People of Colour in the Time of Austen

People of Colour in the Time of Austen

Last week, Twitter blew up rather when some more casting for the Bridgerton series was announced and – shock, horror! – not all of the actors were white.

For those of you who don’t know about the Bridgerton series, it’s a TV series based on the Bridgerton novels by Julia Quinn. Produced by Shonda Rhimes, it promises  to be the most ‘Regency’ project possibly ever to hit the small screen, and it’s being released on Netflix sometime in 2020. The Regency fandom on Twitter had a little meltdown a few weeks ago when Julie Andrews – yes, THAT Julie Andrews – was announced as the voice of Lady Whistledown, the anonymous, biting gossip columnist who chronicles a lot of events in the series. (Link goes to a Deadline article with some more details about the series).

And then, on July 10 a  whole stack of new casting information dropped and a bunch of people lost their collective minds.

Because the actor cast to play Simon Basset, a duke who’s the hero of the first book… isn’t white.

Regé-Jean Page is, however, quite obnoxiously gorgeous. And look at the rakish angle of THAT HAT!

There were a lot of cries of ‘”Not my Simon!” and “But Simon has blue eyes!” and, frankly, I found it all just as distasteful as the uproar over a black girl being cast to play Ariel.

This is an adaptation of a fictional story. A story which has been loved by people of lots of different nationalities and skin colors, and denying them representation on the grounds of ‘but historical accuracy’ is an ugly, ugly argument. About as ugly as the 27 dukes who were actually real in Regency England, but we rarely mention that little bit of unpleasant truth. There’d be more than 27 books coming out every month which feature a sexy duke, so please, let’s just own the fantasy that Regé-Jean could turn up at a Regency ball and sweep us away into a forbidden waltz!

One thing that bothers me when people use ‘historical accuracy’ to excuse whitewashing their Regency romances is that Regency England was most certainly not all-white. The wealthiest woman in Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last novel? Miss Lambe, a mulatto from the Caribbean. There were free black men and women all over Europe (called Blackamoors) for centuries before Austen’s time, and during her lifetime she would have heard a great deal about the struggle for emancipation. The slave trade is mentioned only a couple of times in her novels, but her disapproval of its ugliness is clearly expressed through Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, where a good deal of the Bertram family’s wealth comes from the ownership of a sugar estate on Antigua, which undoubtedly would have included a number of slaves.

Everything we know about Austen shows her despite for the slave trade – she once declared herself to ‘be in love with’ Thomas Clarkson, author of the History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Her brothers, both in the Navy, wrote of their distaste for the conditions in which slaves were kept and transported. The newness of the Bingley fortune? Almost certainly sourced from the slave trade, and a reason why they would never be accepted by the upper crust of London society.

Honestly, the more I look at that picture of Regé-Jean Page above, the more I can see him as Charles Bingley. Imagine if Mr. Bingley senior married a mulatto woman… possibly after his first wife died, so Caroline and Louisa are white, while their brother is distinctly Not. I can definitely see Darcy befriending a young man of color very much out of his element at Cambridge, and maintaining the friendship years later. But would Charles Bingley being of a different skin color have made a difference to his reception in Hertfordshire? Would he still have been encouraged to court Jane? Well, his five thousand a year would probably still have endeared him to Mrs. Bennet, at least, but I wonder if anyone would have considered Jane Bennet ‘beneath him’ in that case?

Now I’m thinking about it, it’s very possible that this will be a Pride & Prejudice variation I’ll write, one day.

And in the meantime, I’m just going to get ever more excited for The Bridgertons series to start airing!

