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
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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—one under each arm—and carried them downstairs “as if they had been cats.” But, like Britney, Burnaby’s actual talents only half explain his fame. Then, as now, media attention was just as important.
In this respect, Burnaby was lucky. His heyday coincided with a new atmosphere in Britain, receptive to his brand of reckless adventuring. Compressing a century into a sentence, the early Victorian world of Dickens and Brunel was a grimy, serious society, born out of a strong evangelical morality and the growing pains of industrialisation revolution. Up to about 1870, no one wanted an empire. It cost too much. In a decade, that changed. Suddenly we were in the world of side-whiskers, Sherlock Holmes, and oompa bands. Empire could not be big enough.
A media revolution was crucial to this change. Before 1860, national news did not exist. Three breakthroughs changed this. First, the telegraph allowed news to reach Fleet Street in hours, not weeks. Second, new printing techniques put cheap dailies within the reach of ordinary people. Thirdly, Gladstone’s 1870 Education Act made it free and compulsory to learn the somewhat perversely-termed “3 Rs”: readin’, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. Suddenly millions wanted news.
New media demanded new copy. The new readers of the late Victorian era had simple tastes. They wanted then what we want now: glamour. Not exactly snaps of “Nikkola, 23, from Essex,” but certainly a good rollicking tale of daring do. And what better stage for excitement than that colourful, exotic, mysterious space: empire? And what better star for that stage than Frederick Burnaby? He was in the right place, at the right time.
New publications sprung up catering for gossip and empire, like the Daily Mail, which filled its pages with engravings of our brave boys battling swarthy Afghans, exotic dens of oriental vice, and society ladies showing a little ankle. Gossip mags like The Graphic—a sort of Imperial version of Heat—described which balls Burnaby was attending, and who he danced with. One could buy Burnaby playing cards, Burnaby toby jugs, Burnaby crockery and Burnaby comics. Today fans adorn their rooms with posters of Rooney. Victorians venerated poster-sized pullouts of Burnaby from The Illustrated London News. A little too early to attempt a Christmas number one, Burnaby nonetheless inspired parlour songs, a polka—and even a musical. And like all celebs worth their salt, Burnaby released a celebrity autobiography, which ran to seventeen editions. He even had his own sponsorship deal, with Cockle’s Cure-all Condiments. Burnaby was the first hero of mass culture.
Of course, modern celebrity is different. Burnaby did not suffer the indignity of the red carpet. No one dissected whether his body language demonstrated a spat with Gwyneth or Lindsay. But although tabloids in the 1880s were not searching for the first sign of a Burnaby beer belly, the man himself still had to live up to intolerably high expectations. He did not parade his decline like Pete Doherty, but fame nonetheless took a terrible toll. With telephoto lenses, we can catalogue Britney’s demise. Victorians could not see Burnaby’s, so they continued to expect the impossible. As he entered middle age, Burnaby increasingly struggled to keep up with his dashing image.
Eventually, the weight of expectation became too much. Resolving not to die old, Burnaby set out on one last mission. Ignoring orders, he joined the attempt to rescue Gordon from Khartoum. On leaving, he wrote to his footman: “I am very unhappy and I can’t imagine why you care about life. I do not mean to come back.” Sure enough, during an ambush by Sudanese warriors, he pushed through his ranks and rode out alone, determined to meet the public expectation of heroic death. So ended the life of a Victorian icon. Toby Young is right to warn of celebritocracy, but perhaps the real danger is for them, not us.
To read Toby Young’s article, “Lulled by the Celebritariat,” click here