Although we think of the cult of celebrity, with skilful media manipulation, spin doctors, and propaganda, as a very modern phenomenon, it is far from new. What has changed is the reach of the media, with television and internet allowing instant and global headlines. But even two centuries ago, there were a number of people whose achievements had made them national, or international, figures, celebrated in the available media, which could make or break reputations.
Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century newspapers were just as full of sensation and gossip as modern tabloids, with reports of affairs, divorce cases, duels and murders. Names were usually omitted, with references to Lady S— or Mr B—, but everyone who read the article would have known who was meant. Although circulation of newspapers was relatively small, many more people would have read each copy, or had it read to them, and broadsheets, cartoons and popular ballads reached large audiences. Hindley’s Curiosities of Street Literature of 1871, which we are publishing later this year, is a collection of over 200 broadsheets and ballads of this type, and there is a considerable number on famous or notorious characters.
Two of Britain’s greatest heroes of the early nineteenth century, Nelson and Wellington, were the subjects of vast quantities of newsprint, pamphlets, cartoons, and mementos, both while alive and ever since. Nelson in particular had cult status, enhanced by his death at the moment of his greatest triumph at Trafalgar in 1805. Dying prematurely even today is a sure way to enhance your celebrity status, or to get your records straight back to the top of the charts, as the deaths of many film stars or musicians show.
Wellington was careless of his public image, being more concerned about success than for popularity. When famous courtesan Harriet Wilson attempted to blackmail former lovers with the threat of publishing her memoirs, expecting them to pay her to omit them, Wellington is alleged to have declared ‘Publish and be damned’. The bluntness of much of his correspondence reveals a busy man with no interest in flattery and absolutely no patience with what he considered stupidity or incompetence, even when it might have smoothed his path politically. Wellington’s Dispatches provide many examples of this. In 1808, when there was dissatisfaction in England with the progress of the war in Portugal, Wellington wrote ‘I have not read even one, much less all, the calumnies which have been circulated against me during my absence in Portugal; but, upon a full consideration of the case, I have determined that I will not publish myself, or authorise others the publication of any thing in my defence.’ He was confident that a military enquiry would justify his actions, and would not trouble to dignify his critics with a response.
Nelson’s attitude to publicity was much more complex. Unlike the aristocratic Wellington, son of an earl, he appears to have been more insecure, although confident to the point of arrogance and vanity in his own ability (some of his modern biographers have excused this as justified by results). He was also more interested than Wellington in his reputation, providing Volume 3 of the Naval Chronicle with his own biography, which was also prefixed by Nicolas to the definitive edition of Nelson’s dispatches and letters in 1844. Referring to his ambitious teenage self, when an attempt to find an ice-free route across the North Pole came to grief at Spitzbergen in 1773, ‘I exerted myself to have the command of a four-oared cutter raised upon, which was given me, with twelve men; and I prided myself in fancying I could navigate her better than any other boat in the Ship.’ Although his early career was aided by his maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, he soon convinced others of his ability, and by twenty-one had become a captain himself. Modesty, however, was not one of his qualities, and he made sure he got credit where he felt it was due, by writing lengthy reports and numerous personal letters. When without a command he bombarded the Admiralty, the Duke of Clarence and other influential figures with letters and complaints, expressing shock that he had been passed over.
Reading the letters, particularly those before he lost his right arm, after which they understandably became briefer, shows how he became so beloved by those who served under him. He is endlessly asking after friends, relations or acquaintances, and kept in touch with his father and numerous siblings with very frequent and affectionate letters. He looked after subordinates who needed help with their career, or who had been disabled. He clearly had strong a Christian faith, which helped him deal with the many losses which a naval officer in wartime had to contend. But this did not prevent his highly public affair with Lady Hamilton, wife of his friend Sir William, which he clearly felt should be excused by Society because of his importance to the country. With hindsight, the letters about and to his wife, Fanny, are pathetic: he began by loving her so much, and ended by his treating her so badly.
Nelson, unlike Wellington, clearly enjoyed adulation. There was much public criticism when Sir John Jervis was made an earl for the Battle of St Vincent, which many believed had been won by Nelson, although he did become a Knight of the Bath. (He could have had a baronetcy, but as he had no son to succeed him, and a baronetcy did not have a showy star and garter to wear, he requested the Order of the Bath.) Returning to England, he was lionized by the public, and his victory at the Nile the following year guaranteed his position as the hero of all the states allied against Napoleon. He wrote home to his wife that the Queen of Naples, sister of Marie Antoinette, received the news of the victory with hysterical enthusiasm, exclaiming ‘O brave Nelson! O God bless and protect our brave deliverer! O Nelson, Nelson! What do we not owe you! O Victor! Saviour of Italy!’
His formal separation from Lady Nelson and his very public liaison with Lady Hamilton did not lessen his fame among the ordinary people, who lined the streets between Portsmouth and London on his return in 1800, but certainly damaged his reputation, although there is a gap in the published letters at this point, so we do not know how he felt about it. The ménage-a-trois with the Hamiltons seriously damaged some of Nelson’s friendships as not everyone was willing to accept her, and the print shops were full of satirical comments. He quickly returned to sea, although he was not given overall command of the Baltic operation. However, he famously ignored the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Hyde Parker, and the victory at Copenhagen was rightly credited to Nelson, who was made a Viscount.
The victory of Trafalgar, and Nelson’s death, unleashed a wave of hagiography. Everyone wanted Nelson memorabilia, and more bad poetry was written on the subject than can be imagined. The Naval Chronicle, and popular broadsheets, tried to outdo each other in eulogising the hero in verse such as the following:
And art thou gone, great Hero of the Nile,
Protector of this favour’d Isle!
How is the voice of rapture fled,
Since thou art number’d with the dead!
There was a national outpouring of grief, and many of those who had served with Nelson rushed to write memoirs. Nelson seems to have inspired love, whereas Wellington neither sought nor received such feelings, and in fact would have disdained the hysterical mobs who greeted Nelson in England. In 1852 when Wellington died there were ballads and poems about the victor of Waterloo, but that battle was distant history for many, in contrast to Nelson’s death at the height of his fame, when the war was still going on.