People of Colour in Jane Austen’s Time, a Guest Post from Catherine Bilson

This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ Blog on 18 July 2019. Enjoy! 

[Last week], Twitter blew up 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!

duke-2015_276.jpg 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!

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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1 Response to People of Colour in Jane Austen’s Time, a Guest Post from Catherine Bilson

  1. Jacey Bedford says:

    Looking forward to watching this. Simon looks fine to me!

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