One morning in 1904, the London papers reported that Frederick York Powell, the Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford, had passed away. On the very same morning in Oxford, Frederick York Powell, seriously ill yet alive, was greatly amused about the news of his departure. Showing his whimsical sense of humor, he wrote to the editor begging that any obituary notices were sent to him “for his entertainment.” York Powell was remarkably forbearing in the matter. Many others were less thrilled about the sensational “news” the mass media published about their private lives and about the obsession the general audience seemed to have for wanting to know every little detail about their looks, homes, families, hobbies, and what not else. Indeed, the public’s curiosity was almost unlimited and an anonymous writer in The Strand concluded in 1891 that “he is a careful man nowadays who hides his idiosyncrasies from the public gaze. Happier still is he who, having his skeleton in his cupboard, can double lock the door and lose the key.” The crucial question, then, was, how to succeed in hiding the “idiosyncrasies.” Even historians were forced to think about their strategies for creating and maintaining a public image that corresponded with a scholar’s ethos that underlined modesty and moderation.
The nineteenth century was the century of emerging mass media and popular celebrity culture. As Leo Braudy has emphasized, nineteenth-century fame was no longer granted on hereditary grounds or on affiliation to a certain social class introducing an ever widening range of individuals to gain celebrity status. The audience now had the power to make and break celebrities. If this audience allowed it, practically anyone could be the topic of the talk: artists, actors, boxers, politicians, scientists… Even historians could become minor scale celebrities whose lives were followed with intense interest. A death of a history professor was, then, news worth to publish in a London newspaper. The new mass media was a fitting vehicle to satisfy and create curiosity for the famous. The technological innovations both in printing and paper making enabled cheaper prices revolutionizing the newspaper industry. The growing literacy guaranteed an ever increasing audience for the press. This was a new kind of audience who cared less about highbrow literary essays and more about the bite size news that dailies and weeklies supplied them with. This was also an audience obsessed about biographical stories and news – and the media was happy to respond to this by introducing gossip columns, interviews with celebrities, series of brief biographical sketches of notable men and women, and many other features that enabled the readers to peek into the private lives of the famous. Even the more serious weeklies such as The Athenaeum considered it necessary to introduce a gossip section in order to continue to appear as an attractive magazine.
Historians’ responses to the new interest in their personal lives varied greatly and reflected the general confusion the celebrity culture caused among the literati. Some embraced the potential the publicity held for book sales, others wished to have nothing to do with the kind of media that they deemed incompatible with scholarly dignity. Thomas Carlyle was one of those who was willing to seize the opportunity. He had preached pretty much his whole life against fame and vanity and considered them serious vices for a man of letters. Literary minds ought to adhere to modesty and disinterestedness. Yet, Carlyle invited to his home Edmund Yates, a journalist from The World, who wrote the immensely popular sketches titled Celebrities at Home. In a good hero-worshipping fashion Yates drew a portrait of Carlyle as a great mind, finding evidence for this in every aspect in his life and every object in his life from “a wooden paper-knife marked ‘Mentone’ and a bowie knife of tremendous proportions” to the portraits of Cromwell and Frederick the Great that adorned his private study. He observed Carlyle’s life from the very moment this “gray-bearded, rugged-featured man, swathed in ample dressing-gown of gray duffel” appeared at the front door till the evening when the sage of Chelsey devoted himself for reading and contemplation. Carlyle’s habits, routines, abstemious amusements, his garden – even his voice – all were testimonies of his great mind carrying clues about his inner personality. Following Yates’s day together with Carlyle readers were given a unique opportunity to take a glance into the private life of one of the nation’s greatest scholarly heroes.
Carlyle willingly exposed his life for a public gaze, but many were subjected to the same gaze against their will. It was challenging, if not impossible to control the media that had its own will and interests to look after. The gossip that sold papers was not necessarily flattering for the scholars who were the target of the libelous press. It is doubtful that the venerable Hebrew scholar, Dr. Cox, was amused to read from The Strand how he relaxed by playing ball with his wife. The same writer who had concluded that happy were those who kept their skeletons in their cupboards, showed no mercy on Cox or a number of other notables, when revealing their queer ways to unbend. What the writer found remarkable in Cox’s fascination for throwing ball was that he did not do this “in the sanctity of the back garden,” but instead openly in the front garden! Although no one had accused “our greatest Hebrew scholar” for being “guilty of amusing himself in his own peculiar way on a Sunday,” the writer obviously found it somewhat strange – if not inappropriate – that someone who was expected to be somber and moderate, in fact enjoyed throwing a ball with his wife.
While the ball playing Hebrew scholar might amuse the audience, the revelation of his unexpected hobby was unlikely to seriously harm his reputation. But there were “news” that could potentially damage a historian’s credibility and public image. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the author of the bestselling History of England, certainly had his share of good and bad publicity. Macaulay was not ashamed to admit that his vanity was tickled by the success and flattering he earned with his book. He even fantasized to be one day carved into wax in the Madame Tussauds. Yet the publicity had its downsides as well.
In 1853 he learned that the New York Herald was claiming that he was writing the next volume of his History under the influence of opium. The paper reported that Macaulay’s friends had given up any hopes to see the work finished, because the “excessive use of opium, to which he is addicted, has destroyed his health, and prevents him from any continued mental exertion.” A concerned American reader contacted Macaulay who assured him that the story was “an impudent lie.” He had never consumed more than altogether ten grains of opium or taken “even a drop of laudanum, except in obedience to medical authority.” The last time had been in 1849 during the cholera epidemic. Macaulay was agitated by the false news and felt “some indignation at the villainy of the low-minded and bad-hearted man who could send such a calumny across the Atlantic.”
The new kind of media and celebrity culture required from the famous novel strategies for coping with it. Full withdrawal was not a feasible option as that only seemed to rouse the public curiosity. New sorts of skills were needed to deal with journalists, and as historians quickly discovered, these were very different than the ones they applied in their research. It took trial and error to learn to endure the new situation. An American journalist was astounded to find Edward Freeman, a prolific historian with a sharp pen, to answer his questions with monosyllables and showing no inclination or understanding towards the reporter’s limited knowledge about English history. Soon the reporter had to admit that even “the tortures of the inquisition” would have failed to get any further comments from Freeman, “a man of very diffident manners” with “crusty temper.” The picture the journalist painted of Freeman to the American audience was far from flattering and indicated how much difficulties the old-school historians like Freeman had with the new mass media.
[Anon.] “Celebrities at Play”, The Strand Magazine, II (1891): 145-149.
Elton Oliver, Frederick York Powell: A Life and a Selection from his Letters and Occasional Writings, vol. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.
Pinney, Thomas (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. V. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Yates Edmund, Celebrities at Home. Reprinted from “The World”, vol. I. London: Office of ‘The World’, 1877.
Braudy Leo, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & Its History. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Conlin Jonathan, “The Consolations of Amero-Teutonism: E. A. Freeman’s Tour of the United States, 1881-2” in Making History: Edward Augustus Freeman and Victorian Cultural Politics, eds. G. A. Bremner and Jonathan Conlin. London: Proceedings of the British Academy 202, 2015: 101-118.