It’s simple math, really: In a family with eight children, it stands to reason, surely one of them must be queer.
Bridgerton has defied other expectations of a Regency-era love story: It is set in an alternate universe where the upper class is fully integrated and race is not an issue. (In the show, Queen Charlotte is played by Guyanese-British actress Golda Rosheuvel, treating some historians’ speculation that Charlotte was Britain’s first Black queen as fact.) The show’s first two seasons focus on interracial romances, and the second season at least obliquely references the history of British colonialism in India. Why not a queer love story next?
There’s one obvious candidate for such a storyline: On the show, Eloise is the most outspoken, most feminist Bridgerton sibling. She is not interested in becoming a debutante, delaying her appearance to pursue another year of studies. She often dismisses marriage, questioning why a husband and children are all that are waiting in store for women.
We shouldn’t have to search history books to find proof that Eloise can be queer—after all, Bridgerton is a reimagined universe and complete fiction. Nonetheless, romantic relationships between women did in fact exist in the Regency era.
“They were called Sapphists,” said Noreena Shopland, a writer and historian of LGBT+ history. The term comes from the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho, from the island of Lesbos, who wrote about her attraction to and love of women. (The word “lesbian” was not used as a sexual orientation until the late 19th or early 20th century.)
One of the most famous examples from this era involves the Ladies of Llangollen, two upper-class Irish women who in the late 18th century left Ireland and moved together to north Wales. They lived together for 50 years, and, after sending back for one of their servants to join them, all three women were buried in the same plot with the same grave marker. They also lived during the reign of Queen Charlotte, the same time period as the Bridgerton series, and the queen was reportedly so interested in the couple she persuaded King George III to grant them a pension.
“People talked about them and talked openly about them. And they sort of talked about ‘unnatural relations’ and that sort of thing, despite the fact that [the Ladies of Llangollen] did try to stop people talking about them in that way,” said Shopland. Otherwise, the public perception, Shopland says, became that the two women simply chose a “platonic, pure friendship” over marriage and children. Today, we would accept theirs as a same-sex relationship.
It would be easy to write a similar love story between Eloise and her best friend, Penelope Featherington. When Eloise isn’t pondering whether there are any merits to a heterosexual marriage, she is holding hands with Penelope or running off to find where she is. This pairing is a fan favorite, and already has a name: Peneloise. Given her family’s class, Eloise does not have to marry for economic security, unlike many other women of her time. She can pursue a “friendship” with Penelope, and they could live together independent of any men.
Fiona Brideoake, Ph.D, whose research focuses on British literature and queer historiography, said that a love story between Eloise and Penelope actually makes quite a bit of sense for that time period. She points to Jane Austen, and how her novels are in many ways about the relationships between women. In Northanger Abbey, said Brideoake, “We have every reason to believe Catherine is as interested in remaining close to Eleanor Tilney—sister of her eventual husband Henry—as she is to him.”
Season 2 ended with Eloise learning of Penelope’s identity as Lady Whistledown and furiously rejecting her as a result. “In that sense, the idea of Penelope and Eloise’s kinship in this world existing unnoticed amongst the imaginations of the various courtship narratives—and yet being the climactic breakup of this season’s narrative arc, of that being the engine of the story—that seems very attuned to many of the novels and historical examples we have in this period.”
But Peneloise is not the only option. The show’s writers could continue developing a relationship between Penelope and Colin Bridgerton, and stay true to the friends-to-lovers story those two characters enjoy in the book series. In that case, who should Eloise fall in love with then?
“There were thousands and thousands and thousands of women, more women than you could even count, who didn’t want to live the life of a woman,” said Shopland of this era, who also wrote A History of Women in Men’s Clothes. It was surprisingly common for such women to cross-dress and live as men. “It made it easier for people we would identify as lesbians, because one of them would become a man, and they would present as a heterosexual couple. And people lived like this for often 40, 50, 60 years as couples.” This practice also enabled trans men to live authentically, said Shopland, allowing them to get married and often adopt kids.
Almost every job a man was doing, a woman was also doing it while cross-dressing, including sailors and soldiers. In fact, Shopland says, it was so common that the newspapers began to question whether there were any male soldiers left.
Anne Lister of Yorkshire was born in the late 18th century and is the inspiration for the BBC and HBO series Gentleman Jack. “[She] was sleeping with half the women in West Yorkshire and detailing this in six million words of diary entries. She was taunted as she walked down the street by people calling out, ‘Does your cock stand?’” said Brideoake. “She certainly dressed in men’s clothing, or dressed like the ladies did [but] in dark colored clothes. At a time in which fashionable young women wore white or light colors, Lister chose to wear dark, heavy fabrics [and] a top hat.”
Lister was a coal developer and property magnate and in many ways took on the role of an 18th century male landowner. She eventually entered a relationship and married (without legal recognition) a woman named Ann Walker.
Like the ladies of Llangollen, Brideoake notes, Lister was living very much in plain sight. Yet despite this cross-living being so common, it’s rarely seen on screen. Bridgerton could change that. In Season 2, Eloise develops a brief crush on Theo Sharpe, a printer’s assistant who introduces her to new ideas, including on women’s rights. The love story ended as quickly as it began, but the show could still introduce a new, cross-living or trans character for Eloise to fall in love with. Introducing such a character would allow the show to tackle so many other queer issues it wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
Whether it will remains to be seen.