Reader: I yelled. “An Affair of Honor” finally, conclusively demonstrates the extent to which Bridgerton is speculative historical romance. We learn from Lady Danbury that the inclusive world of Bridgerton is not merely a result of color-conscious casting by the show’s creators, but due to an alternate history that happened because King George III fell in love with Queen Charlotte and elevated other people of color — most visibly Black subjects of the crown — to the aristocracy. The idea that it’s love that changes the course of social and cultural relations in a historical romance? Perfection. It kills me that this was kept from us until halfway through episode four. I’d have liked to have this reveal dropped earlier or teased more heavily because it’s such a brilliant way to use love, the bedrock of the story and entire genre, to imagine a more inclusive past that draws on what historians know about Queen Charlotte’s Black ancestry.
Bridgerton steps right around hand-wringing over what’s perceived as strict historical accuracy and reimagines Regency England as an inclusive society at all levels while modeling some characters such as Queen Charlotte and Will Mondrich (based on Bill Richmond) after historical people of color. When show creators, historical advisors such as Bridgerton’s David Olusoga (author of books like Black and British: A Forgotten History), movie directors, and authors restore people of color to imagined all-white spaces like Regency England, they’re frequently questioned and forced to supply a stack of sources from a suspiciously banged-up box of available evidence.
The truth is that there were people of color in 1813 England, and even if they were of high status, the intervening 200 years offered myriad opportunities for obscuring and erasing their presence. I studied a Black Duke, Alessandro de’ Medici of Florence, who ruled in the 16th century. In the course of completing my doctorate on how later Florentines shaped the historical memory of Duke Alessandro, I learned that chronicles were edited to change his title from “duke” to “tyrant,” a priceless letter from his mother disappeared from the archive, and his daughter was painted out of a portrait. At no point did the people erasing Alessandro and his family from the record have to explain their motivations, but Duke Alessandro’s family was defamed and erased all the same.
Bridgerton doesn’t merely reproduce the white Regency alternate universe with actors of color cast in key roles. It’s a new version of the AU that has a specific history of race influenced by love. The show makes an important contribution to the historical romance genre, and I hope we learn all about this world as the season goes on.
At the start of the episode that leads to the Bridgerton season one midpoint, Daphne and Violet walk through a palace hallway, where people gossip about them favorably due to Prince Friedrich’s interest in Daphne. Someone calls Daphne a commoner, which threw me, but it’s correct since she’s the daughter of a Viscount and not herself a peer. Queen Charlotte enters wearing the most glorious dreadlock updo wig topped with a crown. I’d be remiss not to point out the collection of dreads trailing over her shoulder, bound by what is no doubt a solid gold cuff, reminiscent of the styles worn by many 19th-century beauties for their Wikipedia page profile portraits. Perfection, and the best way to demonstrate the world of Bridgerton in one image.
It turns out that the invitation came from Prince Friedrich, and he rewards Daphne for coming across town despite the traffic with a piece from the Claire’s 1813 prom collection. As Friedrich puts the necklace on, Daphne fantasizes that it’s Simon touching her neck and nearly requires some smelling salts in front of the whole court. Now this is hot, phew. Friedrich picks up on the fact that she’s having a moment, but interprets it as not feeling well, which doesn’t bode well for their marriage bed. Queen Charlotte speaks about Daphne’s elevation to princess as if it’s a done deal, so the pressure is ON in this episode.
Lady Whistledown is back to crow about Daphne leaping from duchess-to-be to princess, but Daphne herself confirms to Hyacinth that she’s not engaged yet. As Whistledown predicts Simon won’t back down from a fight for Daphne’s hand, he’s at the boxing saloon. Will Mondrich and his wife Alice walk in to remind Simon that he needs to assist with the health of their household finances by showing his face at the match so his fancy friends bet on Will. I’m distracted by the fact that if that’s truly how boxing purses worked, Will needs to join Siena at the solicitor’s office to draw up a better contract.
At the Featherington house, an elderly white man with aggressive side whiskers appraises Marina Thompson. He soon asks her to smile so he can see her teeth. Marina and I have the same response to the request: WTF. Like Prince Friedrich’s Black Cross in episode three, this moment is historically correct: there was a fascination with teeth — particularly the number of teeth remaining — that we just don’t quite have in the age of more widely available dentures and dental implants. What set off all the alarm bells for me was the image of a young Black woman being evaluated, and particularly her teeth being checked, by a white man who is appraising her. Tooth-checking was a real thing enslavers did, so this scene read to me as a rare example of racism in the world of Bridgerton.
