Great Adaptations: Bridgerton and the Female Gaze
It’s all about the wet white shirt contest, 19th-century style.
Just when you thought you’d seen your last Bridgerton think piece, here’s one more. I’d like to say that this won’t be just another thinly veiled fangirling about the Duke of Hastings, but that wouldn’t be true, because that’s exactly what this is, and that is exactly the point.
It’s well-known that Bridgerton is an adaptation of the series of novels by Julia Quinn, but less written about is the series’ connection to Pride and Prejudice. It might be a bit of a stretch to say that Bridgerton is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s most famous novel, but I think few could argue that both the book and television series owe a great debt to Austen’s works. (One might even call Bridgerton an appropriation of Austen’s novels.)
I’m going to err on the side of hyperbole here and say that all romance novels and period adaptations have been influenced by Austen, but Bridgerton has particular ties to the author. Not only is the series set during the Regency era, but the first season also begins in 1813, the year Pride and Prejudice was published. In the novel, Quinn references the main character, Daphne, reading Austen’s book, just in case we miss the allusion.
In addition, the tall, dark, aloof, but ultimately devoted hero of many a romance novel can be traced back to Austen’s Mr. Darcy, the G.O.A.T. of romance heroes. Simon Hastings, the hero of Bridgerton, is a titillating variation on this common theme of a great man conquered by love.
Others have convincingly written about how Pride and Prejudice created the template for the modern romance novel, and we can certainly see those ties echoed in many tropes of the genre: the plucky heroine who wants to marry for love, the meddlesome family, the couple who start out disliking one another because of a series of misunderstandings but gradually come to respect and love each other, and the list can go on and on.
But rather than focusing on more literary aspects of the commonalities between Simon and Darcy, I want to talk about another important facet that the two share in common: their wet white shirts.
Those who are fans of the novel version of Pride and Prejudice might protest that novel Darcy never wears a wet white shirt because he never jumps into the lake at Pemberley before having an awkward encounter with Elizabeth — that moment is entirely an invention of the 1995 miniseries starring Colin Firth.
Neither, other astute readers might note, does the Duke of Hastings wear a wet white shirt in Quinn’s novel, The Duke and I. The moment that occurs in the series is similarly unique to the television version, but it solidifies the connection between Darcy and Simon and the impact Austen’s writing has had on the genre.
There were many innovative things about Austen’s novels, but arguably one of the most innovative was the way Austen positioned the female perspective. Austen was writing in a time when most heroines were noted for their goodness and beauty, with both of these features being prized as the qualities that made her most desirable as a wife to the hero of the novel.
Elizabeth Bennet is essentially a good person, but she’s also quick to judge and quick to mock the weaknesses in others, and her titular prejudice spurs on much of the conflict in the novel. We also know that it isn’t her glorious beauty that attracts Darcy, who famously deems her “not handsome enough” to tempt him into dancing at their first meeting.
The novel is less concerned, then, with proving to us that Elizabeth is a desirable wife, than showing the journey that proves to Elizabeth (and us by extension) that Darcy is a desirable husband. The man who should be the biggest catch of the novel — He’s tall! He’s handsome! He’s rich! — doesn’t ultimately come across as all that desirable until about ⅔ of the way through the book, when he begins to overcome his titular pride and show his loyalty, his goodness, and his ample estate.
The 1995 Pride and Prejudice series shows this development taking place through dialogue and the interaction between Darcy and Elizabeth, but it also marks this shift in desirability for Darcy by having him jump in a lake and come out in a wet damp white shirt. A handy visual metaphor for hunkiness, no?
(Watch it here courtesy of the BBC)
Darcy’s wet white shirt basically revolutionized the period drama. Lest one think I’m hyperbolizing again, I’ll point to a few proofs of its impact:
There is the statue commemorating Darcy’s lake dive that has populated large bodies of water all over the world. There are the pilgrimages made every year to Lyme Park, where the Pemberley of the 1995 series was filmed. There is the exhibition featuring the O.G. wet white shirt.
And, perhaps more telling, is the recurrence of the wet white shirt in some shape or form in multiple period dramas of note that have come after. Many who have followed in the footsteps of the Firth Pride and Prejudice have utilized the hero in a wet white shirt to symbolize the peak of his attractiveness. At the very least, the hero must submerge himself into a body of water to show how overcome he is with his feelings.
The 2005 Pride & Prejudice nods to this moment by showing Matthew MacFadyen’s Mr. Darcy walk in a billowing damp (not wet) white shirt in the early morning mist to declare his love to Elizabeth. The 2008 Lost in Austen more directly re-creates this moment by having Elliot Cowan’s Darcy submerge himself into water at the behest of the series’ stand-in Elizabeth character, Amanda Price. Grantchester’s Sidney Chambers jumps into a river, and Poldark’s Ross Poldark jumps into the ocean, as does Sanditon’s Sidney Parker. North and South’s Mr. Thornton doesn’t get wet, but he does wear a white shirt that becomes progressively looser and more billowy as the series comes to a close.
And at last, we come to the Duke of Hastings. While the Duke generally wears rather colorful ensembles, or very few clothes at all, in one notable scene during the height of his early nuptial bliss to Daphne, the two run outside through a rainstorm and begin disrobing. We get several shots of Simon wearing a loose, damp white shirt before it’s removed and the scene…ur…progresses.
This is a small moment in the many sex-capades of the series, and one might ostensibly say this author has spent too much time rewatching Bridgerton. Argue about the importance of the white shirt if you like; the series may or may not have been making a conscious nod to Firth’s Darcy.
What can’t be dismissed, however, is Bridgerton’s throwback to the way Austen centers the female perspective and prioritizes female desire. We’ve come a long way since Laura Mulvey’s game-changing essay on the male gaze in film, but when it comes to representations of desire, we often still primarily see women’s bodies as the objects of the male gaze.
Austen’s focus on female desire has carried on into romance novels and period dramas, prioritizing the female experience and allowing women to be the subjects, with men often (though increasingly not always) the objects of that desire.
Bridgerton carries on this tradition with gusto, showing Daphne’s experience of sexual awakening through her desire of the Duke. Closeups of the Duke licking spoons, rolling up his sleeves, and giving Daphne lingering touches heighten this visual experience of Simon’s objectivity.
In this light, then, Simon’s wearing of the white wet shirt, albeit briefly, is yet another nod to the O.G. object of women’s desire, Mr. Darcy. Adaptations/appropriations, after all, work reflexively with their source texts, giving us a new experience of the story while also reminding us of our previous encounters with the original.
This is how adaptations help to keep their source texts alive — not, as many often fear, by replacing them, but by adding new dimensions to our experiences with them. Whether we like the changes made or believe there has been some misunderstanding of the original, these encounters with the adaptations often prompt us to revisit the texts that inspired their creation.
To see proof of this, look no further than the sudden jump in sales of Quinn’s novels thanks to Bridgerton. Similarly, the interest in Bridgerton’s subversive style may have renewed interest in another television series based off Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, prompting rumors of a second season when fans had all but lost hope. Austen may have inspired Bridgerton, but Bridgerton is now driving fans back to Austen.
Bridgerton and other period dramas may owe a debt to Austen, but in some ways, so do Austen (and other source texts) owe a debt to their adaptations. Love or hate retellings, they often cause us to return our gazes back to the originals, making them the objects of our desire once again.