Season 2 of Bridgerton has certainly seen Penelope Featherington AKA Lady Whistledown have a tough time.
Her family gets scammed and has no money. She realises the man she loves has never been interested in her. But worse still, she loses her best friend after Eloise finally pieces together that it was Penelope who betrayed her and ruined countless women’s reputations in the Ton.
The finale sees Penelope lose everything she holds dear at once, everything except her identity as Lady Whistledown. But despite that, fans don’t seem to sympathise with her.
I love how Penelope has no problem ruining peoples lives by writing gossip but the moment somebody utters anything remotely harsh about her she turns into this weeping widow
— [Meredith Grey] (@meredithgreypo) March 26, 2022
Twitter is filled with reacts of Bridgerton watchers shaking their heads in disgust at Penelope — at her constant lies, the gaslighting she puts Eloise through and her ultimate betrayal in outing Eloise to the world. To some, she finally got what she deserved.
— S 🧚🏾 (@SSadiW8) March 26, 2022
Whether or not you’re on Penelope’s side, there’s only one word to describe her antics this season: Messy. But Nicola Coughlan, the actor who plays Penelope, thinks her behaviour makes more sense than people give her credit for.
“I think she is someone who is really deeply complicated,” she tells me when I ask how she reconciles sweet, dear Penelope Featherington with the ruthless Lady Whistledown.
“She grew up in a house that wasn’t the most loving or the most accepting of her, [and] she internalised [it] a lot.”
Coughlan reckons Penelope’s behaviour isn’t just petty drama — it’s a product of the mother who raised her.
“I think a lot of Whistledown is born out of Portia Featherington (Penelope’s mum) being really cutting and sharp and acerbic. Penelope’s within society, but also being pushed to the side of society.”
To Coughlan, Penelope isn’t the vindictive, hypocritical frenemy viewers might see her as.
Instead, she’s just a child who has grown up neglected and abused — and so maybe it makes sense that she turns to tearing others down to raise herself up. After all, that’s the only way she was ever taught to deal with conflict.
Coughlan doesn’t see Penelope’s harsh words in her gossip column as something petty like “revenge”. She sees them as Penelope’s only way to break the confines of people’s expectations of her.
i’m sorry but Penelope is actually so strong ??? in season 1 she had to watch Colin pretty much fall for marina AND go through the slow decay of her family whilst keeping the huge secret of being lady whistledown. we love to see a woman setting her own path 💓 #Bridgerton pic.twitter.com/ooOPFR2Gcu
— jess (@fxckoklahoma) March 25, 2022
Penelope has to prove to herself that she isn’t the silly, brainless, invisible girl people dismiss her to be. The least favourite sister, the forgotten daughter. When she’s Lady Whistledown, Penelope finally has power and agency that she’s never had in her life otherwise. And she can prove that she is worth just as much as everyone else, if not more.
When Penelope uses her powers — whether for good or for evil — “she’s sort of showing the world who she is and what she can do,” Coughlan says.
“She’s young. She’s still figuring herself out. She is a lot of different things. Yes she is deceiving people but I think she is still a shy wallflower.
“Whistledown is this super strong woman that no one can take down, and it’s so un-Penelope. I think she uses it as a sort of suit of armour in a way and it feels invincible to her. So I think that’s put on.”
watch penelope be in her reputation era in season 3 #Bridgerton
— 🧜🏾♀️ (@whistlepenelope) March 26, 2022
So yes, maybe Penelope Featherington lies and gaslights her way through this entire season. But maybe we can’t dismiss that as petulant cruelty.
Penelope, like so many teens (she’s only 16 years old!), is desperately trying to find her place in the world. And maybe that’s the only person she feels she can be.
I, for one, am hoping season 3 sees her enter her full Joker era. Burn it all down babe!!!
Bridgerton is streaming on Netflix.