Scandal! Gossip! Research

I was quite impressed that so many of our Risky friends expressed an interest in the history behind our books. Gee. I’m glad we asked. Reading Regency Romance gave me my interest in history. Writing it made it more of an abiding passion.

Scandalizing the Ton, my October book, is what I call my “Regency Paparazzi” story. It was inspired by our present day obsession with celebrities, but we didn’t invent an interest in the rich and famous. Nor did we invent a press willing to do almost anything for some good gossip about them.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries abounded with newspapers. Some of them even reported important news, like what was happening in Parliament, social issues, important events. It was during this period that some of journalism’s standards and ethics were beginning to be established, things like not revealing sources, acting as society’s social conscience, which was not always a good idea.

James Leigh Hunt and his brother, John, published serious news in their London newspaper, The Examiner, including calling the government to task for the heavy taxes levied on the people. In 1812, they printed an article criticizing the Prince Regent for his gambling and womanizing and running up huge debts while not doing anything to better the lives of the citizenry. Although what they printed was true, the Hunts were sued for libel and imprisoned for two years. Leigh Hunt continued to edit The Examiner from his prison cell.

In contrast to the responsible and ethical journalism of the Hunts were the newspapers that flourished by reporting the scandals and peccadilloes of the wealthy, the political elite, and the aristocracy. In his wonderful book, Scandal: A Scurrilous History of Gossip, Roger Wilkes gives examples of the eighteenth and nineteenth century love of gossip, and how the newspaper reporters purchased the juicy tidbits from loose-lipped servants and gentlemen and ladies willing to expose their friends. Not only did newspapers purchase gossip, they also blackmailed their potential victims, taking money to not print some embarrassing incident.

They also just made up stories. In Punch Thackeray and his colleague Jerrod parodied that sort of newspaper with their creation of the reporter, Jenkins, who rarely left his humble abode, preferring to invent his stories about the latest shocking antics of important people.

In my opinion the worst of them all was Theodore Hook, a charming and pleasing fellow who came into the Regent’s favor as a very young man, winning a government job at the ocean paradise of Mauritius. Hook lived an idyllic life for four years until a clerk embezzled lots of money that was Hook’s responsibility. He returned to London under a cloud and, in 1820, to make back the income he lost with his government job he started the Sunday newspaper, The John Bull.

Unlike the Hunt brothers, Hook allied himself with the Prince Regent and whipped up scandal and gossip about prominent Whigs. Favorite targets included The Regent’s estranged wife Queen Caroline and the ladies who attended her. One he branded as ‘strangely susceptible to the charms of her own sex’ ; another he accused of having “criminal affection” for a menial servant (Wilkes, 2002).

Hook had no qualms about paying servants to betray their employers, but most of what he learned was through his own ears. Hook succeeded in keeping it secret that he was the editor of The John Bull. Because he was well-connected enough to move in high circles, he dug his dirt in anonymity, from the very people who extended him their hospitality. Such inside information had huge appeal and the newspaper flourished.

In this secret position of power, Hook mercilessly pilloried those who crossed him. When suspicion grew that he was the editor of the Bull, Hook even wrote a letter to the editor (himself), protesting that he was not the editor. He was a known prankster. In his most famous prank, The Berners Street Hoax, he wrote 4000 letters calling for tradesmen, delivery men, professional men such as physicians and dentists, potential empoyers, wig-makers, dressmakers, members of Parliament and of the aristocracy, all to descend upon the house of an innocent middle-class woman, Mrs. Tottenham. While the street became clogged with people, Hook and his friend stood by and laughed. All I can think of is what a cruelty this was to all those people who were only going about their ordinary lives. He cost them all time and money and dignity.

When Queen Caroline died The John Bull turned to more serious journalism. Eventually Hook was made to pay for the embezzlement, a huge amount that took all his assets and landed him in debtor’s prison for two years. After prison he turned to writing novels, none of which were particularly distinguished. He continued his high living until his liver gave out and he died at age 53.

What do you think of today’s paparazzi? ‘Fess up. Do you like to read about celebrities?
What is the worst prank that was played on you? What is the best prank you ever pulled off?

In Scandalizing the Ton there isn’t any journalist quite as reprehensible as Theodore Hook, but the shady tactics and irresponsible journalism of the Regency are depicted.

Watch my website for more news about this new release!

Thanks to Scandal: A Scurillous History of Gossip by Roger Wilkes, Atlantic Books, 2002, for most of this information

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andrea pickens
andrea pickens
14 years ago

Thanks for this wonderful info, Diane! Isn’t it funny how life doesn’t change much . . . and many of the thing our era thinks it “invented” ares not so new or unique after all. As a coincidence, my WIP features a brainy female scientist whose reputation is being destroyed in the gossip columns, so your post is extra interesting.

