Many months ago, I voiced support for Bridgerton‘s Penelope Featherington. Now, it seems, the time has come to do it again. The writers once again put the character in a situation where she deserves defending, so I am here to do just that. And this time around, it feels more important than ever.
The series of Regency romance novels that Bridgerton is based on presents Penelope as a relatable and dynamic character the reader can root for. In the name of drama, the writers of the show have done something different. They have used the fact that Penelope is secretly the gossip writer Lady Whistledown to put her in unlikeable situations. Instead of adding complexity to the character, I feel that this disrespects Penelope and her future romance. Let’s unpack the details.
During season one, Penelope Featherington was forced to use Lady Whistledown to reveal the secret pregnancy of her cousin Marina because Marina was tricking Colin Bridgerton into marriage. Yes, Marina was in a sympathetic situation because she believed the baby’s father abandoned her, but her actions were still wrong. Colin is a good person who doesn’t deserve to be manipulated, and divorce was not a practical option then. Various attempts by Penelope to stop things another way were unsuccessful. Then Marina convinced Colin to run away to Gretna Green, so Penelope only exposed Marina as a last resort when time ran out.
Season two presents Penelope with another difficult dilemma. Queen Charlotte herself threatens Eloise Bridgerton because she believes Eloise is Lady Whistledown. She gives Eloise three days to become her ally or face her wrath. Eloise is Penelope’s best friend, so, naturally, Penelope wants to protect her. Madame Delacroix, the modiste who accidentally found out about Penelope’s alter ego, suggests writing something Eloise would never write about herself. Penelope initially refuses but she can think of no other way to prove Eloise is not Lady Whistledown. So, she reveals Eloise’s meetings with working-class Theo Sharpe, leading to scandal.
I know many viewers have thought that Penelope didn’t have to write these columns. I have never seen a plausible alternative that would work in either situation. Colin didn’t believe Lady Whistledown about the baby until Marina confirmed it. Something like an anonymous letter about it would not have worked to save him. The Queen was so set on believing that Eloise was Whistledown that she would not have listened to anyone else, even if Penelope could’ve managed to see the Queen and prove her identity within three days. The important thing is that Penelope felt like she had no other choice both times.
Feelings, Feelings, Feelings
Even a simple recap of these events will cause fans of Penelope, like me, to feel pain in their fandom hearts. These things do not happen in the Bridgerton book series, so the writers of the show simply added them for dramatic effect. I feel this was unnecessary, and, more than that, detrimental.
Penelope feels immense guilt at writing these two columns. She cries both times. She is so distraught by writing about Eloise, in fact, that she stops writing Lady Whistledown altogether. And she assumes it’s for good. Nicola Coughlan‘s performance conveys all of this excellently, as well.
Aside from the other pain she goes through, there is another important point to remember. Penelope harbors feelings for Colin Bridgerton but believes he will never see her as a woman at all, much less return her feelings. In the television series, this is especially true because Penelope and Colin have a strong friendship. The writers constantly emphasize that that’s the way he sees her. However, Penelope and Colin do fall in love in the fourth book.
To me, it’s not a sound storytelling strategy to villainize a character who will be one half of a future couple on the show. I hope at least most book readers will still root for Penelope, but the casual viewer might have a hard time liking her. And that’s a real shame.
A Brighter Future?
Of course, Penelope Featherington’s journey on the show is not finished. Bridgerton has been renewed for two more seasons so far. The heartbreaking place Penelope was left at the end of season two is painful. Eloise figured out that she was Whistledown which led to a devastating falling out. She also overheard Colin say he would never dream of courting her to other gentlemen. But the story will continue, and a new showrunner takes over for the series beginning next season.
Fans of Penelope and her pairing with Colin should logically be able to look forward to an upward trajectory for her character from now on. In general narrative terms, that is what would make sense. Will the writers of Bridgerton follow that logic? Only time will tell. But Penelope still has my loyalty and always will. I’m a permanent member of the Penelope Featherington Defense Squad. I hope you are too.
Bridgerton is streaming on Netflix.