Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 2)

George Cruikshank, The Prince of Whales or The Fisherman at Anchor (1812)


The germ of celebrity culture as we recognize it today was incubated in the crucible of the mass media revolution. Not the printed and bound book, but the newspaper, which attained a recognizably modern form during the eighteenth century. Government accounting data from Britain suggests that the annual circulation of newspapers rose from about 2.4 million copies in 1713 to 16 million copies by 1801.¹ In addition to publishing current events reports, partisan propaganda, editorial essays, poetry, columns about mathematics, etc., the city periodical was also apt to disseminate a great deal of gossip.

Readers of eighteenth-century London journals such as the TatlerTown and Country, and the World could enjoy regular helpings of juicy content about the impropriety of the upper classes. Though similar in spirit to People and TMZ, they resemble their modern progeny about as much as a tyrannosaur looks like a chicken. Their correspondents typically referred to their subjects by an initial or pseudonymously, expecting the savvy reader to decipher the clues as to whom they referred. Dirt on the rich and powerful was often shoveled up in the form a satirical poem (Alexander Pope's 1712 epic The Rape of the Lock being the most famous example, though it wasn't originally printed in a newspaper), but most often it was served in in the grandiloquent prose of the period.

The ostensible purpose of these primitive scandal sheets was muckraking: the pseudonymous author of the short-lived Female Tatler (one Mrs. Crackenthorpe) claimed her intention was to shame the well-to-do into regulating their own behavior and setting a better example for the "inferior classes."² Doubtless the editors of longer-enduring journals understood that whatever excuse was made for it, lurid content moved product.

From The Freeman's Journal of Dublin (Jan. 16, 1843)

In 1789, the Times of London ran a column called "Fashionable Intelligence," which general-interest newspapers across the Anglosphere replicated over the next few decades. Compared to the scandal sheet, these are rather toothless—we might call them "respectable"—concerning little more than the comings and goings the aristocracy and their hangers-on. (Not that the fashionable intelligence were above gossip mongering; see the last item on the excerpt above.)

These columns were everywhere. We can choose an English-language paper at random—say, the edition of the Isle of Wight Observer dated September 5, 1868—and browse until we discover a catalogue of the latest arrivals, departures, and gatherings of society people. In this case, we find it under the heading "THE SEASON."

The countess of Rainfurly gave a musical party on Wednesday afternoon, at her residence, 1, Sydney Terrace, to the leading residents and visitors of the Island. Amongst those present were the Dowager Viscountess Gort, Lord Gort, Hon. Misses Vereker, Lady Conyers, Lady Trimelston, Lady Gordon...

The list of notable attendees continues for ten lines. Then:

Sir Charles Locock entertained a fashionable party at dinner on Tuesday evening.

Sir William Martins entertained a fashionable party at a dinner on Wednesday evening.

The Hon. Mr. and Mrs. Cust have left Cowes for Fernhill.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Waldram, and Mr. John Smith have arrived at Hanover Cottage, George-street.

The Rev. E. J. and Mrs. Ward, and Capt. J.M. Ward have arrived at 38, Union-street.

Mr. and Mrs. Galt and Family have left Fernhill for Ventnor.

The routine printing of a fashionable intelligence column (titled as such) in the Wellington Independent of New Zealand attests not only the the provinces' desire to mimic the customs of the metropolis, but to the broad appeal of this sort of reporting. A typical sample, dated May 9, 1848, begins:

The government brig Victoria arrived on Thursday night, bringing the Most Honorable Messrs. Greenwood, Muro, and Seymour, Governor Grey's Nominees, as passengers. We understand these gentlemen have taken apartments in the Government Public House.

On Monday, Lord Stanley gave a splendid Cabinet Banquet at his mansion, Te Aro, to the whole of the Nominees. We understand this was a very brilliant affair, the arrangements being ably conducted by Thomas Ashbolt, Esq., who acted as Toast master on the occasion.

In Charles Dickens' 1851–52 novel Bleak House, the fashionable intelligence is satirically presented as a collective of chattering snoops, doggedly tracking the movements of the beautiful but aloof  Lady Dedlock, wife of Sir Leicester Dedlock, a baronet from a family "as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable."

It has left off raining down in Lincolnshire at last, and Chesney Wold has taken heart. Mrs. Rouncewell is full of hospitable cares, for Sir Leicester and my Lady are coming home from Paris. The fashionable intelligence has found it out and communicates the glad tidings to benighted England. It has also found out that they will entertain a brilliant and distinguished circle of the ELITE of the BEAU MONDE (the fashionable intelligence is weak in English, but a giant refreshed in French) at the ancient and hospitable family seat in Lincolnshire.

