Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Best of the Georgian Web

It's time for my round-up of my favourite posts from the Georgian web in this very cold and snowy week; pour yourself a cup of tea and enjoy!

A Pudding Hat
A closer look at a pudding safety hat for a child learning to walk.

Georgian Celebrity, Captain James Cook
A fascinating three part look at the life of Cook!


What did it take to gain entry to Almack's and, more importantly, would it fit in your reticule?

The tale of a dashing and seductive soldier!

The Waterloo story of an Italian prince.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

A Digest of George III

On this day in 1820, George III died. Insane, blind and not even aware that his devoted wife had predeceased him, his death might well be seen as a merciful release.

To read about George's final hours, do click here, and below, you will find links to posts here on the Guide regarding George and his illustrious family.


King George III in Coronation Robes by Allan Ramsay, 1761-1762
King George III in Coronation Robes by Allan Ramsay, 1761-1762

Charlotte and George
Queen Charlotte's diamonds

Queen Charlotte
The Death of Queen Charlotte
Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz by Laura Purcell
The Portrait of Queen Charlotte
Queen Charlotte's Notebook

Children of George III
The Long Life of Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester and Edinburgh
The Frail Life of Princess Louisa of Great Britain
A Regal Disagreement: Charlotte, Princess Royal
"Tell Charles I die blessing him": Princess Amelia of the United Kingdom

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A Matter of Serendipity

On this day in 1754, the estimable Horace Walpole composed a letter to his friend, Sir Horace Mann, in which he became the first person to use the word serendipity to describe an unexpected and pleasant discovery.

Walpole commented to Mann that he had come upon the word after reading a Persian fairy story, The Three Princes of Serendip. Indeed, as he noted, the titular three princes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of". 


Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds 1756
Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds 1756

In Notes on the Etymology of Serendipity and Some Related Philological Observations (1961), Leo Goodman further quotes Walpole's letter to Mann and his efforts to explain this new word of which he was so fond:
"...Serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you,I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. 
I once read a silly fairytale, called ' The Three Princes of Serendip': as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right - now do you understand Serendipity?"
What a wonderful letter to receive; to correspond with Walpole must have been a delight and his letters to Mann make for an entertaining look into Georgian life and a very singular gentleman!

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Salon Guests

It's time to turn the spotlight on my fantastic salon guests once more and take a look back at recent guest posts on the site. Please do take a look back at my earlier digest of guests and you can find a complete list of guest posts at this page. Should you wish to share a guest post here at the salon, do let me know!

Mary Moore visited the salon to share a story of a most unusual type of footwear favoured by Jane Austen; ideal for English winters and even wet summers, whilst Collette Cameron turned her attention to a most unusual type of building - the dovecote!


Caroline Warfield, meanwhile, was more concerned with the education of young ladies at Mrs Rowden's School whilst Christine Boulton shared her observations on the drama both in and about the lives of some other young ladies, the Brontë sisters


We stuck with the business of writing for Amy Street's thoughts on the challenges of writing a Jane Austen sequel, whilst Lindsay Downs let us in on his own writing processes, starting with a name! Writing of a different kind was on Paul Cunningham's mind and he lifted the lid on John Wilkes and the birth of the fourth estate.

Kathryn Gauci travelled a little further afield in her investigation of Sultan Mahmud II whilst Katherine Lloyd was somewhat closer to home, as she shared with us a tale of Georgian era giving way to the Victorian.


Regan Walked pair four visits to the salon as she considered history as a character in historical fiction and shared her fascinating three part series on faith in the long 18th century.


Last but not least, belief of a different kind with Willow C Winsham and the mermaids of Wales!

Monday, 26 January 2015

John Wilkes: the Truth, the Filth, and the Birth of the Fourth Estate

It is my pleasure to welcome Paul Cunningham to the salon today with his fascinating tale of John Wilkes: the Truth, the Filth, and the Birth of the Fourth Estate.

---oOo---

The history of British journalism could be said to revolve around two questions. First, is it possible to have the truth without the filth? Everyone agrees we need a free press, but there is no consensus on how much we ought to legislate to stop this freedom being abused. Recently we have seen the Hacked Off pressure group campaigning for more press regulation, journalists countering that this would amount to censorship, and the government occupying no fixed position. The other question is even more political and involves the relationship between parliament and the people. Are we a citizenry to whom parliament should consider itself accountable, or are we a mob which ought to know its place and keep its nose out of MPs’ business? This issue has also been thrashed out recently over the scandal of MPs’ expenses. Both these questions became prominent features in the political landscape in the 18th century, and we have one man to thank – the debauchee, pornographer, duelist, journalist, and radical MP, John Wilkes.

