- Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity by Clara Tuite
For a long time, Byron’s celebrity was an embarrassment to his academic critics, even though it was an enticement to his many enthusiastic non-academic readers. New Critics and their descendants, who aspired to engage with ‘the poem itself ’, found it impossible to disentangle Byron’s writing from the circumstances of his fame in Regency culture, and their accounts of Romanticism often tended to marginalise his poetry as a result. Others were put off by a vague feeling that the populist superficiality of celebrity culture meant that it could not be a serious subject of study. In the last ten years, however, Byron’s critics have stopped being embarrassed by his celebrity. In fact, they have shown how his celebrity is essential to any understanding of his poetry, and they have located Byron at the historical emergence of the modern celebrity culture that now structures almost every aspect of public life. Studies of the history of celebrity have extended the historical reach of cultural-studies approaches to contemporary celebrity, and fostered interest in the forms of recognition available in earlier periods.
In Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity, Clara Tuite builds on these developments to offer one of the most thorough and sophisticated accounts of Byron’s place in Romantic celebrity culture that has so far appeared. Her book is ambitious: rather than using celebrity as a key to unlock Byron’s works, it uses Byron’s life and works as a window onto the scandalous celebrity culture of the Regency. The book is divided into three sections. The first and largest, called ‘Worldlings’, examines four individuals who were arguably celebrities in their own right and whose histories intersect personally or symbolically with Byron’s: Caroline Lamb, Stendhal, Napoleon and Castlereagh. The second, briefer section on ‘Writings’ examines Childe Harold IV and Don Juan. The final and shortest section, ‘After-Warriors’, examines the cultural field of Byron’s reception. In tackling life, writing and reception by turns, the book inevitably has to sacrifice sustained discussion of individual poems. While there are many valuable insights along the way, for example into Cain, The Deformed Transformed, and the ‘Ode to Napoleon’, readers of The Byron Journal may wish there were more substantial readings of Childe Harold I and II, the tales, or the plays.
In Tuite’s account, celebrity emerges in relation to a large number of historical shifts and cultural permutations. It is a form of secular divinity reflecting and reinforcing secularisation. It renegotiates understandings of royalty. It mediates between older forms of heroic fame and newer forms of notoriety. It is bound up with the emergence of print capitalism as described by Benedict Anderson. It employs forms of ritual as theorised by Erving Goffman. It reflects and [End Page 75] advances a shift from literal to symbolic forms of violence, identified by Foucault. It participates both in an aristocratic form of face-to-face sociability and a new kind of mediated sociability connecting media stars to mass audiences. It marks the transformation of aristocratic libertinism into bourgeois sexual transgression. It facilitates the emergence of ‘public opinion’ as a force in the public sphere. These different but interlinked historical and interpretive frameworks combine to produce a rich ‘thick description’ of Romantic celebrity. By combining them, Tuite shows how deeply celebrity culture is woven into the history of modernity, and how much is at stake in understanding it. But Tuite also seems reluctant to say that any one of these frameworks is more important than another. Her approach attempts to synthesise these different possibilities rather than adjudicating amongst them.
Lamb, Stendhal, Napoleon and Castlereagh provide oblique ways of approaching Byronic celebrity from different angles. (Tuite’s 2009 essay on George ‘Beau’ Brummell might be considered as adding a fifth portrait to this gallery.) At times while reading over a hundred pages (out of 250) on these figures, I wished that Tuite would engage with Byron’s writing more directly. But I also came to see this...