The name Lady Whistledown is well known to fans of the hit Netflix series Bridgerton. It is the one chosen by the anonymous author of the scandal sheets that weave through the period drama, unfurling the latest whispers and intrigues of the Ton in the knowing tones of Julie Andrews.


Since the finale of the first season – beware, this is spoiler territory for those who have yet to watch it – we have known that the identity of Lady Whistledown is Penelope Featherington (played by Nicola Coughlan).

Often overlooked on London’s social scene, Penelope’s vantage point offers her a unique lens through which to dissect the life and loves of the season’s debutantes. It is this quick-witted commentary that captivates the masses, and even ensnares the attention of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), wife to the reigning king George III.

Were there actually scandal sheets in Regency Britain?

Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) holding a copy of the latest Lady Whistledown instalment, in Bridgerton.
Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) holding a copy of the latest Lady Whistledown instalment, in Bridgerton. (Picture by Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2022)

In short, yes. Scandalous revelations and insights were published in print, but mostly in the form of magazine or newspaper columns rather than standalone sheets.

Those hungry for such news turned to publications such as The Town and Country magazine, explains Hannah Greig, historical advisor on Bridgerton, on a new episode of the HistoryExtra podcast.

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The lapse of the 1662 Licensing Act in 1695, which limited the amount of printing presses that could exist, had heralded a new era of unrestricted press where news flourished. Alongside the advancement of printing technology, this fuelled the spread of gossip-based publications.

In the columns that appeared, writers commented on the comings and goings of high society, says Greig: “There was a satirical culture where people’s identities or their lives were pilloried in other sorts of either print or visual form.”

These texts, however, didn’t name and shame people with quite the abandon that Lady Whistledown does. This wasn’t to protect the subject, but the writer. “Names were usually disguised,” explains Greig, “either using pseudonyms that would be easily recognisable to people in the know or just by giving initials of people to protect the authors from libel laws.”

Mrs Crackenthorpe: the real Lady Whistledown?

A copy of The Female Tatler, written under the alius of Mrs Crackenthorpe
A copy of The Female Tatler, written under the nom de plume of Mrs Crackenthorpe. (Picture by the Internet Archive)

Lady Whistledown might be entirely fictional, but the character may have had a real-life inspiration in the form of Mrs Crackenthorpe, who was writing in the early 18th century – around 100 years before the Regency era.

Like her Bridgerton-based counterpart, Crackenthorpe was a nom de plume created to conceal the author’s true identity – one that has never been confirmed. Instead, she uses the descriptor of “a Lady that knows every thing” (sic).

This all-knowing lady was behind the creation of The Female Tatler, a sheet that arose in 1709 and, despite being in circulation for just a year, managed over 100 editions. Published three times a week, specifically on the days its rival The Tatler wasn’t released, the first 51 editions were written by Mrs Crackenthorpe, before being taken over by “a society of ladies” for the next 58.

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The title suggests it was aimed towards women of the higher classes and, although not solely focused on the gossip of the Ton, Mrs Crackenthorpe did provide sharp observations on characters in society who were “notable for scandal and scurrility” amongst other critiques.

Much of the criticism contained ideas on how the upper classes should behave. This followed the belief that the lower classes imitated the higher echelons of society, so the wealthier classes should, in essence, set the example.

Alongside having these views on the Ton, Mrs Crackenthorpe could also be classed – through a modern lens – as a feminist. The publication commented on the constraints placed upon women at the time: for example, the author once advised that marriage was a “fatal snare”.

Who was Mrs Crackenthorpe?

There are several suggestions for the true identity of the writer, with some pointing to a man rather than a woman. Thomas Baker was a lawyer and minor dramatist, who came under attack in a periodical called The British Apollo during its feud with The Female Tatler.

Another suspect is the political pamphleteer Delarivier ‘Delia’ Manley. She authored The New Atalantis (1709), a novel published in two volumes and containing themes that closely resembled those that appeared regularly in The Female Tatler.

Was Regency society as eager for gossip as Bridgerton suggests?

(L to R) Ruth Gemmell as Lady Violet Bridgerton, Hannah Dodd as Francesca Bridgerton, Florence Hunt as Hyacinth Bridgerton in Bridgerton
(L to R) Ruth Gemmell as Lady Violet Bridgerton, Hannah Dodd as Francesca Bridgerton, Florence Hunt as Hyacinth Bridgerton in Bridgerton. (Picture by Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2023)

In Bridgerton, the Ton are portrayed as a nosy bunch, always prying into each other’s business. The real Regency era was not so different.

“There was a hunger for information,” says Greig. “Some of it was about monitoring the comings and goings of your own social network within this high-society world, as we see in Bridgerton, where Lady Whistledown is a part of the world that she’s reporting on.

“But there's also a hunger for news and information from young women who are in Bath or the provinces, and interested in London fashions and celebrity culture. They too would be following the comings and goings of this fashionable world.”

What impact did scandal sheets have on Regency high society?

Since many of the Ton would be “in the know” of who was being talked about in the magazine and newspaper columns, publications were far from frivolous entertainment: they could do real damage to reputations and prospects.

“I think it’s important to try and retain some sympathy for the subjects in these scandal sheets in the Regency era, in the same way that we should retain a sympathy for news gossip today.”

In terms of coping with the scrutiny, Greig highlights two methods a person could use to help avoid their name being sullied. The first was to maintain a façade of normalcy by appearing in public with a spouse or keeping up with an active engagement in hosting social gatherings.

The second method was to retreat to the family’s country estate, where they could remain until the talk had abated. “Keeping out of sight was a tried and tested strategy,” says Greig.

What stories did real-life scandal sheets contain?

The Prince of Wales and his lover, actress Mary Robinson, in a carriage
The Prince of Wales and his lover, actress Mary Robinson, were regular features of published scandal at the time. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Much like Lady Whistledown's, gossip columns were focused on the members of elite society. Members of the royal family were popular too. “The Prince of Wales in particular was always in the centre of these news columns,” Greig notes.


Of course, some stories stood out. Greig notes the coverage given to the Earl of Derby when he became besotted with an actress: “He was married to a very beautiful and lovely duchess, but he fell in love with Elizabeth Farren. There are caricatures of him following her around, just fawning over her, going to every show reported in the gossip columns, sitting in the box, and almost drooling as he’s watching her on the stage.”


Lauren GoodDigital Content Producer, HistoryExtra

Lauren Good is the digital content producer at HistoryExtra. She joined the team in 2022 after completing an MA in Creative Writing, and she holds a first-class degree in English and Classical Studies, during which she studied ancient history and philosophy.