Netflix’s Bridgerton is a Regency romance about young people trying to secure advantageous matches. But what makes it memorable is actually its older women. They’re not just annoying busybodies or overbearing mamas — though, certainly they have their moments of being busybodies and overbearing mamas. But they also have distinct personalities and different interests, and it’s their presence that ultimately strengthens the show’s central theme of marriage.
Bridgerton does not simply end with a happy wedding. It continues on after that, diving into the complications that arise after the vows, especially in Regency era England. Marriage is important to the characters in the world of Bridgerton, not just for the romance, but for safety, status, and security. By solidifying the older characters and their own views on matrimony, Bridgerton offers a more complex discussion of love and marriage than a simple white wedding ending.
[Ed. note: This contains major spoilers for Bridgerton]
The two women who offer the most contrasting views of marriage are Dowager Viscountess Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) and Baroness Portia Featherington (Polly Walker). As respective matriarchs of the Bridgerton and Featherington families, their views of marriage guide most of the main characters. Violet, though widowed, married for love and hopes that all her children will be able to do the same. Portia, meanwhile, maintains a loveless marriage for the sake of her three daughters and will do anything to secure their matches to men who can provide for them and won’t squander away money. Viscountess Bridgerton speaks fondly of her late husband and reaches for his empty side of the bed; Baroness Featherington can hardly stand to be in the same room as hers, who gambled away his daughters’ dowries. While Violet encourages Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) to follow her heart, Portia is conniving and cunning, using her niece Marina’s (Ruby Barker) popularity to snag suitors for her daughters and eventually trying to cozy up to the Bridgertons in order to benefit from their social status. Initially, it seems easy to categorize the two women: Violet is the good mother and Portia is the bad one.
But Portia does love her children. Her scheming may be uncouth, but she is only doing it to make sure her daughters are provided for. She believes that love matches are unrealistic; the best a woman can do is marry someone who won’t screw her over. She may push her timid daughter Penelope (Nicola Coughlan) out of her comfort zone, but Portia does this because she knows what fate awaits her daughters if they do not secure good matches. At the end of the season, when Marina eventually realizes she needs to marry a man she does not love (but who at least cares for her), she asks Portia how she managed a loveless marriage for over 20 years.
“You find things to love, my dear,” Portia replies. “Small things. Big things, too, like your babies, and eventually they add up to be enough.”
It is not, of course, the most romantic answer, but it is the realistic one. As it turns out, not all loveless matches are devoid of happiness.
Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), the Duke of Hastings’ mother figure, is widowed and enjoying her life. She holds a gathering for married women, which newlywed Daphne expects to be stuffy, but is actually a lively party full of drinking and gambling. They don’t just manage a household — they also have fun. In fact, throughout the show multiple married couples talk about how grand it is to lead separate lives from their spouses (for a variety of different reasons). They have all the security of marriage, but an understanding that husband and wife do not have to live under any false pretense. It’s a viable alternative — especially when the coveted love matches don’t always result in perfect bliss.
Part of the reason the Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) is so obsessed with reading the latest gossip of the season is because her husband’s failing mental health means they cannot even have a conversation over dinner. Other characters mention her once loving marriage to King George III, but the Queen glancing wistfully at her rambling husband as the servants escort him out after a dinner gone wrong says more. She craves the vicarious romance she observes from high society, because her own romantic life is lacking. It becomes a vice, as she constantly tries to meddle in matches. Just because a marriage was once made for love, does not mean the love can sustain itself.
When it comes to Violet Bridgerton, her own happy marriage may have skewed her children’s expectations, especially Daphne’s. Daphne marries without even a basic guide to what happens after wedding vows, and that leaves her massively unprepared for the realities of marriage. Bridgerton interrogates this lack of sex education and relationship guidance in the Regency era when Daphne tearily confronts her mother in a garden, calling her out for sending her off into the world completely unprepared.
By the last episode, Violet is ready to tell Daphne about the realities of marriage — that even though she and Viscount Bridgerton loved one another, it was not all happy bliss. While their love was strong, it was the active choice they made to love each other that sustained them through difficult times. It’s a brief speech but it dispels the notion that the secret to a happy marriage is simply a love match.
Bridgerton gets a sweeping, happy, romantic end for its lead couple — with more complicated endings for the other young characters to set the stage for a prospective next season (in-universe, the next round of marriage matches; for us at home, the literal next season). The stakes were already set in the first episode, but by the end of the first season it’s clear that there is more to a match than just falling in love — and that marriage isn’t the end-all-be-all. There is a life after the wedding, for better or for worse, and through the lenses of the older women in the series, Bridgerton showcases a full panorama of what that means.
Bridgerton is currently streaming on Netflix.
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