I spent the rest of the episode on high alert for signs that there’s a sort of Get Out situation and the inclusive streets, routs, and palace halls are hiding something far more nefarious. I think it’s related to the fact that there have been hints that the inclusive Regency alternate universe has some logic governing it that we don’t know yet, but the logic hasn’t been spelled out for us. If that’s the show’s intention: it’s working, I’m stressed.
Lady Featherington reasons that Lord Rutledge is the only suitable choice for a husband because he won’t care when Marina’s full-term baby arrives in just six months. In Regency England, paternity was legally ascribed to a woman’s husband — even if there was no possible way he could have sired the baby. Being born within marriage offered children enormous social and legal advantages, which is part of why Lady Featherington is cooking up all these half-baked plots to solve Marina’s problem. A baby biologically fathered by one man, but legally recognized as the child of another, was not uncommon. In the days before Maury and widely available paternity tests, the guess is that about 10 percent of babies were not the biological child of their legally recognized father — but it’s total guesswork. Some men like Lord Rutledge used the presumption of legitimacy to knowingly acquire heirs they did not personally father. Keep in mind that when you fire up the Ancestry dot com DNA report, you may be uncovering a genetic map that does not match the lived experience of your ancestors.
Lord Featherington isn’t letting Portia send Marina back to her father in the country, which isn’t doing good things for my already cranked-up stress level. What is he up to? Why has he been looking over his paper at her? Marina has shown herself capable of handling every obstacle, but as a woman with iffy protection from her male kin, she’s in a tough position. Suddenly in a good position is Philippa, who finally has a gentleman caller.
Eloise compares her bird-like life to that of Lady Whistledown while walking through the open-air market with Penelope. In Eloise’s fanfic, Whistledown is a brilliant and independent woman of business, not a wallflower, and she decides they must suss out her identity and meet her to share secrets.
Anthony escorts Daphne to the boxing match, where she meets up with Prince Friedrich. Friedrich is perfectly amiable and keeps gently demolishing the reasons Daphne could reasonably decline an offer from him, but she spends the match watching Simon roll up his sleeves, thereby discovering that she has a forearm kink.
After Will wins the match, Lord Featherington is asking men at his club for more time to pay the bets he’s guaranteed. Yikes. Nearby, Henry Granville needles Benedict, asking where his work can be found since he’s such a sharp critic. Listen show, if you want to duel with critics, name your second! Granville invites Benedict to swing by his studio to see his real work, which is an invitation if I’ve ever heard one.
Emo Simon, who is leaving town tonight, has a conversation with Anthony and it’s clear they’re friends again. Since this men’s club is the only one in town, Prince Friedrich walks up to request a word with Anthony so Simon can drink and brood more deeply while glaring at them.
Back at the Bridgerton house, Anthony shares news that Friedrich asked for permission to propose. Daphne is tongue-tied at the prospect of having to decide whether to accept. Her look of dismay carries over into the evening, where she spills the details of her fake courtship with Simon to her mother.
Lady Danbury rides Simon about taking off yet again, cementing her position as the best character in Bridgerton. Knowing Simon is walking away from love with Daphne, she delivers the most important speech of this season:
“I understand that you believe such subjects as love and devotion, affection and attachment, you find it all trite and frivolous. But have you any idea those very things are precisely what have allowed a new day to begin to dawn in this society? Look at our queen. Look at our king. Look at their marriage. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, your grace…conquers all.”
The best part? Simon points out the limitations of that social and political change right back to Lady Danbury:
“The king may have chosen his queen. He may have elevated us from novelties in their eyes to now dukes and royalty, and at that same whim…he may just as easily change his mind, a mind, as we all know, that is hanging on by one very loose and tenuous thread.”
Simon’s wariness and aversion to carrying on the new dynasty is so understandable given the hurt he feels due to his father and his sense that everything that’s his rests on recent social changes instituted by a white King who has been deemed mad. This is a creative use of the history and avoids the problem of interracial love instantly solving all problems. I hope this plotline features heavily in the back half of this season.
At a ball that will surely launch Shostakovich’s Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2 into a thousand Spotify playlists, Lady Whistledown foreshadows that the occasion presents a prime opportunity for a young lady’s ruin. Marina heads off reluctantly with Lord Rutledge and Philippa more happily with cheese-loving Mr. Finch, but Lord Featherington remarks that he doubts there will be any Featherington weddings this year. Huh.
