My So-Called (Bridgerton) Life

Note: Contains spoilers for Bridgerton, Season 3.

I recently awoke on a Saturday faced with the delightful prospect of a day without obligations. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the morning air was cool and pleasant. It was a storybook beginning.

I rolled out of bed, pulled on my dressing gown, and imagined myself as a lady of leisure. I took it a step further and imagined myself in the world of Bridgerton – or at least as close as I could get in America of 2024.

I proceeded downstairs to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of fresh coffee. The coffee was ready and waiting, prepared not by a servant, but by my conveniently programmable coffeemaker. Outside, I sat in the garden while my dog lolled on the grass. I listened to the birds. I fussed over a container of bright yellow pansies (pansies are everywhere on Bridgerton) and admired the hydrangeas about to bloom.

A little later, I dropped off a jar of homemade strawberry preserves at my neighbors’ house, a small token of appreciation for a favor they’d done me. I walked in the streets of my respectable but not fashionable neighborhood, admiring the well-tended yards and lamenting those that were not. I attended to a few household matters and attempted some writing – longhand, in cursive – including the draft of this blog post.

In the afternoon, I called at a local dress shop. This activity felt remarkably Bridgerton-esque: I traveled to the shop on foot, met a friend there whose advice I’d enlisted to guide my choice (I was shopping for a wedding dress), and needed the assistance of the salesclerk to get myself in and out of the gowns. At one point, the salesclerk had to buckle my shoe for me: I was literally standing on a pedestal, immobilized by yards of crepe and Italian tulle. The amount of fuss unsettled me, as did being unable to do even the simplest activities on my own. Still, part of it felt fun – when else had I received such attention? Or reveled in simply searching for what would make me feel beautiful?

For say what you will about Bridgerton, it is beautiful. The homes, the clothes, the gardens, the characters. Rarely do you see poverty, disease, or work of any kind (aside from the servants, and even then, their chores are apparently mostly carrying trays and arranging hair and fetching the occasional snuffbox.) The Bridgerton ladies themselves rarely engage in any activity more demanding than taking a constitutional or ringing for tea. Dancing, I suppose, may be an exception, and there are the few ladies who ride.

I managed to practice my French. I neglected my music (in my case, an electric guitar, which is decidedly anachronistic), but did decide to take advantage of the fine weather for some exercise. I went on a late afternoon ride, by bicycle, through very pretty woods and afterwards, enjoyed an indecorous pint of ale. Unchaperoned.

I thought of what the show gets right about the Regency era. Or at least, doesn’t overly distort or misrepresent: the strict social rules, aristocratic privilege, the pressure on women to marry, the vast disparity between genders in what was sexually acceptable.

Yet there is much that is fantasy. The racial equality among the ton and portrayal of Queen Charlotte as a black woman are two plot points on the show of deeply questionable accuracy. And as much as I would have liked for the romance between Brimsley and Reynolds, as well as other same-sex pairings, to be able to flourish in the early 1800s, in reality they would have been subject to sodomy laws that would have considered their intimacy a capital offense.

Heterosexual relationships also came with real risks, particularly for women. Women had no lawful political power, no voting rights, no ownership rights to property once they married. The second her wedding ceremony concluded, Penelope would have forfeited every penny of her earnings as Lady Whistledown to Colin Bridgerton. Her children, too, would be considered her husband’s property (this was not settled until decades later, through the remarkable case of Caroline Norton). The show does not address the fact that Penelope would stand to lose a lot more than the power of her pen once she became Mrs. Bridgerton.

Of course the era did have many brilliant women: Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and others. This was also the period of Byron and Keats and incredible exploration and scientific discovery. It was likewise a time when syphilis could be a death sentence, half of the female population was illiterate, and it was considered acceptable for a six-year-old to work a 10-hour factory shift. Don’t even ask about maternal and infant mortality.

I look at Bridgerton as a cautionary tale as much as it is an escape. It is a reminder to beware of making over the past in our own image. To pause before rushing to snap up show-themed merch without any understanding of what it is we want to imitate. To proceed carefully so as not to forget the truth of history. Amnesia may be convenient, but it is no cure.