I’ll also chime in here belated about what a wonderful place this is to visit for all of us who love the regency era. You all do such a great job with offering such fascinating posts, from historical facts, to fun opinions and hunky heroes! So, a cyber toast to the Riskies!

Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

Wow, I had no idea gossip was such serious business during the Regency. And I will definitely be checking out the book SCANDAL.

There really is nothing new under the sun, is there? The use of gossip as a political weapon is as old as time, I guess.

I must confess that I do read the gossip magazines from time to time. I don’t buy them, but I will read them in a waiting room or in the employee lounge when I find them.

Is it just me, or does the scandal/gossip of the Regency period sound so much more elegant than present day scandal? So much of today’s scandal is just stupid and sad. Much of the Regency period scandal sounds intriguing more grounded in human emotion. Today’s scandal’s seem to be grounded in fame seeking idiocy.

Maya Rodale
14 years ago

I LOVE gossip magazines. I subscribe to both People and Us Weekly and my friends always take my copies when I’m done with them. Though gossip can definitely be hurtful (and that is no fun), apparently there is some real social value to it. I read in Psychology Today (another mag I get regularly) that gossip evolved as an evolutionary strategy to distinguish friends from foes and to establish morals and boundaries of behavior. Think of the uproar over the pics of Britney driving with the baby on her lap–and how no one might have cared in earlier decades. Shows how times have changed.
Loved this blog, Diane! I learned lots on one of my favorite subjects.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

I recently read the book “Scandalmonger,” about scandal in the early US (same time period, different place). I guess the only difference between then and now is how quickly rumors can spread via the Internet. 🙂

Also, I used to think that the RWA convention was the best place for speculative chatter, but that was before I went down to breakfast thsi morning at my hotel in Denver, LOL

Linda Banche
14 years ago

No, I don’t read about celebrities. These people mean nothing to me and I can’t see wasting any time on them.

I really wonder how much good gossip does as opposed as to how much bad it does. I tend to think it does more harm than good.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

Thanks for the wonderful post Diane. Now I have yet another book to add to my growing TBR non-fiction pile. I confess that I love reading the trashier British newspapers like the Sun and the Mirror, and I’ve been known to read Hello! Magazine at Barnes & Noble or at the newsagent. Ooh, and thanks Amanda for adding yet another book to my pile! Scandalmonger sounds intriguing too.

14 years ago

When I think of Leigh Hunt, I don’t think of him as an editor (not sure I even knew he was one), but I definitely think of his poem, “Jenny Kissed Me”. I’ve loved this since I first read it when I was in middle school many years ago. These 8 lines contain an entire story, and I’ve occasionally thought they could be the basis of a romance novel by making the last lines not the ending but the beginning of a Reunited Lovers story. Or perhaps they were both children when they first met and are now not so old, but he feels weary precisely because he is alone until Jenny re-enters his life.

“Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in:

Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kissed me.”

14 years ago

Yeah, life just doesn’t change through the generations, just methods and technology changes. . . making following those celebs whoever they are a heck of a lot easier. Heck, look at the political season in the country now, we think the negative ads and campaigning is bad; sure is not like anything back in the early days of the US. Boy was that bad. Although today’s is still annoying. LOL

As for today, I might click on something if there is a headline at cnn.com or someone posts emails in the Phantom groups or X-Files group about things, but I don’t actively look for stuff. 🙂


Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Isn’t that funny that we both focussed on gossip. I know of one other author who is writing about gossip in the Regency, too. It must be in the air.

Louisa, I suspect the gossip in the Regency could be much more mean-spirited and less concerned with truth. At least People and US magazines try to tell what is true. Suing for Libel wasn’t as easy for everyone as it was for Prinny. That poor friend of Queen Caroline’s probably had no recourse for being accused of an affair with a servant.

Of course, I think the internet approximates the excesses of the 18th and 19th century. I don’t know how many of the alarmist and shocking political on-dits that come my way turn out to be false when checked on Snopes.com.

Maya, way to go in subscribing to the magazines. Your friends must love you.

Amanda, you must be in gossip heaven right now…or is that gossip hell?

Linda, I am definitely ambivalent about celebrity gossip. I think the paparazzi are entirely too aggressive and intrusive. No one deserves that kind of assault. On the other hand, I’m as quick as the next guy to read the latest on celebrities, even ones I can’t stand. Especially those, come to think of it!

Lois, I love to read about Gerard Butler, but that will come as no surprise to anyone.

