Sophisticated soirees, glamorous gowns, raunch and romance are all firm fixtures in the Bridgerton series. In fact, it's these exact things that have lured audiences back for more, time and again. But for me, it's the diversity in casting that's been a major drawcard to the regency-era drama. With the likes of Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran leading Season 2 and Golda Rosheuvel playing Queen Charlotte throughout, many women of colour like myself have finally felt seen in a genre that has typically formed many of our first impressions of love (hello, Jane Austen).
Yet, the two seasons of the Netflix show thus far have rarely discussed race. While the colourblind casting has been praised by some, the inclusion of people of colour has still sparked questions that have been left unanswered. For example, how did a Black woman come to be the Queen in regency-era England, an era which was notably racist?
This changes in the new prequel, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. As viewers are taken back in time to meet a teenage Queen Charlotte (played by India Amarteifio), we see what it means for the royal family to try an "experiment" — as it's described on-screen — when a multi-racial woman marries a white king.
Creator Shonda Rhimes doesn't skirt around the issues of race and white privilege, which actor Arsema Thomas (who plays the young Lady Danbury) says was crucial.
"The way that Bridgerton is able to be this diverse utopia is because there had to be those hard conversations at the beginning," Thomas tells Refinery29 Australia.
"I think that is a really great message, specifically for where we are now. Because, there is this want to bypass these difficult conversations where we feel that it's a lose-lose, and we want to skip to that place where everything is OK. And in reality, to get to that place, you have to go through the trenches. That's what Queen Charlotte is about."
Avid Bridgerton fans will recall just one rare moment in Season 1 of Bridgerton when race was ever discussed. As Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), spoke about why they're the only Black royals, Lady Danbury said: "Look at our Queen, look at our King. Look at their marriage, look at everything it is doing for us, what it is allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by colour until a king fell in love with one of us."
The prequel jumps between the time when Queen Charlotte was a newlywed, and decades later to the time that Bridgerton is set in. We learn how young Queen Charlotte and young Lady Danbury's friendship formed, and the hard decisions they had to make as women of colour in a time when white privilege reigned.
While white women like Violet Bridgerton or Princess Augusta felt loss or hardship in a patriarchal world, the challenges were tenfold for Queen Charlotte and Lady Danbury. They didn't necessarily have the luxury of marrying for love at first sight. The pressure they faced — both from themselves and society at large — when they were given any sort of power was immense. At one point, a young Lady Danbury tells young Queen Charlotte, "You are the first of your kind... do you not see what you are meant to do for us?" The show doesn't shy away from these conversations.
"I think that a lot of how the show explores privilege is very similar to how privilege is in society now," says Amarteifio.
"One is born into a class and they already have the privilege of money, or their physical appearance or their ability to be able to walk, [and it] is something that we all take for granted.
"Then one is born into a completely different scenario and then you're thrust with the same problems in life and expected to come out of those problems with the same answer," she says, explaining, "it's not tackled the same".
"I think we see that in the show with Lady Danbury being given this title [and] all of a sudden being a Lady, and for her, that means having to discover what that means. Whereas, for someone like Princess Augusta, she's been born into this. It's in her nature to hold herself that way."
"The way that Bridgerton is able to be this diverse utopia is because there had to be those hard conversations had at the beginning."
But, while exploring the politics of race and privilege, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story also unearths more of the passion and heart that Bridgerton's so famous for. It examines female friendships, love, loyalty and loneliness. We see the bonds between the women go beyond marital schemes and gossip. We witness the evolution of a romance between Queen Charlotte and King George, which tragically hits a speed bump when he is suddenly struck by sickness. This prequel is the missing puzzle we've needed all along to understand the monarch and the characters surrounding her.
"I always have to relate it back to Bridgerton," says Rosheuvel (who plays the older Queen Charlotte), explaining it's Charlotte's "loneliness" and "sensibility" that connects the series to this prequel.
"We see her in Bridgerton have those intimate moments with a king that is going mad — a king's sickness that isn't understood by everybody. And to [now] have that explained to the fans and the world, I think is a really important journey for the fans, and for us as artists to go on."
Ultimately, we see who Queen Charlotte truly is — and what makes her and the Bridgerton world the very one that Lady Whistledown can't stop writing about.
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story will be available to stream on Netflix from 4 May 2023.