THE MANIPULATION OF PUBLICITY
The popular press and its social counterparts, such as debating clubs and coffee-houses, were not merely the means of discussion: their practices also altered the very terms of debate. The new types of exchange created novel ways of thinking about morality. This was the second way in which the new media affected sexual sensibilities.1
For a start, a far greater diversity of views than ever before emerged into print. The early periodical press did much to create this new openness, by encouraging correspondence and providing advice on the problems of love and lust. Although conduct books and casuistical literature had been around for a long time, it had never previously been possible for men and women of all social classes, in their thousands, to seek help by writing anonymously to a newspaper and having their query published and answered in print, for all the world to see.2
This sudden innovation was the brainchild of the publisher John Dunton, whose hugely successful bi-weekly question-and-answer journal, the Athenian Mercury (1691-7), was the first English periodical to capture a popular audience. From the outset, the most common topics about which its readers sought advice were love, marriage, and sexual ethics. What was the propriety of unmarried cohabitation? What morals should one attribute to a woman who dressed indecently? Was innocent friendship ever possible between a man and a woman? Why were prostitutes generally barren? Was it wrong to masturbate? Could one conceive at first intercourse? Might adultery ever be justified? None of these questions was new, but never before had they been so popularly and publicly debated. So great was the volume of such correspondence that it spawned a monthly special issue to deal with the backlog, and then a separate spin-off publication, the Ladies Mercury (1693). The format and focus of Dunton’s publication in turn inspired many notable successors, including Defoe’s Review (1704-13), the British Apollo (1708-11), the Tatler (1709-11), the Spectator (1711-14), and the Gentleman’s Magazine, founded in 1731.3
In addition to publicizing, and attempting to solve, moral dilemmas presented by their readers, eighteenth-century periodicals set themselves up to be much more general arbiters and communicators of social norms, which they expounded in essays, verses, and general reflections. By mid-century such aspirations had become a common feature of popular journalism. The growing popularity of periodicals thus created a new and widely read type of authority on questions of conduct. In the eyes of contemporaries there was no necessary contradiction with older sources of guidance. As one remarked, the Bible remained the fount of all moral knowledge; whereas the Spectator simply ‘taught me a more easy and agreeable manner of practising virtue’. In fact, as has rightly been pointed out, there was a considerable divergence between the moral philosophy of early eighteenth-century advice literature and what had come before. Its motive was much more often to entertain as well as to instruct. Its basis was also different. Although it commonly invoked scripture to buttress its arguments, divine law was no longer automatically the primary criterion. Instead, virtuous behaviour now tended to be defined in secular terms: it followed reason, civility, and the dictates of human nature.4 Finally, it is likely that the very form of popular journalism contributed to the idea that moral judgements might be essentially subjective. It was not just the growing volume of newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets that brought about a greater multiplicity and inconsistency of views, but also the fact that these media intrinsically depended on fomenting discussion, provoking questions and comments, contradicting one another, and competing for public attention.
Another consequence of these new conditions was the rise in the eighteenth century of what we might call ‘media events’: cases whose public discussion was so intense that it took on a momentum and a significance of its own. Many such episodes were inspired by some form of sexual controversy. In turn, they inevitably served to highlight contrasting views about sexuality. Even in the seventeenth century some scandalous incidents had provoked considerable comment. In the 1610s, the Overbury affair spawned a flurry of broadsides, pamphlets and poems, in addition to a large body of scribal material. Similar interest surrounded the trial of the Earl of Castlehaven in 1631 for abetting rape and committing sodomy, the divorce proceedings of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk in the 1690s, and a string of other cases involving sexual impropriety. By the mid eighteenth century the novelty was not just that such episodes were much more numerous, nor even that the amount of printed commentary, and its circulation, was vastly greater.5 It was that public involvement through the press was now so commonplace that it could itself become part of the course of events. The combination of frequent and competitive news reporting, and the availability of countless avenues for public intervention, meant that public scandals now almost always inspired endless printed debate between observers and interested parties, even as events were still unfolding.
