- "Waifs and Strays of Town Talk":The Gossip Column
In july 1855, newspaper gossip writer Edmund Yates found himself defending his new column, "Lounger at the Clubs," from charges of scandalmongering. Apologizing for inaccurate information about the notorious Palmer trial, Yates explains that the "Lounger" shares overheard oral gossip, which can sometimes result in errors but also ensures the freshest information:
[T]he anecdotes and rumours of these columns are gathered from the conversation of those who are most likely to be well acquainted with the topics under discussion. It must be [End Page 192] further evident that occasionally stories which eventually turn out not to be founded on fact will creep in, but they are simply narrated as rumours, as what people are talking about, as "on dits" and are never vouchsafed as facts.("Lounger" 71)
Writing nearly a decade later, on the launch of his newly renamed column, "Echoes of the Week," George Augustus Sala uses a similar defence of printed gossip to promote his work: "We cannot help thinking that a few 'Echoes of the Week—Literary and Social'—waifs and strays of town-talk, odds and ends of on dits and 'they write from so and so,' shreds and patches of what people say and what people are doing, will not be out of place among graver matter" (7).
The ease with which Sala defines and defends printed gossip indicates how prominent these columns were by 1862 and how some Victorians remained ambivalent about gossip in the newspaper. Victorian gossip writers and editors often suggested that newspaper content was too dry and perhaps needed something like a gossip column to convey liveliness and a personal connection to the news. Here Sala argues for the value of society gossip while acknowledging that it must come in small quantities amid the "graver" subjects in the newspaper; that is, a little bit of gossip should not be harmful, especially when taken in moderation. Within broader publications, early Victorian gossip columns were often placed in interior pages near art and literary criticism, sometimes abutting serialized fiction. This placement suggests that society pages were associated with cultural material. Gossip writers like Sala and Yates frequently came from literary and theatrical backgrounds, and their columns covered artistic as well as social happenings. Many columnists expected their readers to be highly literate and familiar with a wide variety of local and international news items as well as high-brow literature.
Gossip columns often covered the same issues and events as general news stories in the "graver" sections of the newspaper, offering a more personal take on the material. A column might include details about happenings overseas, especially in European countries or far-flung colonies, as well as fashions, royal engagements, military movements, births, marriages, deaths, new art exhibitions, performance reviews, upcoming novels and poetry, party news, vendettas, complaints about infrastructure, and silly stories. What unites this assortment of topics is an attention to the people behind the news items. For instance, in a notice about an upcoming Royal Academy exhibition, a paragraph might dwell on an artist's recent marriage or home studio, bringing a sense of intimacy not often evident elsewhere in the newspaper.
Printed newspaper gossip of course predates Victorian gossip columns. The early modern press was full of gossip and slander, often barely concealed by nicknames and abbreviations. Georgian-era scandal sheets used coarse [End Page 193] language and covered even coarser issues, as the title of the adultery-focused Crim-Con Gazette makes clear. These scandal sheets thrived on a rich market for blackmail, some drawing profits more from intimidation than sales. In the 1840s, mainstream newspapers moved toward cleaner subjects, leading to the shuttering of scandal sheets like the Age, the Satirist, and the Town. In 1855, with the end of the newspaper tax and decreasing political control, newspapers began dropping their prices and making family-friendly appeals in order to attract a broader audience. The remaining scandal rags were prohibited by the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Yates's "Lounger at the Clubs," appearing in 1855, fit in well with this newly sanitized climate, acknowledging that readers wanted the "light and gossipy news...