I signed up to Netflix a while back so I could watch The Queen’s Gambit, having loved the book when it came out in 1983, and I enjoyed the drama series. At the time, the hottest programming on Netflix was Bridgerton, a period drama about the English Regency (early 1800s).
I got through half the first episode of Bridgerton and gave up. I couldn’t abide its louche 21st-century sensibility, its jarring invention of black aristocrats in a colour-blind society (which regency England definitely was not), its rejection of historical norms and values, its overt sexuality at a time when for an unmarried woman to spend time with a man unchaperoned was inconceivable, however innocent. It would ruin her reputation, her marriage prospects and her life.
I’m not sure that I’ve watched anything on Netflix since – another example of an unwise financial investment, but perhaps a prudent investment in time.
Bridgerton of course follows a long line of disregard for literary history.
But down at the dog park the other day, I was chatting to a friend aged 20, and she absolutely loved Bridgerton. She’d enjoyed the books, which I haven’t read, and loved the program precisely for some of the reasons I didn’t: its raunchiness, its 21st-century social attitudes, its disdain for decorum, its energy.
Here, I thought was a striking example of the old Latin maxim “de gustibus non est disputandum” – in matters of taste, there can be no dispute. People’s tastes are what they are.
Bridgerton of course follows a long line of disregard for literary history, some of which is now the highest art. Shakespeare maligned King Richard III as a murderous hunchback. Richard was neither, but his Plantagenet dynasty was supplanted by the Tudors, who were on the throne when Shakespeare was writing – no author who valued his neck could make Tudors the villains. Shakespeare in turn suffered historical inexactitudes in the exceedingly silly but multiple Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, co-written by the fine playwright Tom Stoppard.
Another superb playwright, Peter Shaffer, ruined the reputation of one of the finest creative geniuses in human history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in the play and film Amadeus, which won eight Oscars. I saw the play in London in 1981 and the film when it came out and was moved by the brilliance of the conception – a fine and popular musician, Salieri, cannot cope with knowing that Mozart, portrayed as an uncouth idiot savant with an irritating high-pitched giggle, is incomparably his superior as a composer. But I was outraged by the depiction of Mozart who, despite his scatological sense of humour, was a highly intelligent and sensitive man, as shown by the many hundreds of his letters which survive.
The latest historical perversity is – according to Sam Ashworth-Hayes in the Spectator – The Woman King. This just-released film tells of King Gezo of Dahomey and his loyal Amazons – an elite band of women warriors – who struggle to free his kingdom and his people from the evils of the slave trade, the dominance of the Oyo empire, and the creeping tendrils of European colonisation. It’s a stirring tale of African resistance and female empowerment.
The problem: Gezo was a leading slave trader among the African tribes, who used to chain people from other tribes in cages on the beach to sell them to Western slave traders. “The real Dahomey was a country of almost unrivalled brutality, its economy built on slavery and its religion on human sacrifice. The wars it fought had the intention of preserving the slave trade, and its conflicts with Europeans were driven by British attempts to suppress it.” Oops.
I am not arguing against new works, however facile
We know very little about the actual biography of Shakespeare. But we can know one thing: he would have to reconsider many of his plays to fit certain 21st-century sensibilities.
Indeed, the Washington Times reported last year that an increasing number of teachers in the United States are refusing to study the Bard because, they say, he promotes misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism and anti-Semitism.
These teachers apparently see Shakespeare less as an icon of literature and more as a tool of imperial oppression, an agent of white supremacy and colonisation, who should be skewered in class or banished from the curriculum entirely.
The New York Post quoted the School Library Journal as saying many English literature teachers were ditching Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet to “make room for modern, diverse, and inclusive voices”. Very little great literature has specifically set out to be diverse and inclusive, though some of it happens to be so.
I am not arguing against new works, however facile. It’s none of my business to judge other people’s escapist pleasures; I enjoy escapism too. Nor have I any objection to diversity and inclusivity. I am arguing against abandoning the great works of our tradition, and in favour of recognising the authors were men and women of their time. They are great because they open up a more profound recognition of human circumstances.
Despite the underwhelming encomium to 19th-century Prime Minister William Gladstone of an unnamed American visitor – “Shakespeare – a great man! Why, I doubt if there are six his equal in the whole of Boston” – Shakespeare is widely regarded as the finest writer in English in history for good reason.
As a Christian, it bothers me when people take liberties with history …
But when he takes liberties with history, it is not for prurient reasons but dramatic ones. As a Christian, it bothers me when people take liberties with history because – except for very good literary reasons – we have a duty to be as truthful as we can.
For me, the non-plus ultra of this art form is Julian Barnes’ magnificent creative biography of Shostakovich, The Noise of Time. He does no violence to the facts of the Russian composer’s life, but he does invent interior monologues. Like any great work, it has deeper lessons, summed up by Guardian reviewer Alex Preston as the operation of power upon art, the limits of courage and endurance, and the sometimes intolerable demands of personal integrity and conscience.
Many other 21st-century works have depth and insight that enrich us, and I celebrate them. Just not Bridgerton.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.