If you haven’t finished the Shonda Rhimes-produced series, you might want to put a bookmark here and come back after you’ve seen the big reveal. (Seriously, spoiler alert.)
“You do not know me, and rest assured you never shall,” Lady Whistledown, voiced by an especially saucy Julie Andrews, tells her readers in the show’s first episode. To her credit, the elusive scribe does an impressive job at covering her tracks.
But the show, adapted from the “Bridgerton” book series by Julia Quinn, ultimately reveals Lady Whistledown’s identity far sooner than its source material. It’s Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), the bookish and most self-aware daughter in Grosvenor Square’s most ridiculed household.
Creator Chris Van Dusen told Oprah magazine that the unveiling “sets up future seasons in a really interesting way.” (The show has yet to officially be renewed for a second season, but this is Shondaland we’re talking about!) Even before the reveal, the show drops plenty of hints about its narrator. We couldn’t help but wonder — to quote another famed gossip columnist-turned-narrator — if the clues really added up.
Let’s take a look at the biggest hints.
She’s not a fan of the Ton’s traditions.
“The time has come to place our bets on the upcoming social season,” Lady Whistledown tells us at the start of the premiere episode. Her words are intentional here, of course, because the annual marriage market is pure (and brutal) sport. The first image to drive this home is Lady Featherington (Polly Walker) ordering her staff to tighten one of her daughter’s corsets to extremes.
Yes, before we even meet the titular Bridgerton family — which Whistledown describes as “noted for its bounty of perfectly handsome sons and perfectly beautiful daughters” — we get a ferocious breakdown of the Featherington household: “three misses foisted upon the marriage market like sorrowful sows by their tasteless, tactless mama.”
This is our first hint that Whistledown is Featherington-adjacent. Another narrator would have presumably started with Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the “incomparable” who gets Queen Charlotte’s (Golda Rosheuvel) kiss of approval after the Featherington sisters fail to make a favorable impression.
Though Whistledown calls Daphne “a diamond of the first water,” it is here that our cynical narrator reminds us that “the brighter a lady shines, the faster she may burn.” And things heat up rather quickly thanks to the arrival of Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), a cousin of the Featheringtons, whose beauty finds suitors lining up at the Featheringtons’ door.
As we see the marriage market unfold in all its patriarchal glory, Whistledown tells us that the “titled, chaste and innocent” daughters of the Ton have been preparing for marriage “since birth.” That’s certainly true for Daphne. But we know of at least two daughters who would like to postpone the tradition for as long as possible: Daphne’s sister, Eloise (Claudia Jessie) — and her BFF Penelope.
Eloise is granted one more year to enjoy her childhood, but Penelope’s request to continue her studies is flatly denied by Lady Featherington, who cautions that reading could confuse her thoughts.
By the end of the first episode, Whistledown reports on Daphne’s budding relationship with Simon (Regé-Jean Page), the Duke of Hastings. As “Bridgerton” shows the couple dancing, we see Penelope taking in what Whistledown deems “the biggest coup of the season.”
“How the young miss secured her suitor is yet to be determined, but if anyone should reveal the circumstances of this match, it is I, yours truly,” Whistledown promises.
She knows the Ton’s best-kept secret.
Perhaps the biggest giveaway that Penelope is Lady Whistledown arrives in the sixth episode, when Marina’s scandalous pregnancy — which predates her arrival in Grosvenor Square — is revealed to the aristocracy.
Only a few people know that Marina is with child, and we can assume the anti-reading Lady Featherington isn’t the one churning out the gossip sheets. Penelope, on the other hand, has earned her cousin’s trust, and thus, knowledge of her scandal. Pen also has reason to expose it, as Marina attempts to beguile Eloise’s brother, Colin (Luke Newton), into marrying her — without disclosing the pregnancy.
“You can choose anyone but him. He is my friend,” Pen tells Marina. “I’ve known him forever. And I do not want him to be tricked and deceived into a lifelong commitment.”
Marina seals her fate when she pursues Colin anyway. We can practically see the steam coming out of Pen’s ears as she watches her cousin charm Colin. By the next episode, Colin announces his intention to marry Marina, leaving Penelope heartbroken.
Despite her resentment, Pen tells Marina she would never bring scandal upon her or their family. But her opinion seems to change after Pen overhears her sisters share an insensitive laugh about how oblivious Colin is to Marina’s condition.
Pen tries in vain to change Colin’s mind. When she discovers that he and Marina are planning to have a quickie marriage in Scotland, it’s the last straw. The series cuts to Eloise consoling a distraught Penelope as Lady Whistledown lets the bombshell rip: “The bond between man and bride is private, sacred,” she writes. “But I must tell you, I have learned that a grave fraud is afoot.”
It’s possible that Penelope told someone else about Marina’s secret, but that someone would most likely be Eloise. It seems unlikely that Eloise, entrusted by the queen to investigate Lady Whistledown’s identity, would have publicly revealed information that would be so harmful to her brother and family.
She didn’t (gasp!) write anything about the queen’s luncheon.
“Lady Whistledown only writes what she sees,” the wise Lady Danbury tells Lady Bridgerton in the premiere. And we see that play out in Episode 7 as the Featheringtons are frozen out of high-society events, including the queen’s luncheon.
Before the Featheringtons are turned away, Eloise and Penelope have a brief exchange. “Lady Whistledown has gone too far this time,” Eloise tells Penelope about their entangled family drama. Pen smiles faintly and says, “And I thought you her greatest admirer.”
A few scenes later, the queen is disheartened to learn that Whistledown wrote not one word about her event. Eloise concludes Whistledown must be a tradesperson — someone who has access to the members of the Ton but isn’t part of high society herself.
Eloise smartly zeros in on Madame Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale), the square’s sought-after modiste. Delacroix briefly looks like a viable suspect. In addition to her flubbed pedigree (she pretends to be French), her business affords her access to the very people Whistledown writes about in her column. But it turns out to be a red herring. In the eighth and final episode, we learn that the modiste was, rather scandalously, with Eloise’s older brother, Benedict Bridgerton (Luke Thompson), when Whistledown was en route to the printing press.
As Eloise realizes Madame Delacroix couldn’t possibly be Whistledown, the real deal is revealed: Penelope, a.k.a. Lady Whistledown, in her carriage on the way to the press. “Perhaps I may come forward one day,” she says in voice-over, “though you must know, dear reader, that decision shall be left entirely up to me.”
Overall, the clues make sense. Penelope has a backstory befitting a high-society gossip columnist — after all, her nickname is literally Pen. We had one lingering qualm after finishing the season — Whistledown initially distributes her gossip sheet for free, which the Bridgertons found incredible. Given the Featherington family patriarch’s gambling problem, we marveled at the notion that Pen would be able to continue to issue her in-demand columns for free. As several dear readers have pointed out, however, this author missed a clear reference to Lady Whistledown eventually charging for her gossip sheet. It’s in Episode 4: Eloise, in conversation with Pen, calls Whistledown “a brilliant woman of business who fools the entire ton, whilst pocketing their money.” Forgive us for thinking Whistledown wouldn’t monetize her talents.
This post has been updated.