Lord Byron, Celebrity

The idea of celebrity was conceived within the Romantic period, in part, through the prominent figure of Lord Byron. Following the French Revolution there was an increased focus on the individual and this was epitomized in the emerging figure of the celebrity. With the surge in publishing technology there was, according to historian Tom Mole, a ‘general democratization of media’, which meant far more people could have access to Byron’s work than ever before and he could occupy a bigger part of public consciousness. 

Interestingly, the public responded to this in a way that helped cultivate their own sense of self. In the private sphere, particularly women could write letters to Byron and created common-place books. These were effectively scrap-books, which the owner would fill with their chosen excerpts of poets’ work, making their own personalized collection. It was an expression of the community of readers and consumers which allowed them to mediate their own experience of celebrity. We could compare this today to clubs and fan pages dedicated to specific celebrities. 

Through fan letters, historian Richard Schickel has suggested that there formed an idea of a ‘false intimacy’ within letters to Byron. Fans could imagine they knew him and could position themselves as the romantic subjects of his poetry and respond accordingly. We see this today as people claim the deeply personal effect celebrities have had on their lives despite never actually having met said person. This individualized reception of the celebrity, such as Byron, thus became a space where the fan could form a subjectivity of their own. They could pick and choose which of Byron’s verse was significant in their commonplace books and thus this moved away from the individuality of the celebrity themselves.

This movement away from Byron personally to a more modern embrace of celebrity was evident in the commodification of his celebrity. As today, we attempt to personalize and immortalize an embrace with celebrity culture, such as a concert, through buying a t-shirt or keeping an autograph. With Byron, this was with the new technologies of steel plate engraving, allowing a reproducible element to Byron’s commodified celebrity, but also a condensation of his characteristic visual trademarks, described as ‘a curol of hair, a high forehead, an open collar.’ Technologies like this infused celebrity commodity culture more and more, and reproductions of Byron’s silhouette became less and less like him, according to historian Tom Mole. 

Portrait of Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips, c. 1813. (Credit: Newstead Abbey, via The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, the commodification of the celebrity with Byron can be given a diplomatic quality, with regards to his tangible participation and support of the Greek War for Independence. Byron acted as a commissioner in raising a loan for Greece in February 1824, to help facilitate a defense against the Turks. His individualism acted as a diplomatic rod between nations, particularly as Byron panders not to his original nationality, English. Insightfully, historian Jason Goldsmith relays that, ‘Britain expands under the sign of Byron.’ Byron provided perspective on the Greek situation, particularly through his Turkish Tales and reinforced the English dread of Ottoman barbarism. 

This can clearly be seen in how celebrities are used today in charity and political agendas, given their large following, even if they may not have particular political experience. One recent example may be the use of Marcus Rashford’s celebrity to further political agendas. 

Lord Byron is a hugely interesting figure when looking at celebrity culture. Facilitated by the meteoric rise of printing, people could have access to great writers like never before and personalize their experience with them, making the idea of ‘celebrity’ far bigger than the individual it represents.

Anna Shepherd

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