In Bridgerton season two, Penelope Featherington – aka the infamous and mysterious tattler Lady Whistledown – is a case study in the perks of being a wallflower.
As any fan of Netflix’s hit period romance Bridgerton can attest, the show is full of love stories. There are passionate courtships, tender familial bonds and female friendships that remind us that in a world which privileges a partnered life, there are beautiful connections to be found all around.
But as much as Bridgerton is about finding your person within London’s marriage market – whether a romantic attachment or otherwise – it is also a show about staying true to who you are. And there is perhaps no character who represents this better than Penelope Featherington.
Intelligent, witty and and kind-hearted, Penelope (played by Nicola Coughlan) is born into a family that will never understand her. Her mean-spirited family constantly criticise her weight, complexion and shy, studious nature; and in the cutthroat world of upper-class Regency society, where she prefers to stay on the outskirts rather than jostle for centre stage, she doesn’t fare much better.
Penelope, however, has her own way of rebelling against the society that places such harsh limitations on her self-expression. In the final moments of season one, the youngest of the three Featherington sisters was revealed to be none other than Lady Whistledown, the mysterious tattler who writes the scandalous society sheets spreading all the Ton’s gossip.
While we don’t yet know Penelope’s exact motivations for assuming the alter ego, the first episode in the new season of Bridgerton gives a deeper insight into a character who is frequently overlooked by everyone she writes about.
Throughout the first episode, we find Penelope on the margins once more at the start of a new social season. With London’s marriage market officially in full swing, Penelope is either stationed by the window observing the goings-on in the square, carefully watching who commands attention at the balls, or furiously scribbling her column and hurrying to the printers in the middle of the night to ensure her papers are delivered on time the next day.
Naturally, everyone in town is thrilled by the return of Lady Whistledown’s papers, even Queen Charlotte, who can barely suppress a smile when her inspection of all the eligible misses at the start of the social season is interrupted by a sudden delivery of the new publication. Even as everyone in town praises Whistledown’s keen observations and cunning wit, however, Penelope is teased mercilessly by her sisters and mother for writing to Colin Bridgerton and bullied at the ball by Cressida Cowper who calls her an “insipid wallflower”.
Penelope manages to escape the party, however, when her close friend Eloise Bridgerton sweeps her away, maddened at having to endure the “absurd” event where everyone is staring at her and comparing her to her sister Daphne. Penelope says rather sorrowfully that she doesn’t have the same difficulties as Eloise, for far from being the centre of attention, she is not paid any whatsoever.
Then, after the pair sit down on the grass together, Pen opens up to Eloise about being an outsider.
“It’s not that bad, you know, the wallflower thing,” she says. “I always get the first glass of lemonade, I know who all the best dancers are just from watching. I can always tell when a suitor is serious about courtship just by how he looks when a young lady dances with another.
“The wall even affords me the chance to hear what the footmen say in secret.”
Eloise then teases her that she has been keeping her love of the social season a secret, and that she wishes she could escape the traditional trappings of a domestic life.
“No one truly notices me,” Penelope says. “I suppose that is what I like.
“When you’re invisible you have all the amusement without any of the expectations popularity brings. It frees you.”
“Do you think that is why Whistledown remains anonymous?” Eloise asks.
“Perhaps,” Penelope replies thoughtfully.
Penelope’s speech is disheartening on many levels, of course, given that she is so ostracised by society that her experience of attention and affection comes second hand from the sidelines or from her best friend – and even then, Eloise frequently ignores what Penelope has to say and uses her as a sounding board for Whistledown theories, or frustrations with living in a marriage obsessed society.
That being said, Penelope’s refusal to subscribe to the popularity contest and embrace herself for who she really is allows her a level of freedom that is arguably greater than those who attempt to climb the social ladder. Not only is she authentic to herself, but through cultivating the identity of Lady Whistledown, she can claim the spotlight on her own terms.
Beyond her ability to receive personal fulfilment through her scandal papers, though, Penelope is also able to carve out agency in a world that refuses to give her any. It is a great irony that the person who is considered the least likely to be the voice behind Lady Whistledown is the one everyone can’t stop talking about, and the one with the power to affect real change in her community – for better or worse. In Bridgerton, being yourself is a subversive move; but as Penelope proves, there are real perks to being a wallflower.
Christobel Hastings is Stylist's Entertainment Editor whose specialist interests include pop culture, LGBTQ+ identity and lore.