Elizabeth, the bad part about us blogging about history is that we will mention new books. My pocketbook shudders at the result! The Scandal book is not all about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but goes back earlier and then up to modern times.

Dennis, Viscount of Stokington

Dear Mademoiselle,

You are most accurate in your appraisal that gossip, or as I prefer to call it, “the sublime science”, is absolutely critical for those such as myself who wish to make a fine portrait in high society. The careful management and cultivation of the correct varieties of gossip is essential to social advancement, and only a great fool would allow himself to be defamed by scurrilous knaves such as the five-a-penny quill pushers of such rags as the Morning Chronicle. Thank you for your exceedingly well-wrought words on this subject.

14 years ago

Great blog, Diane. I’ve always been fascinated with gossip and why it always makes front page news often pushing aside pertanent news items of the day. Christy Brinkley’s messy divorce made front page news in New York and earned its half hour of fame. Sigh.

It’s very interesting to note that some things do not indeed change.

I am also curious about the picture you posted by the Hunt brothers piece. Is that one of them? It is a very flattering picture.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Stokington, how gracious of you to call upon the Risky Regencies. Do call again. I believe you might enjoy an acquaintance with our Bertie the Beau and you might value the Jane Austen Star Trek posts, as well as the entertainments we all offer.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I am also curious about the picture you posted by the Hunt brothers piece. Is that one of them? It is a very flattering picture.

It is a drawing of Leigh Hunt. Kinda cute, isn’t he?

14 years ago

Hi Diane!! Oh going to be watching for this one. I haven’t missed any of your HH books! I just got the VANISHING VISCOUNT the other day (Yep I’m a bit slow, doing some catching up but I get to savor the book longer then 😀 )

This is so fascinating with the ‘Regency Paparazzi’ Reminds me too of those gossip scandals that ruins some of their futures for marriage during regency times. Those are too one of my favorite themes to read because the hero/heroine get past that or work it through the society and they come out shining.

I so must get Roger Wilkes book. Going to see if our libraries have it. I’ve always been fascinated about this! Loved, Loved this post Diane!

Actually I’m more of watching the news about famous cases, either current or from the past. I have tho been starting to watch CNN’s show about the celebrities (the title is escaping me). I’m not good with who are actors/actresses because I rarely watch movies and not too much of TV at all except for news and investigative shows (not drama shows). (But love old historical movies if I can find captioned)

I’ve never had anything big done with a prank towards me or me to someone. But recently, a great friend sent me a link saying she saw me on the news and I was thinking oh my, what is it?! And I start up the news story and it took a while for me to realize it was a prank but it ended up hilarious. Thats the closet I’ve been to one.

14 years ago

Diane, just read the excerpt on SCANDALIZING THE TON at your site! Its great! Looking forward to it being out!

(Excerpt is at http://dianegaston.com/books/scandalizing.htm#excerpt

14 years ago

Everyone loves to hate the paparazzi, but as long as lots of people also love to read about celebrities they will continue to do business. I don’t see the harm in a little bit of gossip, but in our current hyper-competitive atmosphere I think the tabloid reporters and photographers go way over the line.

Considering the standard of political invective from the 19th century, for a long while I didn’t worry too much about modern negative campaigning, which is mostly pretty mild by comparison. But developments in the last few elections make me wonder if we are slipping back to a level where anything goes.


Julia Justiss
Julia Justiss
14 years ago

Great post, Diane, although alas the last thing I need is another book to add to the Must Have list. I’ve been missing my Riskies fix due to the First Days of School and awful events attaching thereto, so glad this post was there to cheer me up!

Can’t wait for your October book! Curious, that “gossip” as a motive has figured in a number of recent books. We’re in the beginning phases of planning a 6-author Regency continuity and in my book, the ton Diamond suffers a terrible disgrace that effectively ends her involvement society. Brittany Spears and her ilk never have to worry about that; indeed, it seems the more the scandal, the more fame (infamy?) the celebs gather.

Thanks for illuminating a fascinating topic.

Cara King
14 years ago

Fascinating post, Diane! (Sorry I’m late to the party, BTW!)

One of my favorite quotes, from the 1780 play “The Belle’s Stratagem” by Hannah Cowley, in which a porter complains of how small his bribe is to reveal his master’s secrets:

CROWQUILL: I am the gentleman who writes the tete-a-tetes in the magazines. . . .
PORTER: Oh, oh! I heard the butler talk of you when I lived at Lord Tinket’s. But what the devil do you mean by a bottle of wine? You gave him a crown for a retaining fee.
CROWQUILL: Oh, sir, that was for a lord’s amours; a commoner’s are never but half. Why, I have had a baronet’s for five shillings, though he was a married man and changed his mistress every six weeks.


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