Tawdry and insubstantial, yet vibrant and pervasive, celebrity is an inescapable element of modern culture. Its complex machinery is jointly operated by the celebrity individual, the celebrity industry and the audience, with no one in overall control.
The essential parts of this machinery first meshed in the Regency period.
When was the Regency?
The ‘political’ Regency lasted from 1811 to 1820, the years in which the Prince of Wales acted as regent for his mentally ill father George III. The ‘cultural’ Regency is a longer span, often taken to begin with the century and close with the regent’s reign as George IV in 1830. Others put the start-date further back – sometimes to the first madness of King George in 1788. And unless it is pushed forward to 1837, the death of William IV, there is an awkward seven-year gap before the Victorian era (1837–1901) that has no label.
What is celebrity?
A good way to define celebrity is by contrast with fame. Both are conferred on a person by a community, but while fame is won by right, the reward of great deeds or power, and is fairly static, celebrity is transactional and fluid.
Three forces create celebrity and fashion its development: the celebrities themselves, who seek attention and material gain, but must guard against the potentially self-alienating split between private self and public image; the celebrity industry (handlers, agents, stylists, photographers, journalists etc) that has an interest in promoting them while staying out of view; and the audience, which admires them, needs them for self-validation, enjoys its control over them, and can bring them low if they fail to meet its expectations.
When was celebrity culture born?
Historians disagree, but many think a recognisably modern celebrity culture emerged in the late 18th century, with London as its birthplace. The first truly capitalist economy, rural-urban migration, democratic ideas and improved education smudged class boundaries and opened new avenues to merit.
A free press full of personal matter and gossip allowed canny individuals to use self-promotion and bribery to forge a good public image. More polished advertising and the advent of branded goods ushered in a trend for high-profile endorsements. The growth in painted and engraved portraits and satirical prints offered a range of positive and negative representation of well-known persons. The audience’s constitutive role was clear, with celebrities actively courting public opinion, paying for visibility with loss of private life, vulnerable to brutal denigration for their missteps but often given the chance to redeem themselves.
The person holding the pen
The commercialisation of literature, supplanting the old practices of patronage and subscription publishing, led to the rise of the author as personality. Memoirs, biographical reviews, portraits, press reports, publishers’ promotional stunts, literary salons and public lectures made writers circulate nearly as much as their books.
Lord Byron saw better than anyone that his profile comprised his life as well as his work, and he merged them by modelling his moody outsider heroes on himself and aping them in return. In typical celebrity mode his life became a story that he, in collaboration with enablers, told to great effect. But the Byronism his readers loved became a constraint, impeding creative innovation and obliging him to play a role that bored and overtaxed him. Then a disastrous marriage turned the fickle public against him and subjected him to the degradation that often closes the celebrity story.
Other poets rejected the demeaning exigencies of celebrity authorship and professed to write instead for posterity, but found that this stern purity itself became an image, a pose that appealed to a segment of the literary market, thus re-enacting the logic of celebrity.
Stars of the stage
The performance needed to maintain celebrity well suited those who played parts and interacted with audiences for a living. Theatregoing was hugely popular, and leading actors, often of modest origins, were wealthy and admired. The enthusiasm they aroused on stage made people want to know them, and using verbal and visual media they crafted a public intimacy that blended their personalities with their roles. In an age before recorded sound or film, they knew their art would die with them, and this sharpened their desire for the instant buzz of success.
The craze for the child actor William Betty led to scenes of mayhem but fizzled out when he grew to manhood. Elizabeth Farren lived a fairly tale by refusing to be an aristocrat’s mistress, and then, after an engagement conducted on her terms, becoming his countess. Mary Robinson let herself be seen as a sex symbol, prompting an urge to vilify her as a harlot and trapping her in an image the ageing process made hard to sustain.
The tragedian Sarah Siddons so imbibed the gravitas of her roles and had such prestige as a cultural authority that she became imprisoned in a stiff, queenly persona. She also exemplified the addiction of celebrities, actors in particular, to their audiences, going on too long and suffering acutely when the curtain finally came down.
A cast of characters
The joys and perils of celebrity in the Regency, the opportunities it offered and the vulnerabilities it created, can be seen through five celebrities in particular.
The Parvenue Duchess: The daughter of a poor wardrobe-keeper in a company of itinerant actors, Harriot Mellon married the elderly banker Thomas Coutts and then, after his death, the Duke of St Albans. The richest woman in the country and a tireless self-promoter, she was savagely abused by envious detractors.
The Tsar’s Intriguer: Dorothea Lieven was the steely wife of a rather mediocre Russian ambassador in London. Her intelligence, dignity and talent for flattery captivated numerous statesmen and made her a political force in her own right, a central participant in complex diplomatic manoeuvres on the European stage.
The Last Grandee: Richard Grenville, Duke of Buckingham was the corrupt chief of his family’s faction in parliament. He squandered his vast wealth on the acquisition of political influence, princely personal extravagance and acting the part of feudal grandee as master of Stowe, thereby causing the decline of the Grenville dynasty.
The Elegant Novelist: Mocked by Thackeray as ‘Lady Flummery’, Lady Charlotte Bury was a ‘Silver Fork’ novelist of high society. In her youth a great beauty and leader of fashion, she twice married poor men for love and was reduced to writing trashy fiction and even indiscretions about the royal family to stave off poverty.
The Fashionable Artist: Sir Thomas Lawrence was the most esteemed British painter of his generation and President of the Royal Academy, but in the face of rumours of homosexuality and compulsive gambling and the distaste for his seeming greed in relations with clients he had to use all his charm to uphold his high repute.
Peter James Bowman is a writer and translator living in Ely, Cambridgeshire. He holds a BA from Oxford University and a PhD from Cambridge University. He has published 17 scholarly articles on German and British literature, and among the authors he has translated are Theodor Fontane, Stefan Zweig and Johanna Spyri. His first book The Fortune Hunter: A German Prince in Regency England appeared in English and German. His second book The Real ‘Persuasion’: A Real-Life Jane Austen Heroine was published in 2017.
His book The First Celebrities: Five Regency Portraits is published by Amberley Publishing, available 15 January 2023.