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Behind Bridgerton: Society and Scandal in Georgian Mayfair

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In the opening sequence of Bridgerton, Queen Charlotte pronounces the young Daphne Bridgerton ‘flawless’ when she is presented at Court. The significance of this endorsement is soon revealed at the season’s opening ball, where ‘every darling debutante from Park Lane to Regent Street is on display’. Here, we witness a central motivation of Georgian Society: securing good blood lines.
 
Granted, the London Season – which typically ran from November until June to coincide with the parliamentary session – served other purposes, too. It allowed titled participants to renew social connections, attend parliament and deal with business affairs, among other pursuits. Yet at heart it was a marriage mart functioning to preserve and strengthen the great estates. By the early nineteenth century, vast fortunes were at stake for the leading families. Any question over an heir’s legitimacy or pedigree risked disarray.
 
At the season’s opening ball, Daphne Bridgerton’s older brother Anthony chaperones her around the gilded room. The ton comprised just a few hundred families (throughout the 1700s, a mere 1,000 or so men held peerages), and the number of suitors considered a good match on any given occasion could be vanishingly small. Anthony rejects suitors in turn on the grounds of pedigree, profession or character found wanting.

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Photos 38 Grosvenor Square

 
One suitor who would have proved promising was John Sackville, the 3rd Duke of Dorset – occupant of 33 (now 38) Grosvenor Square. The interiors there, largely intact, afford rare insights into how an eligible gentleman kept house. Two drawings rooms on the first floor conform to a fashionable ‘L’-shaped arrangement. The principal drawing room runs along the entire front of the house, lit by floor-to-near-ceiling windows. Any prospective hostess might have gasped at the intricately stuccoed ceiling with its delicate scrolls, oak leaves and lilies. The central painting depicts Jupiter with Juno, goddess of marriage.
 
This ‘L’-shaped arrangement of rooms created space for a staircase worthy of any Bridgerton set, complete with wall-hung stone treads elegantly chamfered beneath and an iron balustrade fashioned into a pleasing S-scroll pattern. Above rests a plaster dome adorned with medallions.
 
Records reveal that Dorset preferred mahogany furniture and probably chose greens for walls, curtains and carpets, as befits the county that gave his title. Among the many items of furniture he ordered was a pianoforte, and 'a plaster venus' that calls to mind a famously daring sculpture he commissioned of ballerina Giovanna Zanerini, one of his lovers, posing nude and recumbent.
 
As in Bridgerton, scandal was never far from the ton. Women bore the greater risk. When Dorset and his neighbour the Countess of Derby had an affair in 1778, they were found out. She withdrew from Society, becoming estranged from Lord Derby, who refused to divorce her, thereby denying her the possibility of marrying Dorset and retaking her place in Society. She moved abroad.
 
Matters of honour were occasionally settled by duels (illegal in theory, yet Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger duelled in 1798). To a gentleman of the Regency period, firearms were as much a part of his status as his clothing, and London boasted some of the finest gunmakers in the world. In the days before the formation of a proper police force, firearms were for self defence as well as for resolving matters of honour or pure sport. Clients of the best gunmakers were as likely to acquire a cased pair of pistols as a shotgun or rifle.

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One of the most talented gunmakers was James Purdey, who set up his own business in 1814. He went on to supply nobility and royalty, and archives at the current premises in South Audley Street reveal him to be precisely the kind of gunmaker who would have provisioned an Anthony Bridgerton or a Duke of Hastings ahead of their duel.
 
Yet there were more immediate ways to learn of gossip-worthy goings-on than the order books of gunmakers. The period saw a flowering of periodicals and pamphlets, with over 250 journals launched by 1800, and this was in addition to satirical cartoons by James Gillray, George Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson, not to mention poems, stage plays and novels chronicling the times. Some publications (Tatler, The Spectator) are familiar to us; others sound no more or less fantastical at this remove than Lady Whistledown’s scandal sheet, which lends Bridgerton its Gossip Girl-like air of intrigue.
 
Ultimately the Season worked well for leading families and they settled into Mayfair for the long term. As one commentator remarked in 1803, the ‘parallelogram between Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Regent Street and Hyde Park encloses more intelligence and human ability, to say nothing of wealth and beauty, than the world has ever collected in such a space before.’ Flawless Daphne Bridgerton is one expression of it.

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Paintings by Vittorio Reggianini 
Photos of Bridgerton cast courtesy of Netflix 

 

Written by Daniel Pembrey. 

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