In the case of sexual celebrities even the most apparently trivial incident could be amplified a hundredfold. When in March 1759 Kitty Fisher was thrown off her horse whilst riding in St James’s Park, it inspired months of public comment, songs, verses, pictures, pamphlets, and entire books (see illustrations 47 to 49). The most common focal point, though, was a trial. After all, a court case contained all the ingredients for a ready-made public debate: different sides offering irreconcilable stories, personalities to dissect, the expectation of scandalous facts, the certainty of a final denouement, and the possibility of punishment, ruin, and even death for the defeated party. It was in the 1760s that the term ‘cause celebre’ first came to be used in English, and several of the earliest examples of the phenomenon are still so described today.6 There was the case in 1753-4 of the young maid Elizabeth Canning, who claimed to have been abducted and held captive for several weeks in a bawdy house, but whose detractors were convinced, as Voltaire put it, that she was simply ‘une petite friponne’, who had got herself pregnant and had disappeared to cover up the fact. Even greater publicity surrounded the trials in 1775 of the bigamous Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, and of the courtesan Mary Rudd, her lover Daniel Perreau, and his twin brother Robert. Four years later, the murder of Martha Ray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, by a young, love-struck clergyman, likewise provoked endless comment and speculation. So overwhelming was the public discussion of such cases that the legal proceedings themselves, and their capacity to establish truth and justice, came to appear almost secondary to the trial by media that was conducted in print.7
The same dynamics shaped countless other now obscure and forgotten incidents of eighteenth-century sexual scandal. Take the case of Ann Sharp, alias Bell. In October 1760 it was widely reported in the London papers that a young gentlewoman had recently been seduced into a bagnio in mysterious circumstances, sexually assaulted, and mortally wounded. The truth of these rumours was equivocal. Even when the body was specially exhumed and examined, the inquest concluded that there had been no foul play. Yet the story refused to die, for it appeared to contain all the ingredients of the worst kind of seduction narrative: the happy daughter of a reputable family in the country, first ruined by a passing army officer; then, moving to
47. One of the prints devoted to Kitty Fisher’s ‘merry accident’ in March 1759.
London, gradually degraded into ever meaner forms of prostitution; then, when down on her luck, sought out, abused, abandoned, and destroyed by an upper-class rake who lacked any shred of humanity or contrition. As a consequence, the lives, ‘adventures’, and characters of Ann Sharp and William Sutton, her supposed assailant, were loudly and endlessly debated in print: by correspondents to newspapers, in editorials, in poetry, and in a steady stream of factual and fictional accounts issued by interested and disinterested parties. Such was the intensity of public comment that even the coroner and the chief magistrate, John Fielding, were forced to take out public advertisements in the papers in defence of their conduct. In this way, the general perception of the case increasingly turned upon the motives and contributions of rival commentators, rather than upon the evidence per se. By the time that Sutton was brought to trial and acquitted of murder, four and a half months later, the judicial verdict was largely irrelevant, for many observers had long since made up their minds. ‘To be tried by
the public,’ as one of Miss Bell’s partisans urged, had come to be almost more desirable than to be tried at law.8
The final notable feature of enlightened print culture was that it presented novel opportunities for the manipulation of public opinion. This may seem an ironic development. Indeed, Professor Jurgen Habermas, the most influential modern theorist of the subject, tells us that exactly the opposite is true. The emergence of a new type of public sphere in early-eighteenth-century England, he argues, allowed the educated classes for the first time to engage in ‘rational-critical debate’ about literary and political issues, free of censorship, commercial pressures, or political partisanship. It was only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that this independent critical spirit was destroyed by the commercialization of the mass media, and the rise of advertising, public relations, and other modern tools of manipulation.9
Even in the eighteenth century, however, it was not unusual for publicity to be carefully managed and manufactured. The reports of news and gossip that appeared in the press were often produced and sold to papers by professional hack writers. The letters and comments supposedly sent in by ordinary readers were commonly re-written, and sometimes wholly made up. Some editors took payment for publishing or suppressing particular items of news; others were entirely in the pay of particular politicians – as were many of the leading writers of the day.10
This was also the period in which advertising and book reviewing first became important and ubiquitous promotional tools. Both lent themselves to underhand methods for marketing books, goods, performances, people, and causes. Advertisements masquerading as news or correspondence could disingenuously alert readers to events and publications; whilst notices and reviews that were in reality little more than meretricious plugs disguised themselves as objective recommendations. Amongst the wide variety of ‘news’ inserted for payment in one London newspaper in the spring of 1744, at exactly the same rate as normal advertisements, were spurious commendations of ‘a bowling green, a play, a good fishing lake, and the knighting of Thomas Rider, esquire, of Kent’. It was to describe the rise of such tactics that the term ‘puff’ took on new meanings in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. In 1732 the London Magazine described it as ‘a cant word for the applause that writers and book-sellers give their own books etc, to promote their sale’. Chesterfield similarly thought it a ‘low’ word – but used it repeatedly himself. Pretty soon it became a popular fictional epithet. A letter from ‘John Puff Esq.’ is prefaced to Henry Fielding’s 1741 spoof, Shamela. In Samuel Foote’s comedy Taste (1752), a ‘Mr Puff’ helps to palm off worthless objects as valuable works of art; in his The Patron (1764) the same name is given to a mercenary bookseller. Similar Mr Puffs appear in Susanna Centlivre’s The Election of 1749 (a printer) and R. B. Sheridan’s 1779 play The Critic (‘a gentleman well known in the theatrical world’).11
