Portrayed by: Nicola Coughlan
Book | Show: Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mister Bridgerton and Netflix’s Bridgerton
If not for Netflix’s Bridgerton adaptation, people who had only read the first part of the story—the first of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series of books, The Duke and I—you would probably be wondering who Penelope Featherington is. As an extremely peripheral character in the first novel, her presence is noted along with that of her unwed sisters and overbearing mother, but beyond that, she is a mysterious, nearly forgettable figure, aside from the pangs of sympathy readers may feel as her family’s garish dresses are described. As the series continues, however, readers come to see Penelope as a kind, intelligent girl who grows into a quick-witted woman comfortable in her own skin and aware of her own desires, though also strong and sometimes too accepting of her lot.
The rest of this piece focuses mostly on Bridgerton spoilers but will contain book spoilers as well—read at your own risk!
Though difficult to imagine this path for the character we meet in episode 1 of Bridgerton, luckily for fans of girls who weren’t ever the first to be asked to dance, we meet a much more subtly developed Penelope throughout the first season of Bridgerton. That development is accomplished so delicately that the reveal of Penelope’s alter ego in episode 8 both comes as a shock and at the same time makes sense. In the books, this reveal is left until halfway through book 4 (Romancing Mister Bridgerton), but the series’ decision to give us this information after just one season of buildup provides a unique opportunity for viewers to engage in the awkward and funny scenes that are sure to come as the audience knows something the characters do not. Additionally, it provides a much richer characterization of Penelope—something that allows us to see past our initial sympathy for her and to see something more. She is not who we thought, and that’s a good thing.
The first time we see Penelope when she is being introduced to the queen, it is obvious she is even more uncomfortable than her fainting sister—she feels she doesn’t belong, and that is exemplified by the way her mother and sisters treat her. At this point, one would expect that even though her relationship with her mother is a bit fraught, perhaps she has a father who would tell her to keep her chin up, or we’d see something of her older sisters supporting her, but we are quickly disabused of that notion. Her father couldn’t be less interested in the dealings of his wife and daughters, and her sisters are far too concerned with their own fortunes to pay her much mind. What viewers see is a girl who is not ready to be out in society, especially highlighted by Penelope’s close friendship with Eloise Bridgerton, who is clearly portrayed as such (more on this disconnect between the two girls later). But as we are introduced slowly to her, both through Eloise and through Penelope’s friendships with Colin Bridgerton and Marina Thompson, layers of her true character become clearer.
Marina arrives as an incomparable figure, a competitor for Daphne Bridgerton and a rival for Penelope, but in the end, that is not the course Penelope’s relationship with Marina takes. Penelope realizes before long that Marina is in the gravest sort of trouble a young lady can be in. She offers her help almost immediately and without hesitation. At first, she’s obviously interested in how Marina became pregnant and plans to report back to Eloise, but when she hears Marina and George Crane’s love story, Penelope’s romantic heart is practically visible in the sparkle in her eyes. She wants to help love win and wants that more than anything—perhaps a characteristic of many young girls who have read stories of princes and princesses and happily ever after—but the difference is that Penelope is willing to disobey her mother and break norms to help Marina. She waits for the mail every day, looking for letters for Marina. She spends time keeping Marina company, even though her mother tells her she should not. While some of the reason she approaches Marina initially can be explained by curiosity, her kindness and concern for Marina become obvious and are one of the cornerstones of Penelope as a character. Juxtaposed against her sisters’ reactions to Marina’s pregnancy, Penelope’s compassion is clear. Her desire for Marina to have a happy ending showcases both a naïve quality, but also a tender kindness, a belief in doing what is right no matter the cost, and even empathy—Penelope knows how it feels to be a lady and consider the fact that she may not make a happy marriage at all—so she is more than willing to do what it takes to help Marina without caring about the potential consequences.
Despite harboring the deep fear that she won’t make a match for herself, Penelope is relentlessly optimistic when Marina receives the forged letter from “George”, insisting that it couldn’t be possible that George doesn’t care about Marina, regardless of what the letter says, which again reinforces everything viewers have learned about her—naïve, idealistic, romantic, and truly wanting to believe the best of others. Penelope’s sympathy for Marina as her only choice seems to be marrying an old man who treats her no better than a show animal is utterly palpable, and by now, it seems obvious that Penelope would do anything to help Marina out of her predicament—except, maybe, what Marina ends up asking of her.
