Caught yourself fantasising about Pride & Prejudice’s Mr Darcy, Bridgerton’s the Duke of Hastings, or men in breeches generally? You’re not alone! Here, we break down the psychology of our period drama crushes.
“Am I honestly to believe you do not already know my name?”
Ever since he first strode onto our screens in that gorgeous Georgian gear, many of us have positively burned for him. Indeed, Stylist’s very own Billie Bhatia has dedicated an entire Instagram account to the one man (and spoon) the internet is lusting over right now – and some 13,800 people are following it for their daily dose of the duke.
Before him, we had the animal-like Mr Rochester, and the endearingly proper Mr Ferrars.
Then, of course, there’s the ever-so-principled Dr Enys. The similarly upstanding Mr Darcy in his sodden white shirt. And Poldark, usually in no shirt at all.
“Hand me a fan!” says one of my friends breathlessly, when I spam her WhatsApp with GIFs of the aforementioned characters (despite having long sworn that her heart belongs to Darcy and none other).
When she’s recovered herself, I tentatively ask her what it is she finds so fascinating about these men. Is it the costumes or…?
“I think it’s the manners,” she interrupts. “They’re all very handsome, but it’s the letter writing, the stolen glances, and the brushing of hands; all of the sexual tension from that is off the charts for me.
“These men all have such good hearts. They’re caring, they’re principled, and they want to write you a good letter rather than rip your bodice off. Plus, show me a man who isn’t improved by tailoring and a knee-high boot.”
Intrigued by this very specific read of the situation, I reach out to Professor Judith Hawley who, incidentally, instilled me with my own love of Jane Austen’s impossibly romantic novels when I listened to her lectures on 17th and 18th century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London.
“I think the Duke of Hastings owes more to previous adaptations of Austen, including Charlotte Bronte’s Mr Rochester, than to Austen herself,” she tells me, adding that “there is also more than a touch of Poldark in there.”
“Characters like this are appealing because they represent an obstacle to be overcome – a standard plot device in all romance, including Arthurian romances – and they are kind of feminist in that the woman gets to tame the man, even emasculate him, as Jane Eyre does with the blind Mr Rochester.
“And, with the whole world in lockdown, this version of courtship at a distance might have a particular resonance. It might also be appealing now as the antithesis of Love Island and that TV programme in which people get to choose partners by eying up their dangly bits [Naked Attraction].”
Psychologist, author, and therapist Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari, meanwhile, theorises: “The prohibition of intimacy and the banned premarital sex most likely plays a big part in the appeal of these men.
“Even spending time alone with a loved one was often frowned upon in those days and, just like Eve, many of us want the forbidden apple, and this plays into the fantasy and mystery.”
Dr Ben-Ari continues: “The forbidden element means that any interaction between the characters becomes more significant. Suddenly some simple eye contact, while dancing together at a ball, says a thousand words.
“Physical connection between the characters, however small, is given a deeper meaning – and this unspoken connection is thrilling and appealing.”
She adds: “Often these period romances – whether they’re seen in a TV programme, film, book, or even a poem – focus on the feelings associated with the beginning of a relationship, known as the honeymoon period. There is a human longing for the feelings of this stage.
“Additionally, what we see in these films and programmes is that relationships were different in these eras. Men were typically more gentlemanly, there was lots of romantic eye contact, the manner of dating was slower and there were certainly no distractions in the way of screens or technology.
“Generally speaking, this is in contrast to the way relationships form today – where physical connections and sex often occur quite early on in a relationship, and it’s not unusual to move from one relationship to the next.”
Of course, there’s no denying that there’s something compelling about a bygone era that champions love, romance, and respect above all else.
But just how realistic are these period dramas when it comes to courtship, really?
“Bridgerton is not attempting to be a historically accurate representation of Regency England,” Professor Hawley tells me.
“It is a version of a version of a version. To be academic about it, it is a kind of Platonic mise en abyme [a formal technique of placing a copy of an image within itself], because it is a fantastic reworking of a fantasy novel series which is itself based on previous TV and film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.
“It is not meant to be history or Austen,” she continues. “It is having fun with and camping up the genre of the costume drama… a kind of riff on the theme of playful parodies of Austen.”
Might we be better served, then, looking to the likes of Mr Darcy as accurate representations of men during that period, I wonder.
“Austen’s novels themselves are not histories,” adds Professor Hawley. “They are skilful adaptations of the conventions of the romantic novel, combining her readings of literature with her observations on human behaviour into a new form of the realistic courtship novel.
“Her novels end happily because that is the rule of the romantic novel, not because they are like life. But her novels are more like life than most previous romantic novels because of the way they depict and comment on human behaviour and relationships along the way.”
Professor Hawley does, though, offer us some hope when it comes to the (ahem) steamier content seen in Bridgerton.
“While I haven’t been on a Regency honeymoon myself, I would point out that people in the past had sex – and enjoyed it – or we would not be here today,” she says.
“Moreover, pornography thrived in the Regency period, and I think the series probably takes some visual cues from the erotic prints of artists such as Thomas Rowlandson.”
Many of us probably knew all of this, deep down in our souls. My aforementioned friend, though, admits that she’s worried her obsession with leading men from period romances has “ruined men for me.”
“Nothing compares,” she says despondently.
To people like my unnamed pal (who has asked to remain anonymous), Dr Ben-Ari has the following wisdom to impart.
“It’s important to remember that film and TV is a form of escapism, and period dramas are often very effective in creating a narrative that plays into our fantasies,” she says.
“There are certainly some aspects that would be appealing in real life – such as the romance, the seduction, the slow relationship, the gentlemanly manner, the lack of screens and technology. But others would be less desirable, such as women’s rights and status.”
And Hawley, similarly, cautions: “These period dramas portray a range of characters and different types of masculinity. We shouldn’t fixate on Hastings, just as we should pay attention to [the infinity less desirable] Mr Collins, Bingley and [villainous] Wickham in Pride & Prejudice.”
Still, though, we should strive to find the man who makes our hearts flutter like the Duke of Hastings.
Because, to paraphrase our beloved Bassett himself, we deserve nothing less. We deserve everything our heart desires.
Bridgerton, Poldark, Sense & Sensibility, and Pride & Prejudice are all available to stream on Netflix.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.