Historical Icons and Celebrities

ForgottenSister_51 (002)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.

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Lord of Scandal and the Cult of Celebrity

Lord of scandal - PolishNicola here. A couple of weeks ago I received a copy of a
hardback foreign edition of one of my books, Lord of Scandal, in Polish. I was
thrilled to get this not only because it’s always lovely to see an older book
making a comeback but also because of the gorgeous cover. (Ben Hawksmoor, the
hero of Lord of Scandal, has fair hair but I’m not going to quibble about that
because this boy looks BAD which is exactly right for the story. That's why I have posted a big cover!)

Lord of Scandal is a book that’s very close to my heart. It
was only my second single title for HQN and it garnered a RITA nomination in
2008. I was writing it at the same time that I was researching my MA
dissertation and it was this research into 18th and 19th
century heroes and celebrity that fed into the book. I thought it would be
interesting to dig out some of the things I discovered and talk about them here
since the parallels between the cult of celebrity 200 years ago and the one we
have now are pretty strong.

The Written Word

Celebrity isn’t a new concept, of course. Roman gladiators
were the celebrities of their day. By the 18th century 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.” Thus it was that the
public was as informed about Nelson’s ménage a trois with Sir William and Lady
Hamilton as it was with his naval victories. Journalists were not above hanging
out in seedy taverns to pick up gossip from servants over a game of dice or even hanging about in the street outside people's houses to try and pick up some juicy piece of information. 


 Self-publicity was already going strong. One of the stories
I love is about the poet Byron. “I awoke one
The corsair morning and found myself famous,”
Byron said in 1812, after the publication of the first two cantos of Childe
Harold’s Pilgrimage had brought him instant literary success. However 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 his 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

Horatio Nelson was another man who was skilled at talking
himself up. 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 catchy title!)
which was a huge popular success.

Public Appearances

Just as the film stars of the modern day turn out to wave to
the crowds at premieres and parties, so the celebrities of the Regency age were
feted in streets. In Lord of Scandal I feature a curricle race through London and the crowds turn out to cheer on the celebrity contestants. This was based on the idea of people thronging the streets when a Regency "superstar" passed through.

On his return to England in the summer of 1797 Nelson was
greeted with public acclaim wherever he went. Success at the Battle of the Nile
in 1798 and Copenhagen in 1801 served as further moments that cemented his
fame, and each of his victories was celebrated by huge popular demonstrations.
Lady Elizabeth Foster described Nelson’s appeal rather well, I think:

"Wherever (Nelson) appears he electrifies the cold English
character. Rapture and applause follow his steps. Sometimes a poor woman asks
to touch his coat. The very children learn to bless him as he passes, and doors
and windows are crowded."

Nor was Nelson the only Regency celebrity to receive such
popular acclaim. During the state visit of Czar Alexander of Russia and King
Frederick of Prussia in 1814, for example, celebrity-watchers went to
ridiculous lengths to catch a glimpse of their heroes, some people renting
windows along the route of the Grand Procession, others holding parties in
kitchens and basements so that they could peer through the area grating to see
the famous visitors pass by. Yet in the same manner as celebrities are sometimes
built up today only to be criticised in the press, interest in the Regency
celebrities could also wane. Lady Shelley felt that the foreign visitors were
ubiquitous and had outstayed their welcome: “Their stay became, at last, a
positive nuisance.”

George WilsonSporting heroes of the day also used their popularity to
generate public celebrity.  George
Wilson, famed for his achievements in the sport of pedestrianism, understood
the value of publicity and used to advertise his events in advance, selling
engravings of himself in action to onlookers. By 1815 he was so famous that when he turned up for a pedestrian event
in Blackheath there was such a huge crowd that he had to employ men with whips
and ten foot staves to cut his way through the throng, the equivalent of the
modern day bodyguard.


 Cara/Andrea wrote a wonderful blog piece here on how
satirical cartoons spread gossip about figures such as the Prince Regent and
fed the appetite for scandal. Portraiture was another way in which celebrities
could use the visual arts to project an image. There was a growing demand for
glamorous and humorous pictures. Sporting heroes such as boxers Jem Belcher and
Tom Cribb had their reputations enhanced through the production of tinted
drawings like modern day sporting posters. 
Opera singers and actresses were celebrated in a similar way. Benjamin
Haydon’s portrait of the poet Wordsworth was painted against a backdrop of the
mountain Helvellyn – a hero in the setting of his deeds. The artists who
painted Nelson were colluding with the subject to present him in heroic guise
and burnish his celebrity. The 1798-9 picture of Nelson by Guy Head, for
Nelson by Guy Head
example, paints him at the moment of victory at the Battle of the Nile,
“showing a phallic sword thrust suggestively into the furled French colours.” (It always reminds me of the bit in Blackadder when Wellington gives the Prince Regent a gift of a cigarillo case "engraved with the regimental crest of two crossed dead Frenchmen emblazoned on a mound of dead Frenchman motif." Not subtle at all.)

The meaning of the portrait could scarcely
be more obvious 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.

The fame of most Regency celebrities was based on
accomplishment, whether military, sporting or other. It that respect it could
be said to have a greater intrinsic worth than some modern day celebrity,
though it could also be argued that the fame of Beau Brummell, for example,
based on his skill as an arbiter of fashion, was no different from that of a
top model today. As for the beautiful Misses
Decieved - PolishGunning, a comparison with reality
television might be drawn when a crowd turned out at an inn one night simply to
watch them eat. 

Do you have a favourite Regency celebrity or a public figure from the period who particularly interests you? I’m offering a
copy of Lord of Scandal (in English or Polish!) to one commenter.
 (And here's another gorgeous Polish cover, this time for Deceived. I like them so much I couldn't resist posting it up.)