From the first episode of the series, viewers should be suspicious that Penelope is harboring romantic feelings for Colin Bridgerton. First, we see them share a joke (at 0:44) about one of Marina’s callers and his terrible poetry, and Colin even uses a nickname for her—“Pen”—suggesting an easy familiarity between the two, and indeed, they have probably been friends since childhood, especially considering Penelope and Eloise’s closeness. Penelope’s smile as she jokes with Colin, as she feels their own familiarity, is sweet, warm, and telling. Just one short conversation referencing their shared interest in poetry illustrates her feelings, and even suggests that while she is romantic and idealistic, she is also realistic to a degree. She knows Colin isn’t there to court her and never will be, but just being able to be near him and share his conversation is enough for her. She may wish for a romance as grand as how she sees George and Marina’s but knows deep down that that is probably not in her future, so she will endeavor to enjoy every moment of Colin’s attention. Few things are more heartbreaking than having feelings for someone and knowing they will never return them, but that the space Penelope’s character is inhabiting—one of a girl who is as romantic and desiring of love as any young girl, but who truly believes, based chiefly on the behavior of her own family (even in this scene with Colin, her mother bids the suitors say farewell to “Prudence, Philippa, or even Penelope”), that she will never experience these things.
In this same episode, Colin rescues Penelope (at 1:38) from Cressida Cowper, a regency bully, after Cressida has done the most awful thing any girl hoping to attract a husband could imagine—acting like she did not see Penelope there at all (while spilling a drink on her to boot). Penelope’s expression as Colin leads her out to dance here is utterly beautifully portrayed by Nicola Coughlan. First, there’s obvious nervousness, maybe a touch of not being able to believe her luck. Penelope’s tight smile as she tries to stop being nervous betrays anxiety, but the smile isn’t forced. In her eyes, a sense of disbelief, but then, she just blooms. Her smile spreads, showing her true happiness at being able to dance with him, and soon, she is laughing and enjoying herself, despite the possibility that he may have asked her to dance out of pity.
She is strong enough to put that aside and enjoy the moment for what it is, similarly to how she reacted to Colin when he came to court Marina. This, truly, is what lies in Penelope’s heart—a deep love for those in her life and a desire to see them accomplish what is best for them while not necessarily expecting anything for herself. In Penelope’s expression just after a drink is spilled on her, we see a character used to being ignored, used to being bullied, a character told by her own family that she is an afterthought. But when she smiles and laughs, we see a strong, kind, and loving girl who deserves better but doesn’t expect better. It really does beg the question of who Penelope would be if she had any encouragement from anyone in her life to truly be herself and let these qualities shine.
Doesn’t Eloise, her best friend, encourage her? While their friendship is strong, sweet, and relatively pure, the answer is more complicated. As Penelope herself verbalizes, she is out in society and Eloise is not, and her own future depends on her ability to find a match, while the same is not true of Eloise. Despite the many things they have in common, this is one difference that is difficult for them to bridge, and even further complicated by Eloise’s views on marriage (throughout the series, she makes no secret of her disdain for it). She doesn’t understand that Penelope’s family isn’t warm, loving, or supportive, and that for Penelope, making a match could be an escape from the people who treat her like an afterthought. It would mean more independence for Penelope, too, though Eloise cannot imagine it from that point of view—rather, Eloise views marriage as a prison without realizing that Penelope already is under her own mother’s thumb. Eloise cannot imagine a relationship with one’s mother like that because her experience is so utterly opposite.
Complicating things even further between Eloise and Penelope is Eloise’s near-worship of Lady Whistledown. For Eloise, Lady Whistledown is a symbol of everything she wants in life—accomplishment, intelligence, making her own way in the world, and most of all, independence. Eloise, it seems, has romantic ideas in the same way that Penelope does, although they are related to Lady Whistledown’s life more than ideas of love or marriage. Because she has projected her dreams onto how she imagines Lady Whistledown’s life to be, she idolizes her. But of course, Penelope knows Eloise’s ideas about Lady Whistledown are not even close to reality. She is not independent, she is not free to live as she chooses, and she is not free from needing to be married to be secure.