29 Responses to People of Colour in the Time of Austen

  1. Thank you for this interesting post! I hadn’t heard of this adaption (or the novels) before but I very much agree with what you say about historical accuracy and white washing.
    It’s always interesting that ‘historical accuracy’ and ‘being true to the original’ is suddenly important to some people when it comes to a character’s skin colour while the same people seem to be fine with lots of other changes (e.g. inventing Dukes that never existed). Reminds me of the whole Ariel casting debate that was just as stupid as there is no proof whatsoever that Ariel ‘is white’. People seem think just because an actor doesn’t look like the imagined a Regency duke/a mermaid/… it’s a ‘wrong’ casting choice that ‘doesn’t make sense’.
    I like your thoughts on Bingley as a person of colour as well!

    • It’s happening all over again today on Twitter as the casting for the principal characters in the forthcoming Wheel of Time series is announced. Same racist bullshit excuses.

  2. I’m currently reading the first book because I wanted to see why Shonda picked it. I’m not surprised by the casting because Shonda believes in a diverse cast. I can see Mr. Page as Simon. Im looking forward to seeing the show and how this plays out.

  3. Back in the 1970s, my school put on a dramatisation of”Emma”. The school was 90% white ethnicity and the girl chosen to play Emma was black, because the English teacher directing thought she was best for the part. I remember my father, a great Austen fan, muttering that he wasn’t sure… then he saw the show, admired the acting and admitted he’d been wrong. Dreadful that the same old objections are still being trotted out fifty years later.

  4. Love Julia Quinn’s books! Have no problem with people of color in the roles as long as they match the characters.
    Julie Andrews as Lady Whistledown, now that’s a problem! How are they going to handle Colin’s and Penelope’s story?

    • You do realize that they can’t have the actress playing Penelope do the voice over because everyone would figure out who it was. You’re not suppose to know it’s her until later, so technically Lady Whistledown could be anyone. In Gossip Girl “Gossip Girl” was actually a guy while Kristen Bell did the voice over in the show until the identity was revealed.

    • Julie Andrews apparently ONLY appears in voice-over, never in person. And it sounds like maybe they’re making Lady WHistledown a completely independent character, which IMO isn’t that big of a stretch.

  5. Queen Charlotte, who married George III, was of African descent and is the great-great-great grandmother of the present Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a shame that the term race keeps being used as if people are completely separated by groups/birth. There is only one race: the human race. As far as any person being better than any other, there are none as all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Loving our Creator and loving other people as ourselves is the solution to mankind’s problems. Regé-Jean Page really is a handsome man, and the differences we see among people is merely variety just as we see in the animal kingdom: color, habits, etc. Thank you for your post, Catherine. <3

    • YES! I actually meant to mention Queen Charlotte in the post and completely forgot about it – I was quite angry when writing it, disgusted at all the ‘but it’s not historically accurate’ people on Twitter who, strangely enough, are the same ones who like to pick on Megan Markle.

  6. Catherine, the Bingleys were from Yorkshire, so it’s more likely their fortune came from the textile industry than the slave trade. Of course, profits from the slave trade might have set them up in textiles to begin with. Either way, I like your idea of Bingley being a person of color. It would go a long way to explain his deference to Darcy on everything of import. A black man, even a wealthy one, would need a white, aristocratic wingman to help him navigate the times.

  7. A most interesting and challenging article. I had the same kind of issues when I wrote The Other Miss Bates, as I battled with how I would present disability – another undoubted fact of life in Regency England.

    • Disability is something else we don’t see enough of represented in historical (or present-day!) romance. Considering the amount of war veterans who would have lost a limb or an eye in Austen’s time, especially. I’m working on a variation where Colonel Fitzwilliam loses his left arm after Waterloo 😀

  8. He is gorgeous, isn’t he? Especially in that hat! I’m excited to see Bridgerton. Hopefully they mean early in 2020 🙂

  9. Thank you for this informative post. 🙂

    In my debut novel, True Love Comes to Delaford, a secondary character named Louisa is a lovely woman from the East Indies.

    ‘Historical Accuracy ‘ needs to truly be accurate.

    • I so agree! Literally everyone being white is historically INaccurate, and I wish more people would get that through their heads. Going to put True Love Comes to Delaford on my reading list!

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