Historical Inaccuracy in Fiction: Why Bridgerton Succeeds and The Buccaneers Doesn't

Historical Inaccuracy in Fiction: Why Bridgerton Succeeds and The Buccaneers Doesn't
VOICE OVER: Emily Brayton WRITTEN BY: Shaina Higgins
"Bridgerton" vs "The Buccaneers," one clearly wins the historical accuracy department. On this channel we love to get swept up in the romance of a bygone era, but not all TV-assisted time travel is created equal. Our video includes "Bridgerton," "The Buccaneers," "Dickinson," and more!

Historical Inaccuracy in Fiction: Why Bridgerton Succeeds and The Buccaneers Doesn't

Welcome to MsMojo. On this channel we love to get swept up in the romance of a bygone era. But not all TV-assisted time travel is created equal. We’ll be getting into some plot details, so beware of spoilers.

For as long as people have been gathering around moving pictures, creators have been using the medium to carry us to different times and places. Set in an alternate version of Regency England, “Bridgerton” debuted over the 2020 holiday season when more people than usual were looking to their media for an escape. The show was an overnight smash success for Netflix. It’s no wonder that other platforms scrambled to find their own IP to capitalize on the new interest.

AppleTV+ launched in fall of 2019, and quickly built a reputation for excellence prioritizing quality over quantity in their original content. They dipped a toe in the historical fiction pool with shows like the clever and irreverent “Dickinson,” and the exquisite book-to-film adaptation of “Pachinko.” But while both series are highly acclaimed, neither broke into the zeitgeist to become the kind of pop culture sensation Apple might have hoped for. When the streamer announced in 2022 that it would produce a new adaptation of “The Buccaneers,” however, it looked like they might have found the kind of property that could make that leap.

On paper (no pun intended), "Bridgerton" and “The Buccaneers” share some commonalities. Both are book adaptations, with “Bridgerton” being based on a contemporary series by Julia Quinn, and “The Buccaneers” adapted from Edith Wharton’s unfinished final novel. Both heavily feature young women in pursuit of love and marriage as they navigate high society. And both use historical elements and real traditions like the London Social Season as a framework for the fictional drama of their plots to unfurl.

While “Bridgerton” patterns itself recognizably after the Regency era so many of us first encountered through Jane Austen, the 1813 world of the story is openly much more fantasy than fact. From the canonically-addressed integrated population of the ton to the almost confection-like visual aesthetics, this London has the fairytale quality of a garden in eternal bloom. And yet, real world history is a heavy influence in the rigid social order that forms the boundaries each character is expected to act within.

By contrast, in “The Buccaneers,” acting out is the whole point. The story of five upstart Americans offering their fortunes in exchange for fancy British titles instantly positions the vaguely Gilded Age quintet as very Not Like the Other Debutantes. The Dollar Princesses who inspired Wharton’s novel were considered fresh and interesting in England for their outgoing American demeanors, which is an idea “The Buccaneers” carries to the extreme. Conchita, Nan, Jinny, Mable, and Lizzy aren’t just rambunctious by the standards of the 1880s, but frequently behave in a manner that is more “Sex Lives of College Girls” than “The Gilded Age.”

We are told that society as a whole disapproves of their antics, but the four are rarely in the company of society enough for this to carry much weight. Though they crossed the Atlantic to join in on the London Season, the series quickly sends its characters to the country where they drink, dance, and carry on, frequently in the company of young, unmarried men. Historically, this would have been ruinous behavior, and Conchita’s presence would have damaged her own standing rather than saved her friends. However, the characters who popular the insular setting treat their indiscretions as more akin to bad etiquette. Absent a society to bounce off of, it becomes difficult to get a sense of how this behavior scales in the reality of the show.

“Bridgerton”’s London society is practically a character in its own right, with its judging eyes and whispering lips personified in the gossip writer Lady Whistledown. The series not only goes out of its way to establish the standards of behavior, but it shows us those standards in action. Most of the relevant plot points are built around adherence to the rules of society, and the devastation that comes from even the perception of having broken them. There are real emotional stakes in those moments because we have seen the penalty for failing to conform. And characters like Eloise Bridgerton not only stand out in contrast to their surroundings, but are also forced to reckon with the repercussions when they flout convention.

