The 18th century was a Golden Age for newspapers. The Georgian press delighted in cataloguing the vices of the age, and playwrights, politicians, actors, and courtesans were all afforded celebrity status by magazines and popular prints of the period. The parallels with today's media are startlingly obvious.
I'm a caricaturist - a trade with roots planted firmly in 18th-century soil - and my obsession with the 1700s prompted me to write and illustrate a bawdy romp called The GIN LANE GAZETTE It's a compendium of highlights from a fictional Georgian newspaper, dealing with entirely true stories from this age of scandal. It comprises gossip columns, sports reports, obituaries, reviews, advertisements, and a 'courtesan of the month' feature, and my own Hogarthian and Gillrayesque caricatures disport themselves through the text.
Included are the mistress of 'Beau' Nash, who was so distraught when he died that she lived for the rest of her days in a hollow tree; the castrato who married and had children, explaining this away by claiming that he was born with three testicles, one of which was overlooked by the man who gelded him as a child; and Mary Tofts, who conned royal doctors into thinking she had given birth to seventeen rabbits.
I crowd-funded the book with Unbound, which employs a very old method of getting books into print, updated for the internet age. Using the Unbound website, authors pitch books directly to potential readers. Readers choose ideas they like, and pledge their support. If an idea attracts enough supporters, the book is published as a swanky subscribers' edition. There's also a trade edition that goes into bookshops, and subscribers have the satisfaction of knowing it would never have made it that far without their help. Schemes for pitching the book in the real world are a brilliant method of connecting authors with a small circle of patrons in a way that probably hasn't existed since the 1800s. In my case, we held a glorious Gin Lane Gazette 'salon' in the candlelit splendour of Black's Club, Soho. I gave bawdy readings, we served gin punch, enjoyed performance art from 'Kitty and Rose' (two ladies resplendent in 1770s dress and big hair), and opened a ledger in which patrons could subscribe to the book. It was a pleasure to evangelise for the 18th-century in such a context, and to give guests a flavour of why I love the century so much. I have given many such spiels to audiences since, in venues such as Danson House, Benjamin Franklin House, and Dr Johnson's House, and find audiences with no detailed knowledge of the period are delighted by what they hear.
My book's focus is the cult of Georgian celebrity, and nobody was better at handling their own PR than courtesans. Several 'disreputable' ladies feature in my book, amongst whom is the actress Mary 'Perdita' Robinson. Perdita was a leader of fashion, the mistress of the Prince of Wales, and Charles James Fox, amongst others, and was friendly with Marie Antoinette, and the Duchess of Devonshire, who helped her out financially when her feckless husband was in debtors' prison.
Perdita was a canny manipulator of the press, and befriended the Rev. Henry Bate, editor of the Morning Post. Bate was known as the 'Fighting Parson' due to his love of duelling and pugilism, and because he once beat up a prize-fighter who was the protector of a gang of rakes who had insulted his sister-in-law. Bate gave Perdita's antics glowing reviews, and helped shape her public image. With an eye to the future, however, and realising that her career as a kept woman was limited, she turned to writing books, which she crowd-funded.
In 1791, Perdita penned a book of poems, collaborating with newspaper editor John Bell in selling it to an eminent readership. The publication's price was a substantial one guinea, in return for which her subscribers had their names listed in the back, just as mine are in my book. Perdita's 600 patrons are a Who's Who of Georgian royalty, nobility, and gentry, including the Prince of Wales, and three of his brothers, the Duchess of Devonshire, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Rev. Henry Bate, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted her often. One of the book's selling points was that a portrait of Perdita, engraved after one of Reynolds's paintings, formed the frontispiece, and the work was also printed on royal vellum paper, and bound in boards.
Perdita orchestrated a brilliant marketing campaign. She spiked the guns of those who were bound to say that her book had only attracted patrons because of her celebrity. In the dedication she explains that many of the poems included had already been praised when she had previously published them under a pseudonym in a newspaper. She charmed several periodicals into giving her book enthusiastic puffs, one of which laid emphasis on the sexy frontispiece. Perdita had no compunction about trading on her famously captivating looks to shift units. But we shouldn't be critical of her for this. At this stage of her life, she was making a difficult transition from fashionable beauty of the Beau Monde to lady of letters, and as a woman - and a woman with a dodgy reputation at that - she had to pull every string within her grasp to achieve her end. And she did so with aplomb. Her poems and novels were greatly admired by figures such as Coleridge and Godwin, and even enjoyed international success.
Perdita's story underlines that Georgian high society was a small world that thrived on influence, connexions, and patronage, and where everybody knew everybody else. In crowd-funding my own book, and seeking out patrons via 'salons', Twitter, and the Unbound publishing model, I feel I have created a small group of loyal enthusiasts for my project, and (I hope) the 1700s in general.
A version of this blog originally appeared on the University of Sheffield's History Matters blog (7th May 2013)
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