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Offers and Acceptance: Contract Fundamentals in Netflix’s Bridgerton

Anokhy Desai


  • Underlying this hit series is a secret agreement of which only one of two women is aware. Is it enforceable?
  • It’s unclear whether the acceptance element of a contract was met and to whom the offer was made.
  • Another contractual principle that may apply is promissory estoppel.
Offers and Acceptance: Contract Fundamentals in Netflix’s Bridgerton

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Matrimony. For once that particular wager is placed, it cannot easily be undone.

The second season of Bridgerton, Netflix’s hit show centered on the Bridgerton family in a fantasy version of Regency-era London, follows the eldest of the eight siblings, Anthony Bridgerton. As the head of the household after his father’s untimely death, Anthony is set on marrying a woman who checks all the boxes he expects of his ideal viscountess rather than marrying for love.

Enter the Sharmas, a hybrid family consisting of Kathani “Kate” Sharma, step-sister Edwina Sharma, and Edwina’s mother, Mary Sharma. The Sharmas gain sponsorship from and spend the courting season at the estate of the respectable Lady Danbury, the aunt of the duke from the first season.

Mary, having married beneath her rank and forced to flee the ton, and Kate, the orphan daughter of Mary’s husband by a former, equally working-class wife, both understand the importance of helping Edwina make her society debut as a respectable and, frankly, overly accomplished woman to erase any stain of yesteryear. This season's dilemma arises when Edwina and Kate fall in love with the viscount Anthony.

The Secret Contract at Issue

Anthony realizes he has feelings only for Kate, but he also feels forced to marry Edwina out of duty and a desire to avoid the kind of vulnerability he saw love create in his parents. Kate feels a similar familial duty to ignore her needs and encourage Edwina to marry the viscount. Underlying all this is a secret agreement of which only Kate is aware.

In her self-appointed duty as head of her family, Kate noticed they were running out of money. She took it upon herself to contact Mary’s estranged parents, the Sheffields, to secure a future for Edwina and Mary.

Still distraught that their daughter had left the bubble of high society for a penniless commoner and tarnished the family name, the Sheffields responded with specific terms: If Edwina made her London society debut successfully and married a man of titled status, the Sheffields would provide Edwina with an inheritance. They would also publicly accept her and Mary back into their lives.

Is This Contract Binding?

Multiple issues with the Sheffields’ terms require a review of contract law. Except for a few exceptions, a contract is legally binding—it includes an offer, acceptance, and consideration. An offer is a willingness to do something, acceptance occurs when a party accepts that offer, and consideration is an exchange of value between parties.

The Sheffield contract included an offer to give Edwina an inheritance and publicly accept their daughter and granddaughter into their family. The offer was made in exchange for Edwina’s successful society debut and marriage to a titled man in the ton. Both the offer and consideration elements were met.

It is, however, unclear whether the acceptance element was as well. Unsigned written agreements are enforceable. So Kate would not have had to return a letter to the Sheffields to sign the contract and accept the offer. But it is unclear whether the offer was made for Kate or for Edwina to fulfill.

Edwina, a minor, cannot legally agree to this contract, but that begs the question of whether her legal guardian could agree to it on her behalf. During this fictionalized period, the age of legality may have allowed Edwina to agree to the offer if she was given the option, or it may have required her husband or parent to sign for her. Because Edwina is unmarried at the time of receipt of the contract, it would be up to Mary to provide consent for her daughter.

If the offer was made to Kate, however, the question is whether Kate would be considered Edwina’s secondary guardian. Legal guardians of minors can sign contracts on their behalf. And Kate has been the family’s provider since her father died. However, it is unlikely that Kate would qualify as Edwina’s guardian while Mary is still alive.

Since it is not known whether the offer was intended for Edwina or for Kate to have Edwina fulfill, we can only assume that Kate’s agreement to the terms was invalid the moment she coordinated it with the Sheffields on Edwina’s behalf and without Edwina’s or Mary’s consent.

The Precedent for This Legal Analysis

This storyline resembles a similar issue in legal history. In Hamer v. Sidway, William Story promised his nephew, William Story II, $5,000 if his nephew abstained from drinking alcohol, using tobacco, swearing, and playing cards or billiards for money until he turned 21.

The nephew accepted the offer, met these terms, and wrote his uncle a letter requesting the promised sum. The uncle responded with a letter indicating that he’d prefer to wait to deliver the sum to his nephew until he was older. He offered to allow the sum to accrue interest in the meantime.

Although the nephew agreed, he ultimately never received any of the promised principal or the interest because his uncle died a few years after making the updated offer.

This case established two principles. The first is that an individual who voluntarily abstains from their legal rights based on the offer or promise of a future benefit has provided valid consideration. The second is that a unilateral contract, or one that benefits only one party, is enforceable.

The first principle applies to the Bridgertons in that Edwina abstained from her right to marry indiscriminately, as she was limited to only men of title. The second principle does not apply because the Sheffields would have benefitted from the renewed respect for their family name. Edwina would also be coming into family wealth, an obvious benefit to her and her mother.

How Promissory Estoppel Fits In

Another contract law principle is promissory estoppel. This doctrine allows a party to recover from a promise if its reliance on that promise was reasonable and the party attempting to recover it detrimentally relied on the promise.

In this season of Bridgerton, it is unclear whether there was a reliance on the Sheffields’ money and sponsorship. By marrying outside of high society, Mary lost her status in the town and fled to India with her husband. Kate knew that having access to a certain amount of privilege would help Mary and Edwina by association. She also knew it would gain their previously lost respect and put them back in a position of not having to live week to week.

In searching for a husband, Edwina turned down many suitors at Kate’s direction. That further limited her options in an unknowing adherence to the Sheffields’ terms. Whether this counts as detrimental reliance depends on whether the offer is read for Edwina to carry out alone or for Kate to guide Edwina. This would make the Sheffields' withdrawal from the agreement an instance of promissory estoppel.

However audiences view the Sheffields’ contract, one thing is certain: Bridgerton will return with new legal dilemmas in the next season. And that’s a promise.