For its second season, the ballrooms of “Bridgerton” opened their doors to the Sharma sisters.
Originally named Kate and Edwina Sheffield in the romance novels by Julia Quinn, the sisters’ backstories are reimagined for “Bridgerton.” Still arriving in London with the hopes of finding Edwina a match, the Sharmas now set sail from Bombay (present-day Mumbai), not the English countryside.
“Bridgerton” is set in a fictional, racially integrated version of Regency England. Season two, which takes place in 1814, continues the first season’s efforts to challenge traditional depictions of the era.
The show deliberately incorporates various aspects of Indian and other South Asian cultures through the incorporation of masala chai, a string quartet performance of a Bollywood song, and an intimate pre-wedding Haldi ceremony — though some viewers pointed out the show's mix of traditions is inaccurate.
For other viewers, "Bridgerton" season two's efforts at cultural inclusion has been enough for them to sing its praises. In one scene, Kate applies coconut oil to Edwina’s hair. ”I’ve never seen anything like that on-screen before,” actor Simone Ashley told TODAY in an interview, adding that the ancient Indian beauty technique was one of her favorite scenes to film.
But how much does season two’s “multihued, multiethnic, colorful world,” as showrunner Chris Van Dusen put it in an interview with the New York Times, compare to what the ballrooms were really like in the British empire?
Considering this era saw the English East India Company’s violent conquest of the Indian subcontinent, it might be hard to imagine that these sisters from Bombay could have been based on actual figures.
In an interview with TODAY, however, Durba Ghosh, a professor of history at Cornell University and author of "Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire," said "Bridgerton" is not quite as anachronistic as it may seem.
Women like the Sharmas could very well have been a part of the Regency era’s elite society. In fact, the transcripts of history show that South Asian women were present — even if the majority of on-screen depictions of the era say otherwise.
“I think the reason we think that Regency England was so white is because we’ve seen all the television series and film adaptations. In reality, there probably were Asians and people of African descent in those spaces,” Ghosh explained.
Meet the real women who may have inspired the Sharma sisters
Ghosh cites the lives of Indian women like Kitty Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Ducarel, and Helene Bennett as examples of women like the Sharma sisters.
All three women’s lives were changed by England’s presence in the Indian subcontinent. Some were the product of multicultural unions; others were part of them, as they weren’t uncommon in the region during that time.
Between 1600 and 1874, the East India Company — founded by a royal charter to trade in the Indian Ocean region — held a monopoly on trade in India, and became "an agent of British imperialism," as Brittanica puts it, through its territorial acquisitions.
What resulted was a constant fusion of cultures as British merchants, officials, and the like traveled to and from India. According to William Dalrymple’s book White Mughals, wills from the 1780s show that about one-third of British men in India left their possessions to Indian wives or children.
Here's what we know of a few of their lives.
The particular story of Kitty Kirkpatrick could easily fuel a novel based in the Regency era.
Born in India in 1802 as Noor un-Nissa, Sahib Begum, Kirkpatrick arrived in London at four years old with the tangles of her parents’ romantic scandal trailing her.
Kirkpatrick’s father was James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a British diplomat and officer of the East India Company. Her mother was Khair un-Nissa, a Hyderabadi noblewoman. The two's coupling was considered an instant scandal in the Mughal dynasty, a Muslim empire that ruled a large part of India and Pakistan in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Historians believe they met when Khair un-Nissa was about 15 and engaged to another. When Khair un-Nissa became pregnant out of wedlock, they were granted permission to be married.
According to Dalrymple’s book White Mughals, James was able to marry Khair un-Nissa under the condition that he not only convert to Islam, but also that he would serve as a watchdog of the East India Company.
In 1805, James decided to send their two children — Kirkpatrick and her older brother, William — to England for education, despite his wife's opposition. The children never saw their mother again.
"I often dream that I am with you in India and that I see you both in the room you used to sit in."
Having been separated from her mother upon her departure from India, Kirkpatrick was baptized as a Christian and renamed Catherine Aurora. In his book, Dalrymple notes that as Kirkpatrick came into adulthood, she garnered “attention as a woman of quite remarkable beauty” and “unusual means … thanks to her father’s generous legacy.”
Kirkpatrick was cut off from her Indian heritage until a trip to the countryside when she encountered a portrait of her and her brother that was drawn in Hyderabad. Kirkpatrick ended up tracking down her grandmother, who was 85 and living in Hyderabad.
“I often think of you and remember you and my dear mother. I often dream that I am with you in India and that I see you both in the room you used to sit in,” Kirkpatrick wrote to her in a letter.
Elizabeth Ducarel's trajectory is somewhat reminiscent of Kate and Edwina’s storylines. Like the Sharmas, she made the voyage from India to England as an adult.
Born Sharaf un-Nisa Khanum, Ducarel was the daughter of the Maharaja of Purnea. According to Ghosh, Ducarel had six children with a district supervisor of the East India Company, Gerard Gustavus Ducarel.
After following him to different posts across India, Elizabeth made her way alongside him to England in 1784. There, they were eventually married and led an active public life.
Of the three women, Ghosh told TODAY that Helene Bennett — Halima Begum before marriage — is her favorite. As Ghosh explained, Bennett was from an upper class family in Lucknow, India. She likely met General Benoit de Boigne, a French mercenary soldier who fought for the British army, while staying with her sister, Faiz Bakhsh, between 1783 and 1788, per Ghosh's book "Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire." Bakhsh was linked to William Palmer, a military official and founder of a banking firm, and de Boigne’s friend.
“She meets him. They have two children, and unusually, he brings her to London to live,” she said.
Ultimately, though, Bennett and de Boigne’s relationship would align more with the adultery plots of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” than this season’s episodes of “Bridgerton.”
Shortly after settling down in London in 1798, de Boigne left Helen for a 17-year-old French aristocrat, Adele d’Osmond. Their marriage lasted for 10 months, though they went on to have various reconciliations.
Despite running off to have his liaison, Ghosh noted that de Boigne continued to financially support Bennett throughout her life. She corresponded with him, giving updates about their children.
With her ex-husband traveling through Europe, Bennett moved to the English countryside village of Horsham, where she lived out her days. Though baptized a Catholic, Bennett was buried according to the Muslim tradition, with her face turned toward Mecca.
While 'Bridgerton' is a historical fantasy, the real stories of these women offer new narratives to consider
Of course, “Bridgerton” is not set in the same version of England that Kirkpatrick, Ducarel, or Bennett arrived in. According to the mythology of “Bridgerton,” the show’s racially integrated world was forged by Queen Charlotte’s marriage into the royal family (which will be explored further in a prequel series).
For offering such a simple explanation, “Bridgerton” has been accused of glossing over issues of racism and colonialism that defined the Regency Era.
While fundamentally escapist, “Bridgerton” does prompt audiences to consider what this era was truly like for BIPOC of the time, simply by featuring them on screen. For example, Will Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe), the "Bridgerton's" boxer-turned-bar owner, is based on a real person: Bill Richmond, a Black boxer and celebrity.
As period pieces become more diverse — "The Gilded Age," which provides a glimpse into the Black elite class of New York in the late 19th century, is a recent example — creators can find plenty of story potential in history books, in addition to their imaginations.
History can inspire the kind of period pieces not commonly depicted on screen. There are stories of real-life women of color, like the ones mentioned above, who crossed cross-cultural and political rubicons (not to mention actual oceans) for a different life. Kitty Kirkpatrick movie, anyone?