The First Celebrities
Five Regency Portraits
- Peter James Bowman
15th January 2023
What percentage of the printed and online media is dedicated to celebrity culture today? A tricky calculation; but there is no doubt that the percentage was pretty high when mass media in the form of the popular press was first invented. That was in the Regency period and Peter Bowman shows how, following the outrageous fame of Lord Byron, an interest in the foibles, rather than the achievements, of prominent individuals was kindled and sustained by newspapers, satirical prints and good old-fashioned society gossip. Here are six pen-portraits of colourful men and women who played a prominent role in their day but had limited historical significance, figures who for this reason better represent their age than those whose importance transcends it. Their peculiar spheres of activity - the stage, diplomatic and parliamentary coteries, the literary world, and the hunting field - are perforce explored.
Figures such as Harriet Mellon, the illegitimate daughter of a wardrobe-keeper in a company of Irish strolling players, who ended up marrying the ageing banker Thomas Coutts; seven years later, she was the richest merry widow in the land and the target of ferocious abuse. Grantley Berkeley was always in the news for his carousing, fighting, and even duelling - he was the last of the breed. Lady Charlotte Bury was mocked as 'Lady Flummery' by Thackeray because of her execrable novels - but she was a great beauty who married for love not once, but twice. Richard Grenville, 1st Duke of Buckingham, was a shockingly corrupt MP with an enormous income and equally enormous gut, who ensured the decline of the once great Grenville dynasty. A cast of characters to savour, and one that reveals the realities of the Regency period as no Austen novel could.