The beau monde was the composite subject of many gossip-heavy periodicals, fashionable intelligence columns, and satirical prints through the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century. Historian Hanna Grieg calls them "the elite within the elite...a subsection of the most elevated social ranks who successfully combined the securities of title and wealth with urban-based social and cultural authority."³

Theirs was the world of fashion. Their names circulated in the press not simply because they were glamorous (or sometimes prone to shameful misconduct), but because they represented a cornerstone of the political establishment. The "Season," the annual coming-together of the beau monde in London, was a consequence of the Glorious Revolution of 1689. After usurping James II, King William III began summoning Parliament on an annual basis, usually between November and June, whereupon the aristocracy descended upon the capital and resided there for several months.


This metropolitan shift in the lifestyle of the ruling elite was not just understood as an excuse to indulge in the capital's myriad pleasures. Nor was it solely a practical solution to the increased load of parliamentary business. In a less tangible but nonetheless significant sense, an elite metropolitan presence became seen as essential to good government. The visibility of powerful lords in London would, as it was hoped, act to counter any tyrannical ambitions harbored by the crown. The responsibilities of landholding, rural paternalism, and local governance remained highly valued and critical to perception of the balance of power; but coming to London, residing in the capital, and participating in a central parliamentary body was now also understood and prioritized as a critical component of a balanced constitution. Therefore, rather than evidence of the elite's dereliction of duty, extensive stays in the metropolis and the very concept of "the season" were reframed as important components of noble obligation and good governance.

Fashion was then a projection of power, a complex and mutable array of sartorial and behavioral signs by which this elite within the elite could exclude undesirables, preserving the exclusivity of its network (and sub-networks) of allegiance. Newspaper columns regarding of the beau monde's movements and allusions to their private scandals were frequently political reports, even if the fact was hard to discern through their emphasis on wealth, elegance, and/or unseemly behavior (depending on the periodical).

Grieg advises caution against facile comparisons between the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century beau monde and the coterie of modern celebrities. In a political-economical sense, there's very little common ground between the aristocratic landowner with a seat in the legislature and the Hollywood actor who earns a fabulous income from acting on film and collecting royalties from the use of their likeness on merchandise. The common denominator is their transfiguration into media entities. If we call the beau monde the predecessor to the milieu of the red carpet, we do so because the mass media's delivery and presentation of the latter is an evolution of its treatment of the former.

Louis Phillippe Boitard, The Beau Monde in Saint
James's Park
(ca. 1749)

A fascinating (if overwrought) essay by one Sumiao Li on the rise of the "empire of fashion" and its entanglement with nineteenth-century mass media observes the consummation of the fashionable intelligence and gossip sheets' transition from their (nominal) role as the reporters of high society to its arbiters. Li identifies an operation similar to myth-making, which she calls "virtualizing."

"Media representation," Li writes, "turned the beau monde into a largely virtual world running in the folds of papers." The interaction of the beau monde and the nineteenth press created a sort of Baudrillardian feedback loop in which the press narratives and descriptions of high society colored not only the public's perception of the elite, but the elite's perception of itself. Members modified their behavior according to what was reported in the press; the press provides additional feedback within a matter of days; and so on, ad perpetuum. Li comments: "One needed the medium of print to authenticate one's fashionable existence."

High society held exclusive galas and gathered in luxurious drawing rooms long before daily newspapers kept tabs on who was in attendance, but once the beau monde became media consumers—when a hostess could be miffed to discover that her soiree of the previous night didn't make the column in the Morning Post, or when a social climber fed a press agent account of "his having dined at some titled man's table the day before" in hopes of putting his name on the society radar—the fourth estate acquired a measure of power over the beau monde. The newspaper could influence who or what was in fashion in precisely the same way that the publicized results of candidate opinion polls can nudge public opinion.

Li writes:
Via a single sleight of hand, "fashionable intelligence" has dethroned the noble from their supposedly divine-given pedestals, rendering them common human beings subjected to rumors, falls and deaths; and yet by uploading them into the fashionable medium of the press, it has re-created this new realm of the real as an arena of fantasy and fashion....

Once the real starts to be uploaded as the virtual, to read, write or learn are all oriented towards how fashion as actual spatial extensions can best be transformed into virtual space and then back into fashion as time, or vice versa, via the medium of the printing press....

