I recently picked up two books from my research TBR pile, Ian Kelly’s BEAU BRUMMELL: The Ultimate Man of Style (2006) and HARRIETTE WILSON’S MEMOIRS: The Greatest Courtesan of her Age (1957), edited and with an introduction by Lesley Blanch. I’m not done with the latter yet, but one thing caught my attention in both Kelly’s and Blanch’s introductions: their views on the subject of personality and celebrity.

Blanch’s introduction begins: “The nineteenth century was an age of great personalities, a last splendid flowering before twentieth-century anonymity and mass living engulfed them in its drab tide.” I was rather surprised. Even though this was written in 1957, surely they had celebrities then as we do now.

Contrast this with Ian Kelly’s prologue, in which he writes of Brummell that: “His fame eclipsed even that of his royal master, and his personal cult was described as so bizarre and alarming by his contemporaries it is reasonable to posit him not only as a key personality in the first anonymous metropolis, but as the first truly modern celebrity.”

Further, Blanch writes with what seems rather like nostalgia that the courtesan “does not flourish in an industrial age. She may be said to have vanished with the nineteenth century, the first half of which, specifically, was the heyday of all those women whose personality and style, more than beauty alone, were such that they could command, besides large sums of money, independence and respect.”

I would agree that we no longer have exactly this sort of courtesan, but I think this type of celebrity still exists, though in somewhat different form and not constrained by gender.

Here are some more snippets from BEAU BRUMMELL that seem apropos:

“He came to symbolize a new attitude in response to the novel urban landscape. He was indifferent to politics, above the vagaries of fashion, sought only to be envied and make people laugh and accrued around his person a cult based on his perceived personality. He was a celebrity in the first age when such a term was used.”

“Like a modern celebrity, his image—of an insouciant, audacious, stylish brat—had a power of its own that overcame truth.”

This makes me think about modern celebrities. Some are famous for their activity in the areas of politics, social action, music, film or other arts. I find them interesting and like to know what they’re working on, though I don’t care who they’re sleeping with. Then there are celebrities like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. I find them a snooze but maybe that’s just me. Perhaps they are something in the tradition of Beau Brummell and Harriette Wilson.

Still, I find the Regency personalities more entertaining and more witty. Beau Brummell has also left an enduring legacy in his influence on men’s clothing. I think the style he promoted really is flattering to most men. When ordinary guys look good in business suits or in their tuxes at a wedding party, we have Brummell to thank for it. Harriette, on the other hand, hasn’t left much beyond her memoirs. They do provide a fascinating glimpse into a side of Regency society we don’t often read about elsewhere.

What do you think about the cult of personality and celebrity? Do you have any favorites, historical or current, and what do you think makes them interesting?


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11 years ago

I am going to have to put that Harriet Wilson’s Memoirs on my to find list because it does sound interesting (already read the Beau Brummell one). I do see similarities between those celebrities of the regency era and modern celebrities – they both were over the edge of what was socially acceptable that they automatically draw people’s interests and criticisms, which makes them more and more popular – but all it takes is going just a little too far and their career is over (Lohan, Sheen, Mel Gibson) like Beau Brummell’s. My favorite celebrity was Princess Diana – just because she was so human in public, who can forget her holding those babies and children with AIDs and really bringing to light the human face of such a terrible disease…she was someone who knew her celebrity appeal and used it in a way to make people change their minds about issues.

11 years ago

Great post! I personally love England’s royals, though I don’t keep up with them fanatically as some do. Really, and since I would love to have at least spent a week or two in the Regency period, I think the Duke of Wellington would’ve really melted my butter. A war genius? Victor of Waterloo? With all his pretty awards and military uniform and the officers hanging out with him all the time? Yeah. He would’ve most definitely been invited to all my parties.

That is, if I’m lucky enough to be at least the wife of an earl or viscount during this little time travel escapade. *smile*

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

Oh-oh, Alyssia, I’ll have to tell Kristine Hughes (of Number One London blog) that we have a new rival! Kristine and I are in a heated battle over who Artie (as we call him) favors best. This could get ugly!!

Dtchycat, I agree wholeheartedly about Princess Diana. What a special person she was. May her sons achieve the happiness she couldn’t.

Elena, I’ve read the Brummell book and loved it!

11 years ago

As I have repeatedly maintained, DIANE, I have no rivals where the Duke’s affections are concerned. Why you persist in these fantasies is beyond me. YOU and Harriet Wilson are both delusional.

Alyssia – Wellington did not reserve his friendship for titled ladies alone, so you’re in luck!

To all – Wilson’s Memoirs are entertaining, but take them with a grain of salt. She wrote them for money. A sort of Regency “tell all” book. Ian Kelly’s Brummell is a masterpiece and Ian himself is A Charming Man. He’s currently at work on another “bad boy” biography, so we all have that to look forward to – Joy!