John Wilkes, by Hogarth
John Wilkes, by Hogarth
Wilkes inhabited a world where the reporting of parliament had long been forbidden. In the 16th century Commons rules stipulated that all its proceedings should remain secret – but it was not the public MPs were wary of then, it was the monarch. Parliament simply could not debate freely under the gaze of the crowned head they were so often at odds with. The privacy of parliament was thus accepted and largely respected. But by the early 18th century, too much had changed for this principle to remain unchallenged.

This was the age of Enlightenment and independent thinking was in the ascendant, particularly in Britain where the divine right of monarchs had been dispensed with. Authority was under attack from the savage pen of Swift and the vicious pencil of Hogarth; Alexander Pope took pride in being ‘indebted to no prince or peer alive’; while Voltaire, exiled from absolutist France, claimed to ‘think and write like a free Englishman.’ There were economic changes too. A new class of prosperous merchants and tradesmen, the ‘middling sort’, had interests that clashed with those of the landed gentry which dominated parliament. And there was already some press freedom: the abandonment of the Licensing Act in 1695 meant that anyone was free to publish pamphlets and newspapers. These were read in coffeehouses – often out loud for the benefit of the illiterate – and all the issues of the day were vigorously discussed and disputed. Yet the reporting of parliament remained forbidden.

MPs had little to fear from their tame new Hanoverian monarchy, but they were very concerned now about a new beast – the ‘public opinion’. Horace Walpole’s administration was founded on palm-greasing and nepotism and would not have stood up very well to public scrutiny. But hard as parliament tried to prevent it, their activities were being reported in the plethora of unlicensed publications eager to cater to a news-hungry audience. There was nothing to stop a reporter entering the Strangers’ Gallery in the Commons, and if he heard anything worth writing up, his paper might well be inclined to take the risk of publishing it, often thinly disguised as fiction. Walpole responded by buying out a good number of newspapers, but he found that it was impossible to keep a lid on things. MPs tried a legal crackdown in 1738, with a resolution to proceed ‘with the utmost severity against offenders’. During the Commons debate on the motion, it was noted by William Pulteney that: ‘To print or publish the speeches of gentlemen in this House looks very like making them accountable without doors for what they say within.’ The irony was that his words were widely reported, to the righteous indignation of the public, and the impotent fury of MPs. A confrontation seemed inevitable, and the man who lit the tinder was John Wilkes.

Wilkes was a member of the infamous Hellfire Club, which held its meetings in a complex of man-made underground caves in High Wycombe. It was a gentlemen’s club in which the gentlemen would dress as monks and engage in occult orgies with prostitutes dressed as nuns. Wilkes, on one occasion, was said to have introduced a baboon into the proceedings. He had his own printing press which he would use to run off radical journalism and pornographic literature. Known for being the ugliest man in England, and for his ability to charm birds from trees, ‘man of the people’ Wilkes was also a Whig MP with a large popular power base.

Wilkes’s newspaper was called the North Briton and its first edition, published in 1762, staked out its position very clearly:

The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of this country. It has been the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability and duplicity, have thus been detected and shewn to the public...




Events would prove this statement to be a milestone in the journey of British democracy. It is commonly held now that our legislators’ business is our business too, and that it ought to be monitored and held to account. But in Wilkes’s day such ideas were new and radical. This was, in fact, fighting talk.

The North Briton was hated and feared by MPs, but it must be said that this was not only because Wilkes endeavoured to wield the sword of truth against them. He also used his paper to pursue personal vendettas, and his weapons were often innuendo, invective and a devil-may-care attitude towards facts. He once told Adam Smith: ‘Give me a grain of truth and I will mix it up with a great mass of falsehood so that no chemist will ever be able to separate them.’ Wilkes’s free press manifesto might have been full of ringing high principle, but his own journalism was very well acquainted with the gutter, and he made no bones about it.

It was in 1763 that the North Briton provoked a major confrontation. Issue No 45 contained an attack on a speech made by King George III, and Wilkes was accused of seditious libel. He was arrested, along with fifty of his associates, and locked up in the Tower. No 45 was ordered to be burned in public by the common hangman, but a large crowd shouting the slogan ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ descended on the ceremony, breaking it up riotously and snatching the papers from the flames. Wilkes was soon released from the Tower having claimed parliamentary privilege, but this did not render him immune from affairs of honour. He was called out by a loyal supporter of the King and shot, though not fatally, in the ensuing duel. Meanwhile the Earl of Sandwich, one of Wilkes’s bitterest enemies, had got his hands on an obscene poem that Wilkes had published privately and read it out in the House of Lords. The scandalised peers moved to expel Wilkes from parliament on the grounds of obscene libel. This would, of course, strip him of his immunity, and he pre-empted their decision by escaping to Paris. Wilkes was tried in absentia and declared an outlaw.

