Toby Young may be right that modern society is ruled by a celebrity elite. But so were the Victorians.by Jonty Olliff-Cooper / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
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When Britney Spears totters from a night club at 5am—hair askew, often drunk, often without knickers—we tend to assume her behaviour is terribly modern. Certainly Toby Young, who argues that we are “lulled by the celebritariat” (December), seems to think so. But celebrities are not new. Nor is our obsession with them, as Prince Charles recently demonstrated with his 60th birthday portrait, modelled on Victorian hero Frederick Burnaby (1842-85). Burnaby is almost totally forgotten, but in his day he was so famous that the Queen reportedly fainted at news of his death. The Times gave him a 5000-word obituary. Grown men broke down and wept in the street.
It is easy to see why. Burnaby’s exploits make Rambo look wet. Few people have survived frostbite, typhus, an exploding air balloon, and poisoning with arsenic; explored Uzbekistan (where it was so cold, his beard froze solid and snapped off), led the household cavalry, stood for parliament, could speak seven languages, crossed the channel by air, written a string of bestsellers, commanded the Turkish army, and founded Vanity Fair; all before his early death aged 42.
Immensely strong, with a 48-inch chest, Burnaby could break a horseshoe apart with his bare hands. His party trick was to bend a poker double round a dull dinner guest’s neck. Most famously, when fellow officers coaxed a pair of ponies into his room for a jape, Burnaby simply picked them up&…