We all have at least one fictional character who we relate to on a visceral level. It might be that their personality is the same as yours, they share life experiences with you, or something else. But that character occupies a special place for you. Penelope Featherington of Bridgerton is one such character for me.
She is a true introvert, as am I. But there’s more to Penelope than that, more than a choice to stay quiet. Penelope doesn’t feel like anyone’s favorite, and she’s mostly on the outskirts of the main story — at least for now. It’s easy to see during Season 1 of Bridgerton how the place she occupies with everyone she loves shapes her, and her feelings. But that’s not why we’re here to talk about Penelope, no. We’re here because her storyline in season 1 has resulted in some harsh opinions about her that I feel are undeserved.
Bridgerton, the hit show based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling series of Regency romance novels, obviously focuses on the title family and their love stories, but the Featherington family are significant supporting characters. And Penelope, played by Nicola Coughlan, most of all. One reason why is because…SPOILER ALERT… she is revealed to be the successful gossip columnist Lady Whistledown.
The problem arises when the Featherington’s cousin Marina Thompson (played by Ruby Barker) arrives. Colin Bridgerton (played by Luke Newton) becomes interested in her. This causes Penelope pain because she has feelings for Colin, but the real drama is the fact that Marina is hiding a pregnancy. She must marry as soon as possible or face ruin. Marina chooses Colin to accomplish this, even though she has other options.
Penelope tries to convince her mother to do something about the situation– that doesn’t work. She tries to gently let Colin know Marina is already in love with someone so he will call off the engagement– that doesn’t work. She tries to talk Marina out of using Colin– that doesn’t work. At this moment, Marina also cruelly tells Penelope that Colin will never return Penelope’s feelings. The viewer has seen Penelope hurting as she watches Colin court Marina, so to hear these words of top of that is a gut punch. Penelope is the only person in the Featherington house genuinely being nice to Marina and trying to help her. Marina’s hard circumstances are no excuse for what she says, or for what she tries to do to Colin.
Perhaps the most important detail happens shortly before this speech, though. Penelope notices that Marina has packed a bag, realizing she and Colin are going to elope. This means time has run out. There is no time to reason with anyone anymore. If Penelope doesn’t do something now, Colin will end up trapped his whole life in a marriage he was tricked into. Divorce was so stigmatized at that time that it was not a practical option. Because of this, there was at that point no other way to save Colin than to reveal the truth about Marina through Lady Whistledown.
Of course, the optics of this aren’t good. Marina is in a very sympathetic, difficult situation and she ended up publicly disgraced. However, I think the writers clearly established that Penelope had no other choice. It was either that or allow a good person to be manipulated into a permanent connection. Penelope feels terrible about it as well. She cries on best friend Eloise Bridgerton’s shoulder that night, and it’s only later we realize that that is when she wrote the column exposing Marina’s actions.
Penelope’s motivations are also not as selfish as some people would like to suggest. She didn’t save Colin so that he would turn around and be with her. She knew that wasn’t going to happen. She is focused on his feelings the whole time. “What of Colin?” she asks Marina when trying to talk her out of tricking him. After the news breaks, Penelope asks Eloise how Colin is doing. It was about saving him. Even later, when Colin admits feeling like a fool and Penelope begins to declare her feelings for him, she seems to do it out of empathy and not any sort of expectation that he will reciprocate.
By exposing Marina, Penelope also put her entire family’s reputation at risk. Marina has been living in their household, so they are tainted by association. But that was a risk Penelope was willing to take. Thankfully, Colin’s sister Daphne has enough social power to redeem the Featherington name now that she is a Duchess. But Penelope took that chance for Colin’s happiness, not her own.
Also, some may say this isn’t relevant but Penelope is a an extremely relatable character. Who hasn’t experienced unrequited love? To see her believe that Colin will never want her, and then Marina just reinforces that belief, is the definition of pain. And that’s not to mention the other things she goes through during the season!
Penelope is revealed to be Lady Whistledown at the end of season 1 of Bridgerton, so viewers who have only seen the show will have to look back on the exact sequence of events to realize why she acted the way she acted. But once you do that, it’s hard to not feel bad for everyone in the situation, Penelope included. Yes, this was anything but the ideal outcome, but her decision doesn’t make Penelope a villain. It just makes her human.
I am proudly part of the Penelope Featherington Defense Squad. Join me, won’t you?