Daphne’s got a Lara from Doctor Zhivago bow in her hair, which reminds me: Is nobody in Bridgerton worried about Daph becoming royalty a mere 24 years after the start of the French Revolution, which led to the execution of their royal family and a fair share of the aristocracy? Given that Wellington’s adversary in Spain is not named, who knows if Napoleon even rose to power in this alternate universe. I can’t say that I quite love the idea of an AU where the monarchy solves the problem (racism) more democratic forms of government haven’t been able to crack; it’s like Voltaire’s monarchist enemies turning the mirror on us. That said, it’s an earned L. It doesn’t bode well for society when the great unsolvable problem is only conceivably resolved by the monarchy in a fairy tale (for a kdrama example, check out The King 2 Hearts, about the reunification of North and South Korea through an arranged royal marriage).
At Hastings house, Simon sees the painting that he and Daphne bonded over at Somerset House and has a moment. Across town, Benedict ends up at Sir Granville’s studio for a paint and sip complete with some DSA bohemians and a different sort of cigarette than Eloise smokes.
In a servant’s room at Bridgerton house, Eloise gets caught hunting for evidence of Lady Whistledown. It’s a laughable idea to lady’s maid Mrs. Wilson, since servants have to do so much work — work that they’d never do if they had Whistledown money.
Prince Friedrich unwisely starts to propose during a dance that involves changing partners. Daphne thinks she sees Simon in the ballroom and requests a moment. She races outside and rips off the Prince’s necklace, which is no doubt causing a skin reaction due to being made of cubic zirconia and horcrux. Simon calls to her — he really is there — and says he’s come to say goodbye. Daphne is like “whatever” and they clash until she runs into the garden to facilitate a lusty makeout among some hedges that Anthony breaks up with punches and threats that Simon must marry Daphne immediately.
Refusing to marry Daphne, Simon accepts Anthony’s duel calendar request and they’re to meet at dawn. I thought my early dating track record was pathetic, but it wasn’t “would rather die than marry me” bad, so at least there’s that? Anthony hustles Daphne out of the garden for the sake of her reputation, but I’m not sure that a duel is exactly low key? Aristocrats didn’t typically set the alarm at dawn for funsies and the ton, as the show reminds us constantly, talks. Before Daphne takes off for the night, Cressida asks if she caught a chill in the garden because of course the most jealous debutante would happen upon our sad couple.
Over at a set borrowed from La bohème, Benedict is enjoying sketching some models who have had their tits out for hours now (I hope they’re getting overtime). Granville makes a nice Assassin’s Creed–style speech about no rules etc etc, which in historical romance usually signals not so much fighting Templars, but a whole lot of orgies. The pair end up having a good conversation and I wonder: Could Sir Granville be a love interest for Benedict? That statement hair suggests he’s not just a throwaway character.
At the Featherington house, Lady F searches through the Lord’s papers for evidence of what he’s up to while Marina tells Penelope that Colin Bridgerton is the perfect suitor for her situation. Penelope, who has been sighing over Colin all season from the edges of the ballroom, is distraught. Eloise shows up on Penelope’s doorstep at the wrong time to theorize about Lady Whistledown’s identity, and Pen blows up about her mature woman problems that make this hunt for a silly writer look trivial.
Daphne chafes at the patriarchy determining that her honor as well as the family’s have been compromised despite the fact that she was an active participant in the garden body party. Benedict rolls in just in time to dust off the family firearms and do some estate planning with Anthony in the event he has to take over as the head of the family. If Anthony dies or departs, Benedict’s newly discovered side life as a hipster selling prints at the Flea will be heaped in the trash alongside his sketches.
Will discovers Simon raiding his brandy stash at the boxing saloon, and Will insists on serving as his second. Anthony knows the time might be running out on his life, so he decides to seize the romantic moment and offers Siena a life away from London society if he manages to survive the duel. They start ripping each other’s clothes off and deliver a sexy door slam for the trailer editor.
Portia Featherington confronts her husband and drops the bomb that she knows he’s spent everything they have, including the girls’ dowries. The scene is a Polly Walker highlight reel because she goes from furious to confused as Lord Featherington breaks down on her shoulder. The man who has potentially condemned the whole family to social death cries into her brocade.
As the men race toward the dueling ground, Daphne remembers that Cressida saw the lusty scene in the garden, and her reputation will be ruined unless she gets married to Simon stat. The men show every sign of going through with the duel, Simon preparing to fire in the air and Anthony aiming to merely wound while his arm shakes extravagantly, but Daphne rides between them as the bullets are released. Daphne’s horse, the only sensible creature in this scene, tosses her to the great angst of all.
Daphne takes Simon aside to share her realization about Cressida seeing their blooming in the garden, but Simon stands firm on refusing to marry her. He explains that if they were to marry, he could never give Daphne children, the fondest wish of her heart. He moves to resume the duel, but Daphne steps in and says they are to be married, thereby casting aside her dream for the sake of two lives and her reputation.
Two people miserably entering into a marriage based on half-truths and crushed dreams? SIGN ME UP.