FAME AND FORTUNE
The expanding scope of biography brings us to the final indication of shifting attitudes towards sex and publicity in this period: the growing fame of types of people previously regarded as disreputable. Traditionally, biography had served a moral purpose. The lives of saints, martyrs, rulers, divines, and other worthies were valuable as exemplars of virtue, whilst those of tyrants and murderers conventionally warned of the snares of sin and the providence of God. In the eighteenth century these remained important motives. But the heightened value now placed on individuality and personality, together with the other developments we have surveyed, also helped to create the first age of celebrity.
‘Celebrity’ is a slippery concept to define. The word ‘celebrate’ in its
various forms was very old. As early as the fourteenth century we find Chaucer describing Hercules as ‘celebrable for his hard travaile’; and by the seventeenth century it was established practice to write of people as ‘celebrate’, or ‘celebrated’, in the sense of famous or renowned. The sense of ‘celebrate’ as actually making someone well – known appeared at around the same time, and grew in importance during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nowadays, as a consequence, ‘celebrity’ usually means a peculiar, lesser kind of fame, which is limited in three main ways. The first is that it is an essentially personal type of renown, as distinct from the reputation that comes to people who hold a notable office, such as monarchs, or are associated with some conspicuous achievement. The second is that celebrity is intrinsically fleeting, though it can be remarkably long-lived. Thirdly, and in consequence, it is especially dependent upon regular publicity. It was in the eighteenth century, as the opportunities for such exposure multiplied, that this particular form of ephemeral, media-dependent fame first became a widespread phenomenon.1
Its origins can be traced back to the earliest days of professional writing for publication, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This was the period in which it first became possible to make a living as a hack writer, churning out tracts and pamphlets for public sale, and there were soon authors who succumbed to the temptation of advancing their books by promoting themselves. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, we should think of the Elizabethan pamphleteer Robert Greene (1558-92) as ‘England’s first celebrity author’; whilst the most recent biographer of John Taylor ‘the Water-Poet’ (1578-1653) describes him as ‘the first modern “personality”, skilfully manipulating the media and “famous for being famous”.’2 When the first professional women writers appeared on the scene, a hundred years later, they were often the objects, willingly or not, of even greater interest in their personal lives. (This was particularly so when, as in the case of Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood, their private affairs were rumoured to be as full of sexual intrigue as their writings.) As the means of publicity expanded, and writers became more dependent upon commercial success, personal celebrity became an ever more important feature of the English literary world.
After 1700 the same focus on personalities also came to characterize the public perception of other, even less reputable, professions. In the early eighteenth century there developed a new fascination with the lives and exploits of highwaymen and other apparently romantic criminals. In the 1720s, Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard inspired scores of ballads, sermons, plays, and satires. The notoriety of such figures was one of the inspirations for John Gay’s phenomenally successful Beggar’s Opera (1728), which itself did much to further the cult of the glamorous criminal. By 1700 there was already a long tradition of writing about notorious criminals, but it was only in the eighteenth century that many of them became renowned in their own lifetime, that their portraits were published as cheap prints, and that their biographies became celebratory as well as didactic.3
An even closer connection can be drawn between the growing fame of whores and of actresses, who had first appeared publicly on the English stage at the Restoration. The overlap between their roles was obvious. ‘Indeed most stage-players are courtesans,’ says one character in an early play by Margaret Cavendish; ‘And most courtesans are good actors,’ replies another. As we have seen, from the 1660s onwards actresses were on constant public display in London. Their personalities were the subject of great public interest, and they often facilitated such intimacy by addressing the audience in their own voice, in specially written prologues and epilogues. It was also well known that many of them led scandalous lives, offstage as well as on. Several of the period’s leading mistresses, from Nell Gwyn to Dorothy Jordan, started out in the theatre. In many respects the contemporary celebrity of actresses was far greater than that of whores and bawds. But it is significant that it emerged at about the same time; that it took similar forms, from portrait prints to hack biographies; and that it was strongly fixated on their sexual behaviour.4