Exactly the same means that served to communicate and amplify public opinion were thus commonly employed to deceive and control it. The further development of the mass media in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries greatly expanded the audience susceptible to such techniques. From the outset, however, the manipulation of publicity was a natural, intrinsic by-product of the commodification and influence of printed news and opinion. Even today it is startling to realize quite how shameless eighteenth-century tactics could be. Popular newspapers sometimes found themselves faced by rival publications that had overnight adopted exactly the same title, date, and numbering, in order to trick the public. The common custom of anonymous and pseudonymous publication and reviewing allowed authors surreptitiously to insert, in one pamphlet or paper, trailers and testimonials for another. Writers could clandestinely plug their own books, as well as employing the puffing services of their friends. Jonas Hanway penned an enthusiastic notice of his three-volume Advice from a Farmer to his Daughter (1770), and asked Elizabeth Montagu to submit it as her own. John Cleland secretly reviewed his own work, and so did many other writers. Mary Rudd described one of her own publications, anonymously, as ‘one of the most spirited, and at the same time the most elegant and temperate compositions’ to have appeared in recent times. Although ‘this may be regarded as a puff for the book’, she concluded, ‘it is however different from all other puffs in one respect – it is literally true’. Boswell not only repeatedly and prolifically reviewed his own public appearances and literary works
(‘a book of true genius’, ‘the production of no ordinary genius’, etc.), he even prefaced one of his own anonymous pamphlets with a dedicatory address to himself.12
To illustrate the growing potential of the media to influence ideas, connect people, and motivate actions we have only to compare the methods adopted by Thomas Bray and Jonas Hanway, the two most energetic social reformers of their day. When in the 1690s Bray sought to establish a penitential hospital for prostitutes, he simply circulated manuscript copies of his plan to a handful of well-wishers, and canvassed acquaintances privately for their support. There were no regular newspapers or journals through which he could easily have advertised his idea to a broader public, nor did he seek to hold his proposals up to indiscriminate scrutiny by publishing them in pamphlet form. Instead, he personally approached a few key individuals and tried to gain their assistance. Even at the end of the seventeenth century this was an entirely conventional way of proceeding. It was precisely how, shortly afterwards, Bray succeeded in founding the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, perhaps the most successful charity of its time, as well as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which similarly came into being without any recourse to the public at large.13
To Jonas Hanway, half a century later, such reticence would have been inconceivable. He, too, was a master of covert networking and of the personal appeal. Such was his attention to detail that, when prospective donors were given literature about the Magdalen House, it came bound in specially designed covers that showed penitents crying out ‘O Save Me, Save Me’ – ensuring that the volume’s message was broadcast even if it was left unopened. However, Hanway also took for granted the need to appeal to a more general audience, and to exploit the power of print. Publication, he explained, was even more effective than public meetings. It allowed one’s message to be delivered without interruption, distraction, or contradiction; and it gave people time to digest and ponder the merits of a case. What is more, although ‘there are many who have not, and many more who think they have not, leisure to read. . . even these pin their faith chiefly on the report of those who criticise books’: so that eliciting favourable notices was crucial too. His approach was therefore to flood the media with positive impressions, repeating himself over and over again, in order to get the message across as widely and insistently as possible: publishing and re-publishing, often anonymously, the same sentences and sentiments in the form of plans, letters, reviews, comments, plugs, trailers, and advertisements. All the while he strenuously kept up the disguise of a disinterested, impartial bystander. In truth, as Frances Burney noted, he was ‘addicted’ to newspapers. Yet to his audience Hanway presented himself as an aloof observer, drawn into the fray only by the exceptional merits of the case. ‘As I have but little time to read’, he suggested disingenuously, in one of his innumerable puffs for the Magdalen House, ‘what I write myself is the more genuine’.14
Hanway’s methods testify to the transformation of public communication that had taken place over the previous fifty years. Even minor contributions to any debate were henceforth routinely and immediately magnified, duplicated, and circulated throughout the city, creating a range and depth of comment that would formerly have been unimaginable. Pamphlets, newspapers, literary journals, and ordinary readers rushed to comment on any popular topic. Yet, despite appearances, such discussion was never entirely spontaneous and free. At every stage it was now possible, as publicists like Hanway did so masterfully, to instigate, fan, provoke, influence, exploit, and direct the flow of public opinion towards one’s own purposes.