The vantage point of the fashionable eye is the extraterrestrial place the beau monde has reached ahead of society in general. Being immersed in the world of that extraterrestrial place, the fashionable eye/mind is a sensory one in a sensory body that enjoys the "more than usually brilliant" gaieties fashionable gatherings can offer, and it does not hide but instead flaunts his "privilege" of having this vantage point, from which he can confidently pose and reflect all the gaieties with supposedly mirror-clarity for those absent. Those absent, which can be the whole national or international readership of the periodical, might not be in that extraterrestrial place yet, but they are not exactly terrestrial plebeians, either; for they are already part of the fashionable world as "fashionable readers" who can download from the periodical the mediated virtual into their life as the real——the real dream life of phantasmagoria accessible in the "imagined community" they share with the beau monde...

She isn't wrong, but she somewhat overstates both the reach and potency of fashion as "a new power of the day" and the the capabilities of mass media in the nineteenth century. (But only somewhat.)

Li calls fashion "a paradigm of modern power;" that power is the naked potency of wealth and hereditary privilege. The context of that paradigm was of a liquified social order where that power, and its sartorial and behavioral tokens, which during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fell from the exclusive grasp of a hereditary aristocracy. Here we turn to Thomas Piketty's Capital and Ideology:

[T]he boundaries between different owner groups were relatively porous. No one knew for sure where the gentry ended: one belonged to the group only if other members of the local gentry recognized one's membership...many merchants and other bourgeois without the slightest feudal or warrior background [the original basis of the nobility] had the good taste to acquire substantial estates, adopt a suitable lifestyle, and marry appropriately to secure their entry into the gentry. A marriage to an authentic scion of an ancient feudal warrior lineage or even to offspring of titled nobility of more recent vintage made it easier to gain recognition as a member of the gentry but it was not indispensable.

That last sentence may underemphasize the difficulty of the nouveau riche faced in entering the echelons of high society. Old money has always distrusted the parvenu. The cyclical sartorial fashions of the beau monde arose, probably unconsciously, as a means of determining who was who without the assistance of sumptuary laws.

Contra Li, the press didn't "dethrone" the nobility in any meaningful sense; it remained privileged by the state. Titled men were still eligible to take seats in the House of Lords, where they could protect the interests of property owners, vote against raising the age of consent from twelve years old, and stymie initiatives to admit Jewish lawmakers while the fashionable intelligence was busy braying about parties and holidays abroad.

"It has been estimated," Piketty writes, "that in 1880, nearly 80 percent of the land in the United Kingdom was still owned by 7,000 noble families (less than 0.1 percent of the population), with more than half belonging to just 250 families...a tiny group that largely coincided with the hereditary peers who sat in the House of Lords." A series of catty remarks about low attendance at a family's annual party or the allegedly loose morals of a son or daughter didn't diminish in the slightest that family's ability to make a fabulous living extracting rents.

It must be born in mind that the proportion of the population to whom fashionable intelligence truly meant something was far smaller than number of people who keep up with the Kardashians today. Even judging from Li's own explication of the matter (and from Mrs. Crackenthorpe's report of a conversation in her drawing room), the people with whom fashionable intelligence most resonated were members of the beau monde themselves, or otherwise people at its periphery who aspired to make inroads. Even with the high-frequency distribution of newspapers, even with the occasional copperplate illustrations of a fashionable person or event (increasingly based on photographs, which couldn't be directly reproduced in newspapers before the 1880s), even with photographic cartes-de-visite, the "largely virtual world of the beau monde" still had its basis in wall-of-text newsprint.

More fashionable intelligence from The Freeman's Journal (Jan. 16, 1843)

Print is an anaesthetic medium. Print matter can be descriptive, it can persuade, it can evoke strong emotion, it can fascinate and titillate—but it holds our senses at arm's length. As Marshall McLuhan might say, it doesn't wholly involve us, or invite us in. It can modify existing relational networks pertaining to concrete "lived" experience, and can integrate new terms into those networks—but being devoid of any sensuous content, it can only refer to the individual's own history of experience in the world of things and events. Rather than a "virtual" reality, Li would have better said that print creates a discursive one. In a contrast to the celebrity culture of electric media, the nineteenth-century world of fashion was an abstract one in which names disjoined from bodies and voices moved amorphously through patchwork visions of elegance and opulence drawn from the newspaper reader's own history of experience.

