill father, George III, from 1811 to 1820.
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.
Nor was he the only womaniser in the family. The Prince Regent’s brothers, the Duke of York, the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) and the Duke of Kent (Queen Victoria’s father) were also notable for their extra-marital flings, in stark contrast to their father.
George III was devoted to Queen Charlotte, a German Princess whom he met for the first time on their wedding day. They had 15 children together and, unusually for a British king, he never had a mistress.
But no newspaper reader of the time would have been unaware of the tone set by the younger generation of royals.
The explicit sex scenes of Netflix’s latest hit show are a world away from the pages of Jane Austen’s novel Pride And Prejudice, which was published in 1813, the year the series takes place.
One of the juiciest stories of the day concerned Prince Frederick, Duke of York and commander-in-chief of the army. He sold officer commissions in infantry and cavalry regiments through his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, who took a cut from each transaction.
The truth emerged because, after their affair ended, the Prince stopped Mrs Clarke’s allowance and she took her revenge by making her story public.
This was also an era in which caricaturists, such as Thomas Rowlandson, were riding high and their satirical prints portrayed leading members of the ruling classes with a grotesque gusto unmatched in our own age.
Indeed, ‘Mrs Clarke’ featured regularly, sometimes shown in bed with one respectable (and recognisable) dignitary or another.
She and other leading courtesans were tabloid celebrities of their day. They 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.
In Regency London, the number one courtesan was Harriette Wilson. One of 15 children of a London-based Swiss clockmaker, she was introduced to the world of the kept woman by her older sister Amy. Two other sisters, Sophia and Fanny, were courtesans too, and the four of them would exchange aristocratic clients.
At the age of 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.
There was nothing secret about these relationships: it was a mark of status for such men to be seen with the sexually alluring Harriette, who was also clever and amusing.
A successful courtesan had to be elegant and socially adept. She would attend gatherings where wives were absent — the opera, perhaps, or an evening of card playing.
There were even special balls for men and their courtesan partners.
In her forties, when Harriette found herself short of money after her aristocratic clients reneged on promised pension payments, she decided to cash in by writing a memoir.
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.
Plenty of others did pay up, however. Still, such was the demand for her book that unruly crowds had to be marshalled into a queue outside her publisher’s shop.
In Bridgerton, the closest character we have to Harriette Wilson is Siena, an opera singer and on-off lover of Anthony Bridgerton, the scion of the clan.
For many Regency aristocrats, sexual liberation was a badge of sophistication. The most famous example is the poet and politician Lord Byron.
We know little of the servants he seduced or prostitutes with whom he consorted, but we do know about his affairs with women whose social status protected them from disgrace.
There was his infamous relationship with Lady Caroline Lamb, daughter of an earl and wife of the Honourable William Lamb, heir to a viscountcy, who is said to have described him on their first meeting as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’.
Their liaison became a scandal only after it ended and largely because of their extraordinary behaviour, when Byron insulted her at a ball and she tried to slash her wrists with a broken wine glass.
Byron loved 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 lover was Lady Oxford, 16 years older than him and who had what we would call an ‘open marriage’ with the Earl of Oxford.
All of this is, of course, a world away from the pages of Jane Austen’s novels, although Bridgerton begins in 1813, the year in which her second novel, Pride And Prejudice, was published.
Though we brush against aristocrats in her novels (invariably they are vain and foolish), almost all her main characters belong to the ‘middling’ classes.
The only possible exception is Mr Darcy, the nephew of an earl (and thus needing to have his pride chastened). Everyone else is a gentleman or gentlewoman, living modestly in provincial England.
Three of Austen’s six heroines marry vicars. And among these classes, for whom ‘respectable’ was the most important adjective, sexual propriety was essential.
Yet, at the very edge of Austen’s world, she allows glimpses of sexually permissive social circles.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price, her most demure heroine, discovers with horror that the glamorous brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, attend parties where married women flirt with men who are not their husbands.
Assignations are consummated at their villas in Richmond, while the Crawfords’ uncle openly keeps a mistress (in sinful Twickenham). Fanny then discovers (from a newspaper) that her cousin Maria, who has married for money a man she despises, has been having an affair with Henry Crawford.
Ironically, the Prince Regent, who shared the Crawfords’ permissiveness, loved Austen’s morally conservative novels. After Mansfield Park, he let Austen know that he wanted her to dedicate her next novel to him.
The reluctant novelist — who despised him for his betrayal of his wife, Princess Caroline — was persuaded by her brother and sister that she had to agree.
And so Emma duly carried a dedication to the man who presided over an era of aristocratic sexual romps that would have made Jane Austen blanche, but today have captivated audiences worldwide.
John Mullan is a professor of English literature at University College London and an adviser to Bridgerton, now streaming on Netflix.