How is Penelope supposed to reconcile the idea that her best friend sees her alter ego as the ideal? It’s an unimaginable weight on their friendship, illustrated by Penelope’s increasing annoyance as Eloise devotes all her time to attempting to expose Whistledown. Being Lady Whistledown—a feat Penelope can only accomplish by retaining her anonymity, the lack of attention she receives in society, the way she is all but invisible to people like Cressida Cowper—depends on Eloise not exposing her, of course, so she could be dissuading Eloise from discovering Whistledown’s identity to remain anonymous, but that’s not the only reason. What if Eloise were to discover that the reality of Lady Whistledown’s life was not as glamorous as she thought? Penelope wants to protect her from that, I think, which makes Eloise’s determination to discover Whistledown’s identity all the more painful for Penelope. She is proud of her abilities and proud of what she has accomplished but is worried her discovery would still be a disappointment to Eloise. That is an excruciating pressure on a friendship that Penelope depends on for support, since she cannot get it from her family.
Meanwhile, as Penelope continues to try to help Marina, it becomes clear that Marina plans to entrap Colin into marriage and pretend her child is his. The most striking thing about Penelope’s reaction to this is that she checks her own feelings for Colin at the door. Never do her words or actions indicate she is trying to stop Marina from doing this because of her own love for Colin—instead, she fiercely tells Marina that she cannot do this because Colin doesn’t deserve it, that he is a good man, that he deserves the best. Throughout this ordeal, we are treated to Penelope showing her witty, almost cutting side (starting at 0:54), and the parts of her that make up Lady Whistledown are almost visible just beneath the surface. She makes it clear she finds what Marina is doing reprehensible, although even when she tries to warn Colin she leaves out the fact that Marina is pregnant. Even in trying to end their arrangement, she still protects Marina’s honor, keeps Marina’s secret, and emphasizes that she wants Colin to be able to marry someone who truly loves him, even if it is not her. Marina, in a bid to save herself, attacks Penelope right where it hurts by suggesting everything she is doing is not to save Colin from trickery, but because she loves him (at 1:50). This, for me, is the most painful moment in the entire series. Not only is Marina making incorrect assumptions about Penelope’s motivations, she is completely misunderstanding Penelope’s entire sense of self. Penelope knows Colin will never love or marry her. She writes in Lady Whistledown as much more than once. She knows that men in society don’t see her as a desirable woman, or even see her at all most of the time. So to have someone who is trying to do something horrible to Colin tell her that her desire to help Colin is based on love, “a childish fantasy”, that she’ll never be a woman like Marina when Penelope already fears that this is true is just a knife to the gut. Marina verbalizes nearly everything worry Penelope must live with about herself and her own life, and it’s vicious, especially considering Marina knows Penelope does not want pity and decides to twist the knife anyway. Marina completely betrays a person who, even given the opportunity, did not reveal her secret until it was the only way to get her to do the right thing.
In this, the heart of Penelope’s character is truly exposed. She dreams for better, but believes it will not come. She dreams for better for her friends but resigns herself to her fate. She selflessly protects those she loves only to have Marina insist she is protecting them for selfish reasons. Her family and society do not treat her as though she is worthwhile, yet all of London hangs on her every word when she dons her alter ego. Her best friend loves her and idolizes her life without realizing the truth of it. She is a character of complications, contradictions—naïve but realistic, kind but cutting, intelligent but emotional, accomplished but constrained by society—but most of all, loving and selfless all while expecting none of that in return.
While watching Bridgerton, I remember feeling terrible about the pressure Daphne must feel to choose between a prince and the man she loves. I think the only character who feels more pressure than Daphne as she makes that choice is Penelope every single day. As the weight of her identity threatens to overwhelm her, she is still the same witty, intelligent girl, and in the way we see her revealed as Lady Whistledown, Nicola Coughlan’s brilliance shines again in her expression, in the quirk of her smile. She may feel indescribable pressure, but Lady Whistledown is part of her, and is a part of her that she likes. It is a part of her that Penelope could not grow into being her true self without.
And I can’t wait until we get to see her grow to fully embrace every part of herself, become her own woman, and—of course—get the guy and the happily ever after she deserves.