11 years ago

LOL, Diane & Kristine! I’m seeing a little stint back in time, the three of us, and a tied and gagged Artie, whaddya say? *snicker*

Susanna Fraser
11 years ago

LOL, Diane & Kristine! I’m seeing a little stint back in time, the three of us, and a tied and gagged Artie, whaddya say?

Hey, if those are your plans, don’t go leaving ME out…

(My verification word is “evilimp.” Heh.)

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

I think Artie would enjoy a threesome…er foursome, Susanna and Alyssia, but Kristine knows I am tops in his affections……

Jane Holland
11 years ago

I enjoyed the Beau Brummel book, though I wondered if it really needed to be quite so long. But there’s plenty in there for writers after ‘real’ Regency details concerning dress and customs.

Fascinating stuff. Though Beau Brummel also had to contend with the Romantic poets for that precarious celebrity label …

Susanna Fraser
11 years ago

Diane/Alyssia/Kristine, did you know you can get Team Wellington merchandise from CafePress? (And also Team Napoleon, but why would you?)


I have the tote bag, and it’s my environmentally friendly container of choice for library and farmers’ market runs.

11 years ago

Oh, now, see… Susanne. You may be my new best friend, or at least my best confidant in kidnapping… err, I mean… gaining Wellington’s favor. That Team Wellington baseball jersey has my name written all over it.

Barbara Monajem
11 years ago

Urgh. Well, no chance of me joining the Artie fan club, but I hope you all have fun!

I admit to having a few historical crushes — such as Charles II, lech though he was — but in general, I just don’t understand the whole celebrity thingy. Sure, some people will stick out, and often it’s interesting to read about them, but when all’s said and done, they’re just people, right?

I guess I should duck and run right about now.

11 years ago

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Elena Greene
11 years ago

LOL! I didn’t realize I would start an Artie Fan Club meeting here. Personally I find him admirable in many ways but also have some issues though I think I understand where he was coming from.

I’m definitely reading Harriette’s memoirs with a grain of salt. They reveal as much or more about her and her world than about the people she writes about.

Barbara, I don’t quite get the craze with celebrities either. Especially the modern ones who don’t seem to actually *do* anything.

Isobel Carr
11 years ago

What else are Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashia if not modern versions of Hariette Wilson? Their claim to fame is well, infamy, sex-tapes, and money.

11 years ago

I swan, you go out to the garden for a few hours and everyone’s posting without you!Susanna- thanks for the tip on the Wellington stuff at CafePress. I just threw the mug up on our blog, under “Things We Love.” Here’s the thing, if you’re going to make Wellington stuff, why use the ugly Goya Artie or the old Artie!?! Why not the Lawrence Artie? Would love to have the sticker for my car, but can’t stomach the image. Elena – you sure did get something started! Gotta run – the Kardashians are on . . . followed by Bethenny Ever After. Egad, but I love trash t.v. Poor Jason Hoppy – he hasn’t got a chance.

P.S. I don’t have to restrain, kidnap, drug or hire highwaymen to waylay Artie, DIANE, he is always most willing where I’m concerned. You floozy . . . .

P.P.S. How does one get a picture to come up when leaving a comment?

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

Me a floozy! Who is riveted to Jersey Girls and Jerseylicious? Hmmmm? So Common… (nothing as refined as Say Yes To The Dress…)

Much as it pains me, I have to agree with you about the Goya portrait. It is just not the Artie we know and love! I think the story goes that Goya was painting Napoleon, but then Wellington won Spain and he painted Wellington’s image over Napoleon.

11 years ago

He painted Artie over someone, not sure if it was Nappy. I think it’s hysterical, as it looks nothing like any other portrait of Artie. Who IS that guy? Honestly, I don’t watch Jersey anything, except the Real Housewives. Did you hear that NeNe from Atlana is going to be covering the Royal Wedding for some channel!?! You’re right, I don’t watch Yes To The Dress, but speaking of which, I am DYING to see Kate’s dress. They’re really ramping up RW coverage on T.V. today. I suppose the coming week will be full-on RW gluttony. Oh, Joy!

Louisa Cornell
11 years ago

Good heavens! The Artie Wars have spilled over from Onelondonone. Those Artie Babes are EVERYWHERE! (Tarts, the lot of them, but don’t tell them I said so. Snicker!)

I thoroughly enjoyed the Brummel book. I don’t have Harriet’s memoirs and I need to order the book. I tend to agree with Isobel as to her claim to fame, but there is definitely fodder for a fabulous book or two in that sort of fodder!

Diane’s Scandalizing the Ton is a great take on celebrity in the Regency!

I guess I am just old. Most of the people who are celebrities today are considered so because of their extremely bad behavior. Many of them have no discernible talent and provide nothing useful to society.

Those sorts tend to bore me to tears and I have no interest in reading or hearing about them. I see people behaving and dressing badly at work all day!

Can’t we commission our own TeamWellington wear with the Lawrence portrait on them? I would definitely buy one, although I might hesitate to wear it in the presence of the two harridans fighting for his affections!

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