On the surface, the biggest mystery of Season 1 of Bridgerton was the identity of the anonymous gossip who spilled the ton’s tea in a widely circulated leaflet, Lady Whistledown. But personally, I didn’t care all that much about who she was. What I wanted to know was: What’s her business model? Are we talking Substack, metered paywall, membership program, sponcon, data mining, what?
In early episodes of the show, the pamphlet was distributed, seemingly for free, by a newsboy. But as someone who works for, if I may, what could be considered a modern version of this sort of operation, I’m here to tell you: You can’t just give away that shit for free. Well, you kind of can, or could once upon a time, if you run ads. But there was not an ad to be seen in Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, and we all know the lady would be far too scrupulous to sneak in any undisclosed sponsored content.
Now, you have to be paying really close attention to see it, but in later episodes of the show, it looks like our dear newsboy has started to collect coins for copies of the leaflet, and as the Washington Post pointed out, at one point, Eloise, one of the Bridgerton sisters, calls Lady Whistledown “a brilliant woman of business who fools the entire ton, whilst pocketing their money.” Good for Lady Whistledown. But that doesn’t answer the question of how she would have been able to afford that initial batch or batches of newsletters. So how did Lady Whistledown do it?
I like to think the labor of the writers involved is worth something, but the biggest cost to getting a publication out there in the 1800s would have been printing it. As anachronistic as Bridgerton is when it comes to racial politics, in terms of technology, it seems pretty in step with its era. So blogs aren’t an option. And no one owned their own InkJet capable of spitting out 1,000 newsletters, or however many was enough for all of Grosvenor Square high society to see. And there wasn’t ye olde Kinko’s to visit. Or rather, one could visit ye olde Kinko’s, i.e., a printer, but it would have been super expensive, especially to produce such neat work so fast. How often does this thing come out, by the way? Seems like there’s a new one every couple days; Lady Whistledown is like James Patterson over here. Oh and make that mostly neat: The Massachusetts-based Museum of Printing could not resist pointing out on Twitter that there was a very troubling errant space between the apostrophe and the s in Whistledown’s on the publication’s cover.
So does the prohibitive cost of printing mean that the mystery person backing the scandal sheet was definitely one of the ton’s richer residents? In order to go on, we’re going to have to get into some spoilers, so stop reading now if you cannot abide that. OK, real heads only: At the end of the season, we find out that Lady Whistledown is none other than Penelope Featherington, a debutante whose family has struggled with cash flow problems all season. So Pen—get it, “pen”?—would not have had the money to just stroll into the ton printer and order up a significant number of broadsheets. And in Season 1 at least, the show never explains how it comes to transpire.
However, we do have source material to look to—and the answer is eventually revealed in the fourth book in the series upon which the show is based, Romancing Mister Bridgerton. It turns out that, one time when Penelope was in the bathroom, her father’s solicitor peeked at something she’d written … and decided to help her sell it. Of course, so obvious—why didn’t we think of that! Penelope explains how it happened to Colin Bridgerton:
“I wasn’t terribly happy, and so I wrote a rather scathing report of the party I’d been to the night before. And then I did another, and another. I didn’t sign them Lady Whistledown; I just wrote them for fun and hid them in my desk. Except one day, I forgot to hide them.” […]
“Anyway,” Penelope continued, “I decided to work in the drawing room because my room was damp and musty because someone—well, I suppose it was me—left the window open during a rainstorm. But then I had to … well, you know.”
“No,” Colin said abruptly. “I don’t know.”
“Attend to my business,” Penelope whispered, blushing.
“Oh. Right,” he said dismissively, clearly not interested in that part of the story, either. “Go on.”
“When I got back, my father’s solicitor was there. And he was reading what I wrote. I was horrified!”
“I couldn’t even speak for the first minute. But then I realized he was laughing, and it wasn’t because he thought I was foolish, it was because he thought I was good.”
“Well, you are good.”
“I know that now,” she said with a wry smile, “but you have to remember, I was seventeen. And I’d said some pretty horrid things in there.”
“About horrid people, I’m sure,” he said.
“Well, yes, but still …” She closed her eyes as all the memories swam through her head. “They were popular people. Influential people. People who didn’t like me very much. It didn’t really matter that they were horrid if what I said got out. In fact, it would have been worse because they were horrid. I would have been ruined, and I would have ruined my entire family along with me.”
“What happened then? I assume it was his idea to publish.”
Penelope nodded. “Yes. He made all the arrangements with the printer, who in turn found the boys to deliver. And it was his idea to give it away for free for the first two weeks. He said we needed to addict the ton.”
“I was out of the country when the column began,” Colin said, “but I remember my mother and sisters telling me all about it.”
“People grumbled when the newsboys demanded payment after two weeks for free,” Penelope said. “But they all paid.”
Don’t you just love a lawyer who creeps on a teen girl’s notes and makes plans to “addict the ton”? In the end, the financing behind Lady Whistledown’s newsletter reveals that society today and society in 1800s romance novels may not be all that different: Then as now, chances are that if you want to put out a publication, you’re gonna need the money of some rich guy.