Nicola here. A new book about celebrity was published a couple of weeks ago. Called “Dead Famous” it’s written by Greg Jenner, a historical consultant on Horrible Histories and traces a history of celebrity from the Bronze Age to the modern day. The Amazon blurb reads: “Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, strikes us as hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise.” Quoted examples are Lord Byron, the Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean and Sarah Bernhardt.
Way back in 2007(!) I wrote a book called Lord of Scandal which was about a Regency celebrity. I was writing it at the same time that I was researching my MA dissertation and it was this research into heroes that fed into the book. Now I have a new book, The Forgotten Sister, coming out in a couple of weeks that also features celebrity, this time in a slightly different way, drawing on parallels between the cult of Queen Elizabeth I and modern-day fame.
In The Forgotten Sister, Lizzie Kingdom is a modern-day celebrity who enjoys (or even takes for granted in the beginning) the privileges and pleasures of fame. There are strong similarities between her and the character of the young Elizabeth I and it was fascinating researching the way in which Elizabeth’s image was created. One of the main ways that this was done was through art. Elizabeth’s image-makers very deliberately used political imagery in her portraits: the crown and the sceptre, emphasising her status as queen and her divine right to rule, and alongside that they also used pearls to denote purity, and the rose, the star, the moon, the phoenix and the ermine. In one of her most famous portraits, Elizabeth is wearing a pelican brooch to signify the selfless love of a mother for her people.
The presentation of Elizabeth as ageless with a “mask of youth” appearance was also deliberate as a reassurance to people that she had longevity. This wasn’t simple vanity! The opulence of her dress was also a way to build up her image and the portraits of her show clothing and jewellery of staggering magnificence. I thought hard about Elizabeth and the process of image-making when I was writing the character of Lizzie, and it made me reflect that these days it may be easier to project a particular image on social media but it's also a lot easier for it to be swiftly destroyed as well.
Looking back at the history of celebrity, it''s arguable that Roman gladiators were the first real celebrities, roared on in the arena, each with their own group of fans. In 1992 this concept was reinvented as a TV show (minus the gory death!) and made modern celebrities out of some of the participants. History really does repeat itself in different forms!
Celebrity really came into its own in the 18th century, however, when the growth of metropolitan society and the spread of literacy meant that gossip about the private lives of people in the public eye could be disseminated much more easily than ever before. Scandal sheets, which started as early as Elizabethan times, referred to celebrity gossip as “secret history.” This was the way in which the public found out about Nelson’s ménage a trois with Sir William and Lady Hamilton. Journalists were not above hanging out in seedy taverns to pick up gossip from servants over a game of dice.
As I discovered when I studied him, Nelson was also the master of self-promotion. He consciously used the press to create the hero persona that drew him to public attention and acclaim. His decisive tactics at the Battle of St Vincent had contributed much to the victory and his daring capture of two enemy ships was seen as the most spectacular moment of the day. But this in itself would not have been sufficient to elevate him to hero/celebrity status – many naval captains had achieved just as much. However Nelson promoted himself by giving an interview intended for publication to Colonel John Drinkwater, an author who witnessed the Battle of St Vincent. He also published a narrative: “Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First-Rates” (editors take note of the catch title!) which was a huge popular success. It’s hard to imagine the book being read avidly in houses up and down England though. Perhaps it was one of those books everyone buys and no one reads! 😊
As with Elizabeth I. Nelson was not averse to using portraits to emphasise his prowess in more ways than one. They were the selfies of the day. I love the story that his 1798 portrait by Guy Head paints him at the moment of victory at the Battle of the Nile, “showing a phallic sword thrust suggestively into the furled French colours.” The meaning of the portrait could scarcely be less subtle and was no doubt immediately understood by every Englishman who saw it. In a further twist on the phallic symbolism, Nelson gave the painting as a personal gift to Emma Hamilton.
And whilst we’re on the subject of image, let’s not forget that supreme self-publicist, the poet Byron. “I awoke one morning and found myself famous,” he said in 1812, after the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage had brought him instant literary success. This was disingenuous; he had been working on his celebrity for years and continued to do so, realising that there was nothing so effective as spinning your own legend. He accompanied the publication of his poem The Corsair in 1814 with a self-portrait complete with exotic headscarf and cutlass, thus identifying himself explicitly with the smouldering piratical hero. Even his departure from England was a piece of theatre as he took a coach that was modelled on Napoleon’s campaigning carriage with the conceit of the initials NB (Noel Byron) emblazoned on the side.
A public appearance has always been a way for a celebrity to enhance their fame and again, this isn’t a new phenomenon. I’m fascinated by the Misses Gunning, two sisters from a genteel but poor Irish background who became so famous for their beauty that they attracted a crowd wherever they went. Maria Gunning (on the right) had her own bodyguard to protect her from being mobbed when she went out in Hyde Park! There’s definitely a modern parallel there with some famous sisters… Then there was Beau Brummell, the famous arbiter of fashion. If he lived now, he would no doubt have his own designer clothing brand.
There’s an interesting question being asked about celebrity at the moment. With a world health crisis taking place, are people interested in celebrities any longer? What is their role now and do we even care? Some people are predicting that 2020 will see the end of celebrity as we know it, but with the example of the past centuries to draw on, it seems more likely that celebrity will survive and re-invent itself, just as it always has.
Is there a historical figure you would consider to have been a celebrity in their time? Is there any particular person you would have turned out to see?