The virtual world of the beau monde confronted a remote newspaper audience as nothing more than another visually monotonous wall of newsprint unless they knew whereof it spoke. Anybody who read the papers understood there existed such a thing as fashionable society and appreciated its clout. But unless a given person was either part of that group or someways approached or intersected with its orbit, had a personal encounter with an aristocrat, or knew somebody who could point out and give a name to the sumptuously dressed individual in a promenading crowd, the beau monde was so many anonymous strangers. What were any of the names listed on an "arrivals and departures" column but cold data, unless the reader had some prior association with those people, or could frame them in terms of known events? 

I'm reminded of a scene from The Honeymooners where Ralph sits at the table and sedately reads a newspaper brief about the construction of a new highway from Tibet to Mongolia. He's anxious about a possible IRS audit and is trying to calm down and think about something else; the chortling studio audience recognizes the humor in him feigning interest in an article about something that's obscure, tedious, and trivial to him (and to most Americans). More to the point: he can now tell somebody "I heard they're building a highway from Tibet to Mongolia," but the meaning of this sentence is practically empty. Has Mr. Kramden ever visited Tibet or Mongolia, or met anyone from them? Can he point to either country on a map? What does he know about their automotive cultures, or of their cultures in general? If the article referred to any regional politicians, would they be familiar to him? Would the technical challenges posed by highway construction in the Himalayas occur to Ralph if the correspondent doesn't address the topic?

Such considerations matter less where salacious gossip about the elite was concerned: anyone can savor the knowledge that an aristocrat debased his rank and is getting raked over the coals for it, and take a perverse pleasure in the details. (How many millennials had even heard of Larry Craig before the wide stance affair? Did that attenuate our schadenfreude in the slightest?) But newspaper content that extolled or dryly reporting on the beau monde was only truly significant to those who were to some extent already in the know, and could put it to use—or believed that they might. Fashionable intelligence columns, Li tells us, were invaluable reading for hangers-on who wanted to go to a party and earn the benefit of the doubt by dropping names, and that an enterprising author or publisher could earn a pretty penny selling books on manners and etiquette to social climbers.

None of this was possible prior to the bourgeoisie revolution and the collapse of the European ternary order. During the medieval period, the idea that a fascinating commoner could mingle with and win a measure of acceptance from the aristocracy would have been absurd. Equally unthinkable was the prospect of burgher without blue blood in his veins amassing enough wealth for the elite to take him seriously.

John Leech, illus. for Robert Smith Surtees' Mr. Sponge's
Sporting Tour 

These new social realities played a part in stirring the public's fascination with the beau monde, and the desire to imitate them. A gated club of "the best people" absolutely barred to anyone who hasn't been a member from birth arouses indifference or contempt in outsiders passing it by. But when the club's admittance policy contains a clause vouchsafing the opportunity of membership on the basis of merit, what was previously an affront can become an aspiration. It's easier for the waitress, the student, the wife of a reasonably prosperous business owner, etc., to dream about stepping into the "arena of fantasy and fashion" (as Li calls it) and becoming the center of attention for one magical night like a real-life Cinderella isn't a priori impossible for people like them. This will become a key component of modern celebrity culture: the myth that the goddess of the silver screen once stepped off a bus in Hollywood with nothing but two nickels and a dream. "Anything can happen" becomes "I can make it happen." "She deserved it; I can become deserving of it."

We could possibly call the beau monde in its aggregate a mythological entity—but not the majority of its individual members. The mystique of the aristocratic debutante or dandy aroused most fascination in those relatively few people who stood near enough to high society to know discursively who was who, and could even join the images of faces with some of the names in newsprint, but were still barricaded from making such people into concrete facts of their life by the lack of direct contact necessary for making them objects of concrete experience. In other words, they were neither too proximate to an eminent figure to know them as a life-sized human being, nor too distant that so-and-so came to them only as a recurring name in the fashionable intelligence column.

And this suited the beau monde just fine. Many of them didn't want publicity. They generally disliked journalists, weren't altogether fond of the banausic masses, and preferred to keep their affairs (in any sense of the word) private. The opinions that most concerned them were those held by other members of their elite milieu. If they cared about what was said about them in the newspapers, it was because their peers (and rivals) were reading them.

The next step in the birth of what we know as celebrity culture began with the emergence of the influential public figure whose livelihood depended on publicity, and to whom the peddlers of fashionable intelligence could apply the methods they'd developed for "virtualizing" the beau monde.


1. Source.

2. This has ever been the unspoken social function of gossip: counter-control applied by those in the lower social rungs of the social order against those above them who flaunt the community's moral norms.

3. Excerpted from Grieg's The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London.

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