A dashing spy! A spinster determined to cause a scandal! Estranged childhood friends-to-lovers! Emily Sullivan’s debut historical romance, A Rogue to Remember, practically begs for a screen adaptation. So who better to give happily ever after fans a list of criminally underrated costume dramas?
My lifelong love of the costume drama began during childhood sleepovers at my grandma’s house where we would watch episodes of Masterpiece on PBS or movies she had either rented from the library or taped off the TV. These were usually British adaptations of various 19th century novels and I couldn’t get enough of the lavish settings, the period clothing, the crisp accents and the melodramatic storylines. I wanted my life to be filled with intrigue, forbidden romance and lots of longing glances. Instead, I’ve grown into a happily married and, perhaps, slightly boring adult who prefers their drama to be on the page or screen. And in times such as these, I’ve also come to value the comfort provided by a good Happily Ever After. However, there is a limit to the number of times one can watch Mr. Darcy’s terrible proposal or submit to yet another adaptation of Jane Eyre. So in that vein, here are a few underrated gems that combine some of my favorite elements of a good costume drama along with the promise of a HEA.
Gentleman Jack (2019)
Suranne Jones is absolutely mesmerizing in this HBO show based on the diaries of 19th century British landowner and LGBTQ+ trailblazer Anne Lister that everyone should be screaming about. Lister is a commanding presence as she stalks around Yorkshire in her top hat and tailcoat, refusing to conform to social norms and ruffling feathers wherever she goes, which makes the tender romance that develops between her and shy neighbor Ann Walker a particularly compelling example of opposites attract.
Vanity Fair (2018)
If you enjoyed the modern musical cues and eye-catching costumes of "Bridgerton," check out the most recent adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel which features songs from Kate Bush and The Cure to score the story of the social climbing but oh-so-entertaining Becky Sharp. While Miss Sharp is far too cynical to ever truly fall in love, the slow burn secondary romance between Amelia Sedley (played by “Bridgerton” actor Claudia Jessie) and William Dobbin (Johnny Flynn, the star of 2020's Emma) that unfurls over years will please romance lovers seeking a more traditional HEA.
Desperate Romantics (2009)
This BBC series follows the burgeoning careers and tumultuous love lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of radical painters who sought to challenge the stodgy Victorian art world. It also focuses on the real-life—and often scandalous—romances between Dante Gabriel Rosetti and model Elizabeth Siddons, and John Stuart Mills and the unhappily married Effie Gray. Rosetti is played to rakish perfection by a young Aidan Turner, perhaps best known for his shirtless scythe-wieding in “Poldark.”
Death Comes to Pemberley (2011)
Ok, so you’ve watched both major adaptions of Pride and Prejudice dozens of times and have strong opinions on the Firth vs. McFadden debate. But have you seen Mr. Darcy played by a super grumpy Matthew Rhys trying to solve a murder? If not, let me introduce you to this enjoyable miniseries based on the book by beloved British mystery writer P.D. James. It takes place several years after the events of Austen’s novel and gives viewers a window into the lives of Darcy and Elizabeth, who are happily married until Lydia and Wickham show up and cause trouble.
North and South (2004)
Some may quibble with this entry being labeled as “underrated” given its cult-like status. But until Richard Armitage growling “Look back at me” is as well-known as the Darcy hand-flex, I contend that this miniseries based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854 novel about a young woman moving to northern England and learning the importance of workers’ rights deserves more attention. It also features a borderline torturous slow burn romance that is entirely worth enduring for one of the best onscreen kisses I’ve ever seen.