Bridgerton’s Portia Featherington falls into what I like to think of as the “Severus Snape League.” Is she someone that I like as a person? Not necessarily, at least not a great majority of the time. But is she someone whose depth and complexity makes her one hell of a character? Absolutely. Thanks to the Bridgerton show writers, and to how wonderfully Polly Walker plays her, she quickly became one of my favorite characters to watch. Many of the things she did and said were frankly awful, but then she’d turn around and tear her husband apart for gambling all the family’s money away and pull me right back in. I can’t wait to see what the show does with her in the coming seasons, but for me the most compelling moment from Portia so far is a scene between her and Marina in Episode 8, “After the Rain.”
Almost a third of it is completely without dialogue, as we watch Portia gaze at her husband’s empty bed after his death. (RIP Archibald. Except maybe not quite, because you were the absolute worst.) We can tell by the look on her face that her feelings are complicated. Her marriage was not a happy one, and yet it was a constant in her life for over twenty years. Whether or not she’ll miss him at all as her partner, his loss puts Portia and her daughters in an extremely vulnerable position. Having some kind of lifeboat, even a small, rickety one, is better than being cast out to sea with nothing.
Portia’s introspection is interrupted by Marina, who, afraid that she’s about to enter into a marriage just as emotionally bereft as Lord and Lady Featherington’s, asks, “How did you do it? How did you endure two and twenty years of marriage without love?” Portia’s answer is heartbreaking.
“You find things to love, my dear. Small things. Big things, too, like your babies, and eventually they add up to be enough.”
That’s such a gut-wrenching way to think about such a major part of one’s life. We love Bridgerton, and the romance genre as a whole, because it’s just that. Romantic. Nobody would have wanted to watch the rest of Season 1 if Daphne had indeed been forced to enter into a miserable marriage with Nigel Berbrooke. There’s a reason why in The Viscount Who Loved Me Anthony doesn’t just go ahead and marry Edwina, guaranteeing a very unhappy ever after for both of them. The version of On the Way to the Wedding where Lucy stays married to a man she doesn’t love because her uncle forced her to is no fun at all. Portia’s life has been the complete antithesis of everything that makes romance so appealing. We’re each the main character of our own lives, but unfortunately not everyone gets to live out a main character storyline. Portia’s romance novel doesn’t exist, because a story with a heroine who ends up spending life tied to a man she doesn’t love or respect, and one who doesn’t love or respect her either, would be too depressing to read.
So do those small things and big things actually add up to be enough? To some degree they must, especially the children. But I also think that statement is laced with equal parts denial and self-deception. Sometimes the biggest lies we’re ever told in our lives are the ones we tell ourselves in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other, because the truth is too painful to bear. When faced with a bleak reality, the temptation to magpie any bit of shininess you may find is an understandable one.
“You are strong Miss Thompson. Perhaps even more so than me.”
Bridgerton loves strong women, and avoids getting caught in the trap that ensnares a lot of media: equating strong with perfect. Strong women still make mistakes, and sometimes do the wrong thing. That’s certainly the case with both Portia and Marina. Portia really felt she was doing her best to help a girl that landed in her care, but wow there were points when she was monstrous about it. Marina arrived at the Featherington home in an extremely sympathetic situation, and at the same time ended up hurting people who didn’t deserve it. The women of Bridgerton are allowed to be real people, and I love to see these two characters, whose relationship has been so contentious, share this moment of acknowledgement, however brief it may be.
“You will do well.”
Portia leaves Marina with these parting words, and the stark differences between the two become apparent one last time. In Portia’s world, that sentiment rings true. An unmarried pregnant young woman who was a hair’s breadth away from complete ruin has secured herself a husband. Something to add to the collection of the things that make up “enough.” But Marina looks unconvinced, and we know that she should be. While there were changes made to Marina’s storyline in the show, readers of the Bridgerton series know that if the show writers stick more closely to her original story from this point on, she won’t do well at all, and Marina has already been through enough to know she can’t afford that kind of optimism.
Marina can’t bring herself to respond and Portia walks away, wrapping up both the scene, and one of the more complicated relationships of the season. These two, at almost constant loggerheads the entirety of the time they’ve known one another, both end Bridgerton‘s first season trying, each in their own way, to come to grips with the anger, disappointment, and injustice of existing in a patriarchal world that does everything in its power to ensure that the most women will ever get is just enough.