When”the Buccaneers” opens up to include a wider world, whether it be among old money New York, or Aristocratic London, the worst consequences the five heroines face is disapproving glances and catty comments. In general this paints their behavior as more uncouth than scandalous. So when it comes to light that Nan St. George is illegitimate, the reaction seems both over and under blown all at once.

For Nan’s sister Jinny, as well as for her future mother in law, this information has the potential to affect not only Nan’s future, but everyone around her. Her parents recognize this possibility, while seeming more focused on the interfamily dynamics. And for Nan herself it is keeping secrets that is the real problem, with apparently no concern for the nature of the secret. Her view is reinforced when Theo, who is a Duke with all the social expectation that implies, treats her birth status as a minor inconvenience for the sake of love. Not only does he hand wave the issue away, he behaves as though it wouldn’t have enough impact on any of their lives to be worth caring about.

The showing and telling never quite matches up. Are we supposed to believe that Theo is that naive? Or that Jinny is overreacting? Here we see “The Buccaneers” trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants the breathless drama of high society scandal, in an era where reputation was supreme, but does not want to be constrained either in having to establish clear rules or follow them. There’s a lack of specificity in all aspects of the production that make the show feel less like period escapism and more like a run-of-the-mill teen drama.

"Bridgerton"'s world is constructed fully and thoughtfully. It is not a Regency reenactment by any means, with aspects of costuming, behavior, and historical fact having been altered in various ways. A few glaring errors aside, there is a cohesion in this version of 1813 London that helps it feel thoroughly realized. World building is an essential component of period media, with consistency and internal logic go a long way to making up for any deviation from historical realism. Ultimately, it’s less about the specifics than it is the specificity. Regardless of its less than orthodox adherence to facts, Bridgerton excels in feeling like a fully fleshed reality with just enough similarity to our own

“The Beccaneers” gives few details beyond place names. The year of the story isn’t explicitly stated, and the aesthetic choices give no hint. The five Americans dress in a grab bag of styles that could have been pulled out of any number of 19th and early 20th century decades, and sport very modern messy hairstyles. Pop and rock fill out the soundtrack, while the scripted dialogue favors more contemporary speech. Personal interactions are casual and familiar in a way that would have been rare in the actual 1880s.

All these choices are intended to boost relatability. And anachronism can be a very effective tool to bridge past and present in historical fiction. Sofia Copolla’s “Marie Antoinette” also featured modern music in its soundtrack, as well as loose, improvised dialogue. “Bridgerton” takes popular hits and incorporates them as string instrumentals, translating our pop culture into the accent of the show. Apple TV’s own “Dickinson” worked by adding highly stylized elements to the setting while juxtaposing contemporary delivery with solid period design

For anachronism to pay off as an artistic choice various pieces have to come together into something deliberate, rich, and well defined, as “Bridgerton” has done so well. Whereas “The Buccaneers” declines at every turn to give shape to itself. It makes occasional tentative nods to a more heightened aesthetic, but neither makes them a recurring theme, nor commits to the kind of sharp contrast that made “Dickinson” effective. Instead it merely throws modern signifiers on top of vaguely period trappings. The end result feels more akin to the misfire that was Netflix’ “Persuasion.” Or, even more so the Gossip Girl school production of “The Age of Innocence.”

Most historical fiction fans don’t come in looking for a pure history lesson. The best examples of the genre use their settings as a vehicle, transporting us to unfamiliar eras and then showing us how our universal human experiences unfold in the context of a distant time and place. For “Bridgerton” the setting is both backdrop and player on the stage. For “The Buccaneers” it is rendered so inconsequential that there seems to be no reason the story wasn’t simply reimagined in the present day. As escape, or window to another world, it doesn’t show us anything we haven’t already seen.

What are your feelings on Bridgerton, The Buccaneers, or historical fiction TV in general? The salon is open, friends, so let’s discuss in the comments.