Producer Shonda Rhime’s Mayfair is sparkly and entertaining and shamelessly sanitized. It could be a fun place to visit, but no one actually lives there.

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Kevin Corcoran’s Gun, and Other Anachronisms

I’ve been watching the BBC America series Copper with great interest, partly because I really miss Deadwood, and partly because I’m a bit of a Civil War buff, especially after reading Tony Horwitz’s hilarious and insightful Confederates in the Attic.

For those not familiar with the series, it centers around the misadventures of Irish-American cop Kevin Corcoran, a veteran of the Union Army who is now serving as a police detective in 1864 New York City. A major premise of the plotline, and one the fuels the numerous gunfights and physical altercations that Kevin finds himself embroiled in, is the rough and tumble justice of the notorious Five Points neighborhood. As the show would have it, New York’s finest had a “shoot first, don’t ask questions” mode of operation that made them little better than the criminals they were meant to neutralize.

Which begs the question – just what was the day-to-day operation of NYPD like in the 1860s? I decided to do some digging.

Snafu #1 – Most Police Officers Didn’t Have Guns in the 1860s

My forays into the history of the American West naturally brought me into the history of firearms in the United States. I couldn’t study the West without eventually studying guns, too. Kevin Corcoran’s revolver gets quite a lot of screen time, and most of the other coppers are armed with handguns as well.

However, in the 1860s, cops and guns didn’t necessarily go hand in hand. At this point in time, American police departments did not issue firearms to their members. Cops who elected to carry a gun most likely paid for it out of their own pocket. Colt, in fact, was marketing moderately-priced handguns specifically towards police officers in the 1870s. The New York City police department did not require officers to carry guns until 1887. Patrolmen were armed with nightsticks.

So while it’s possible ol’ Corky could have carried a gun, either by buying his own, or by surreptitiously hanging on to one issued from his Army days, the premise is a little sketchy. I suppose nightsticks just wouldn’t create the same dramatic effect.

Snafu #2 – New York City Cops Actually Had a Rulebook

The premise that law enforcement was fast and loose and that very little procedural precedent was in place is another area where the BBC has taken liberties with the facts. New York City actually has one of the longest histories of community policing anywhere in the United States, dating all the way back to 1625 when the area was a Dutch colony. In those days, law enforcement officers patrolled the settlement and were charged with keeping the peace, settling disputes, and warning settlers of fire – a real danger in days when most buildings were made of wood, and fire departments lay decades in the future.

The New York City Police Department proper was founded in 1845. In that same year, the first Police Chief issued a booklet titled “Rules and Regulations of the Day and Night Police of the City of New York With Instructions as to the Legal Powers and Duties of Policemen.”

There is the argument that rules are not always followed, and I’ll buy that regulations are open to manipulation in any era to serve individual and political ends. But the idea that there were no rules for the police in 1864 simply isn’t true.

Snafu #3 – NYPD Didn’t Have Detectives in 1864

The Detective Bureau didn’t exist until 1882. There were undercover officers, but their function was more to deter petty crime rather than solve major cases.  No Detective Bureau, no Detective Corcoran. You’d think someone at BBC would have checked that before giving the program lead a title that he couldn’t have held.

But wait, it’s a television show, not a documentary! True. However, the most successful historical dramas know the world they are operating in, and engage with it authentically. Not so they can recreate it, but so they can make informed choices about how their characters would live, move, and breathe in that alternate time and place. The scenes of Elizabeth Haverford watching the Booth Brothers perform Julius Caesar (dramatically intercut with a race to stop a plot to burn NYC to the ground) are fantastic and powerful – and based on a actual historic performance by the Booths in New York in 1864. The plot to burn New York is also “based on a true story.”

In short, when writers do their homework, it shows. When they don’t, that is obvious as well.

Now, who wants to bring me on as a historical consultant on their program?

PS Some information contained in this post is based on my own original research. For specifics related to the history of the New York City police department, I went to their own website, which has some wonderful data on the history of the force.

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