While there was no shortage of surprises by the end of season 1, no one could have predicted that Bridgerton would reveal its biggest secret of all: Lady Whistledown’s true identity. And no it’s not Julie Andrews, who voices the Regency drama’s mix of social commentary and sharp-tongued observations that sent London society into a frenzy.
“She writes the most scathing things, but she says it with such a beautiful, loving tone and smile,” says creator Chris Van Dusen, who adapted Julia Quinn’s popular novels for Netflix. He adds that Andrews “is incredible. She’s a legend and it’s been amazing working with her.”
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By the end of the season 1 finale it was revealed to the audience that Lady Whistledown is none other than Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), the youngest Featherington daughter who managed to fit all the criteria sleuth and bestie Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) had put together about the gossipmonger. They must be educated, have access to high society, be invited to all the major events, but not be noticed.
Given Penelope’s stature, recently debuting at the beginning of the season, but being constantly ignored while in the presence of her sisters and able to overhear or witness the most scandalous moments throughout the season -- it should be no surprise it was her all along.
That said, Van Dusen explains to ET’s Leanne Aguilera why the series chose to share the secret with its audience and what that means moving forward while the rest of the cast reveals their reactions to the biggest spoiler of season 1.
Why Reveal the Truth Now?
“I think it was time, honestly,” Van Dusen says. “Lady Whistledown is such an interesting device to be able to use in the show… In the writers’ room we always talked about there being two tracks to the approach of Penelope and Lady Whistledown. One track, whenever Penelope is onscreen for fans of the books and those that are familiar with Penelope being Lady Whistledown from the books. We needed to make those scenes still fun and still interesting for those book fans [while still] learning and gleaning something new for Penelope and about Lady Whistledown.”
And the other track Van Dusen says is for the audiences who have not read the books or are not as familiar with the story “and have no idea what's up our sleeves. So, it was about never being ahead of things and making sure we’re not telegraphing where we’re going and keeping that mystery alive. We had so much fun crafting the narrative of Penelope as Lady Whistledown. But I think that in the end, we wanted it to be a satisfying conclusion and it speaks to everywhere we're going in the future.”
Coughlan agrees. “I think it was totally the right thing because these books have existed for 20 years so if you wanted to find out who Lady Whistledown is, you can find it pretty quick,” she says. “So I thought it was such a sharp and smart move.”
Could It Have Been Anyone Else?
While Van Dusen and the writers ultimately stuck with Penelope, remaining faithful to the books, they “explored just about every character on the show.” Other options for Lady Whistledown included Lady Violet (Ruth Gemmell), Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and “Eloise herself,” which would have made for a wild twist. They even “had a lot of fun thinking what if it was Brimsley,” the Queen’s assistant. “We explored all avenues,” he says.
After being cast as Penelope, Coughlan did her own research into the character and the books, when she discovered where things were eventually headed. After the enormity of it hit her, she recalls thinking, “This is huge. And also, Julie Andrews is voicing it. So, I was like, Julie and I are the same. We’re the same!”
The actress eventually sat down with Van Dusen, who confirmed that Penelope was indeed Lady Whistledown. While they could have changed it, they were sticking close to the books on this one.
“I think one of the things that Julia was pretty sure about was that staying as it was because it gives Penelope’s character such depth,” Coughlan explains. “And she’s so fascinating because she is a young woman that contains multitudes -- she’s both shy and she’s really cunning. She’s loving but could absolutely ruin somebody’s life if she wants to. So, it was so much fun to play.”
Of course, the reveal couldn’t be more iconic, with Eloise realizing that she had guessed the wrong person before the camera cuts to a cloaked Penelope sitting in the back of her carriage as Lady Whistledown reads her latest column. “Perhaps I will come forward one day. Though, you must know, dear reader, that decision shall be left entirely up to me. Yours truly, Lady Whistledown,” Andrews is heard reading as Penelope sheds her cloak and cracks a knowing grin.
“My jaw fell to the floor not only because they’re going to make it such an iconic moment but also because it was so much fun to do,” Coughlan says of the scene. “There’s moments as an actor where you’re overly enjoying yourself -- and having this giant cape and the carriage and it being dramatic -- it was just so much fun to do.”
She adds, “I hope it’s as satisfying for the people to watch as it was for me to film.”
What Comes Next?
While Lady Whistledown’s true identity has been revealed to the audience, it has not been discovered by any of the other characters. Though Eloise is perhaps closest to cracking the mystery after she was left gobsmacked that she had the wrong person in mind at the end of season 1.
Once Eloise does find out the truth, neither Coughlan nor Jessie think it will be good for the best friends. “By their own admission, they’re the two smartest girls in town. So, it will come out at some point, but it won’t be good,” Coughlan says, adding that Penelope is also still madly in love with Eloise’s brother, Colin (Luke Newton). “She really wants to get married and do all these romantic things.”
As for Eloise, Jessie thinks “she’s going to be fuming” when she does learn the truth. “Because the thing is, right, she loves her best mate,” the actress continues. “It doesn’t surprise me that Eloise doesn’t realize that her best friend is some sort of a secret mastermind. Eloise is constantly talking about stuff, like she’s talking at, like, 300 miles an hour and so of course she didn’t notice that her best friend is an effing genius!”
She adds that “Penelope did hide it very well and I guess maybe Eloise would think that her mate wouldn’t lie to her because it’s a big reveal.”
Aside from her best friend, there’s also Penelope’s family, who are going through financial difficulties and struggling to maintain their place in society. Meanwhile, Penelope is somehow able to finance the gossip column without anyone noticing where the money is coming from. “That’s what I think about: what is she spending that cash on and where is it? These are questions I have for Chris,” Coughlan ponders.
Maybe she’s got a partner? “See I know things that I can’t say. I know how she does it but I just don’t know where the cash is going,” Coughlan admits.
Meanwhile, Van Dusen teases that he’s most excited for what comes next for the gossipmonger, especially now that audiences know the truth about her. “For us to be able to play in that world now that we know who Lady Whistledown is, it’s going to be interesting to see how Penelope comes into her power,” he says.
Lest we remind ourselves, Lady Whistledown has warned us of this power from the beginning: “Let it be known, if there's a scandal, I shall uncover it and share every last detail.”