Byron’s Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy

Byron’s Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy
Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

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Winner of the Elma Dangerfield Prize, 2009

“One of the most stimulating books written on Romantic poetry this year”

-David Stewart, The Year’s Work in English Studies

Read the reviews here.

What is this book about?

It’s about the beginning of our modern celebrity culture, and the role Lord Byron played in it. It argues that modern celebrity took shape in the Romantic period in response to the industrialisation of print culture, and that Lord Byron should be understood as one of its earliest examples and most astute critics. Under that rubric I investigate the often strained interactions of artistic endeavour and commercial enterprise, the material conditions of Byron’s publications, and the place of celebrity culture in the history of the self.

I think of celebrity as a cultural apparatus, consisting of both material conditions and discursive formations, and structured by the relations between an individual, an industry and an audience. Celebrities are everywhere now, but hardly anyone thinks to ask difficult questions about how celebrity culture works, and where it came from. The few who do ask have tended to fix on film, tracing celebrity culture back to the rise of cinema in the early 20th century. I think they’re right to link celebrity to a new technology, but they’ve got the wrong one. The crucial technology was printing, and that the enabling advances took place a century earlier.

What happened to get celebrity culture started?

Printing and publishing became a full-blown industry at the end of the 18th century. That led to a massive growth in the number of books published and fuelled the rise of newspapers, magazines and advertising. At the same time the percentage of texts published anonymously went down. In the book I make this point with data drawn from the English Short Title Catalogue and the recent bibliographies of the novel and of poetry volumes. In the early days of industrial capitalism, this outpouring of printed matter produced a rich and fascinating print culture. But it also created two new problems.

Firstly, people started to suffer from information overload. Isaac D’Israeli was already swamped by 1795. Since “every literary journal consists of 50 or 60 publications,” he wrote, “when I take the pen and attempt to calculate […] the number of volumes which the next century must infallibly produce, […] I lose myself among billions, trillions, and quartillions”. At the same time, the percentage of books published anonymously dropped drastically. As more and more named authors jostled for public notice, a personality overload set in. Secondly, readers and writers started to feel alienated. In the new mass market for books, they could no longer know each other. The audience became a faceless crowd, while the author risked being a distant and impersonal figure. Writers and readers started to feel like estranged producers and consumers in the marketplace.

Celebrity culture emerged to solve – or at least to mitigate – both those problems. In response to the personality overload, it turned the celebrity’s proper name into a brand name. When the European Magazine received a “new volume of poetry, bearing the noble name of Byron as its passport to celebrity” it knew that the noble name guaranteed certain marketable qualities and connotations. In response to the feeling of alienation, celebrity culture created what I call the hermeneutic of intimacy. The trick was not to let the poems seem like industrial productions competing for attention in a crowded market. Instead, Byron fostered the impression that his poems could only be understood fully by referring to their author’s personality and that reading them was entering a kind of intimate relationship with him. “They are not felt […] as declarations published to the world,” wrote one reviewer, “but almost as secrets whispered to chosen ears.”

Do you think Byron was the first celebrity?

No. I think you can see certain individuals behaving like celebrities at least a generation before Byron – David Garrick and Laurence Sterne are my examples in the book. But these are isolated cases, and celebrity culture as a whole doesn’t really get started until the Romantic period. Basically, I think we’ve had celebrities since the end of the eighteenth century, and a celebrity culture since the beginning of the nineteenth. Byron’s also important because he’s a critic of celebrity culture, who felt constrained by his own celebrity. Having risen to public prominence, he felt the burden of public expectation. Too often, it seemed, he had to produce what a correspondent of the Brighton Magazine called “the paltry impostures and tours de finesse to which a popular writer is obliged to resort in order to preserve what, in modern cant, is called the ear of the public.” One chapter of the book is about Hebrew Melodies, where you can see a tension between Byron, who is attempting to move his writing in a new direction, and his publisher, who is trying to market his work as Byronic business as usual. The final chapter is about Byron’s masterpiece Don Juan, which I read as a critique of some modern assumptions about subjectivity, which are integral to how celebrity culture functions.

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

I hope they’ll close the book having gained a new way of thinking about Byron, and a new context in which to read his works. But more importantly than that, I hope the book will provide a way to think about the history of celebrity which applies to many figures from this period. One thing I’ve learnt while writing the book is that the idea of celebrity can be a robust and versatile lens through which to view Romanticism. Writing celebrity’s history and theorizing its significance obliges us to re-evaluate an idea about Romanticism that is as old as the urge to theorize Romanticism itself: the claim that it is a poetics of self-expression, which gains its potency from personality. The cultural history of celebrity provides a new lens through which to view that notion, by showing how commercial collaboration and creative compromise made a public profile possible. Finally, I hope that the book offers a way to link past and present; that it makes a contribution to the scholarship of the Romantic period, while also making connections to pressing contemporary concerns.