Riot at the burning of No 45
Riot at the burning of No 45
He would be back though, with a vengeance. In 1768 financial pressures compelled his return to England, and over the next few years, he was returned to parliament again, expelled again, imprisoned again, all before being elected as a sheriff of London. Armed with powers of jurisdiction and arrest himself now, Wilkes was prepared for a truly decisive showdown with the forces of censorship. This came in 1771.

18th century parliamentarians were not just averse to having their affairs exposed, they also disliked being personally lampooned. George Onslow MP was frequently referred to as ‘little cocking George’ in the papers, because of his fondness for cock-fighting. Goaded into declaring, ‘I am a cock they will not easily beat,’ he called for the printers of this impertinence to be arrested. Wilkes made his move, arresting the printers himself before parliament could get to them, then declaring them innocent and letting them go. When parliament sent out an officer to try again, Wilkes arrested him too. This led to yet more arrests and the incarceration of two of Wilkes’s associates in the Tower. But parliament had underestimated the burgeoning confidence of a newly political public. 50,000 Wilkes supporters besieged the Commons, setting about the arriving MPs and destroying the carriages they came in. The prime minister himself, Lord North, was dragged from his carriage, roughed up and driven off in tears without his hat. Meanwhile, on Tower Hill, effigies of establishment hate figures were being beheaded and burned in the name of free speech. Discretion proved the better part of valour for Lord North and his fellow MPs: they released Wilkes’s associates and ordered no more arrests of printers. Although the ban on reporting parliament technically remained in place, it was never again enforced. Wilkes had his victory.

The British constitution, such as it is, had traditionally rested on the division of powers between three estates: the Crown, the Lords and the Commons. But two generations after Wilkes, Thomas Macaulay wrote: ‘The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm… a safeguard tantamount, and more than tantamount to all the rest put together.’ By this measure, our debt to John Wilkes is an immense one. He was a libertine, a blackguard and an outlaw – he positively reveled in all that – but he is also a pivotal figure and a hero of the British press, if there are any. But his name is hardly known today, and it was not until 1988 that a statue was erected to him in London, on Fetter Lane. This was recently incorporated into the Talking Statues project, so visitors can now treat themselves to a caustic Wilkes monologue issuing from the very bronze, and voiced by none other than Jeremy Paxman. It is a welcome memorial to the man, but less than he is due.

Wilkes’s statue on Fetter Lane
Wilkes’s statue on Fetter Lane
Now to return to those two opening questions. First, can we have a free press that gives us the truth without the filth? The debate will rage on, but what we can say for certain is that, after two and a half centuries, not very much progress has been made. It is also safe to say that John Wilkes would have laughed out loud at the question. And, as to the British people’s relationship with its parliament, think on this – even today, all an MP need do to clear both the public and press galleries and have a debate conducted in private is to cry out: ‘I spy strangers!’


Sources
Mick Hume, There is No Such Thing As a Free Press
Andrew Marr, My Trade
Nick Robinson, Live From Downing Street

Andrew Sparrow, Obscure Scribblers: A History of Parliamentary Journalism

About the Author
Paul Cunningham is an Englishman in South Korea. In addition to writing, he teaches at a university, plays rock guitar, drinks red wine and tries to forget about cigarettes. Paul is the author of Contention, a novel of ancient Rome, and he blogs regularly at The Wolbong Review.


Paul would love to hear from you. Visit his blog or email him at paul_cunningham_@hotmail.com.


Written content of this post copyright © Paul Cunningham, 2015

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Salon Digest

Once again, it's time for the salon week in review. Settle with a cup of tea, a slice of something nice and gad back through the week just gone.

A Salon Guest... Lindsay Downs
Lindsay Downs offers an insight into the business of writing his latest novel, La Contessa and the Marquis.

Faith in Georgian England Part 3: The Additional Factors Affecting Faith
Regan Walker concludes her three part series examining faith in the 18th century.

A Digest of Louis XVI
A selection of posts with a Louis XVI theme.

A Gallery of Lancret
Some examples of fine French art from Nicholas Lancret.

The Challenges of Writing a Jane Austen Sequel
Amy Street visited the salon to discuss her new novel!

The Best of the Georgian Web
Last but not least, Saturday once again found me showcasing the best of the long 18th century web.