Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, strikes us as hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise.
Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy; or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend; or Edmund Kean, the dazzling Shakespearean actor whose monstrous ego and terrible alcoholism saw him nearly murdered by his own audience – the list of stars whose careers burned bright before the Age of Television is extensive and thrillingly varied.
In this ambitious history, that spans the Bronze Age to the coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Greg Jenner assembles a vibrant cast of over 125 actors, singers, dancers, sportspeople, freaks, demigods, ruffians, and more, in search of celebrity’s historical roots. He reveals why celebrity burst into life in the early eighteenth century, how it differs to ancient ideas of fame, the techniques through which it was acquired, how it was maintained, the effect it had on public tastes, and the psychological burden stardom could place on those in the glaring limelight.
You may recognise Greg Jenner as the host of BBC comedy podcast You’re Dead To Me!, or as the public historian whose work behind the scenes on the series Horrible Histories has been part of making history fun, interesting, and accessible for children and adults alike. If you don’t, I highly recommend hunting down both (the podcast is a delightful mix of the fascinating and the obscure, whilst Horrible Histories is an absolute riot to watch – I can highly recommend the ‘Kings and Queens’ song).
Dead Famous or, to give it its full title, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen is not Jenner’s first foray into authorship. His previous book, A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age to Phone Age was a wide-ranging and fascinating look at the history of the everyday. Dead Famous is a little narrower in its scope, zoning in on the history of ‘Celebrity’ which, as Jenner explains, is still a relatively new field of historical enquiry. Indeed the field is so new that it’s still debating exactly what ‘Celebrity’ entails, let alone when it came into being. Jenner, therefore, spends an early chapter considering the various definitions of the term before moving on to consider when ‘Celebrity’ culture really began.
Whilst the book’s subtitle is billed as covering ‘Bronze Age to Silver Screen’, the majority of the content focuses on the period from around 1750 – 1950. This, as Jenner explains, his because his definition of the ‘Celebrity’ places the start of the phenomenon (as we know it today) firmly in the 1700s. However, he does make the occasional foray back to earlier centuries, and even to the Ancient World, to consider individuals who benefited from both fame and renown. Considering the differences between the famous, the infamous, the renowned, and the celebrity is, in itself, a fascinating topic – and that’s before Jenner even starts on the tales of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century publicity-seeking celebs, scandalous money-making schemes, and crazed fans.
As a scholar of the long eighteenth-century (the period from 1660 – 1820, because us eighteenth-century scholars like to steal a bit of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries for kicks), I was particularly interested to discover how early stars of the London stage such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons curated and managed their own image, and was fascinated to learn that so many of the facets of celebrity that we consider to be ‘modern’ – such as product endorsements, celebrity souvenirs, and appearance fees – originated in the very early days of celebrity and fan culture.
In addition to be extremely interesting, Dead Famous is also wildly funny. Jenner has a real gift for a wry turn of phrase and had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. His witty style makes his topic instantly accessible without sacrificing any of the scholarly rigour or intelligence required to consider such a vast topic at length. Dead Famous is clearly extensively researched but it wears that research lightly, each fact and anecdote recounted with a richness and a relish that makes for extremely enjoyable reading.
As you can probably tell, I absolutely LOVED Dead Famous. To be fair, a book combining humour, history, sociology and the eighteenth-century was always going to be reading-catnip for me. But I genuinely think a lot of other readers will love this too. If you have even a passing interest in celebrity or fan culture, or have ever been gripped by news from your latest fandom or the gossip columns of magazines, Dead Famous is packed to brimming with facts that are sure to fascinate and amuse in equal measure.
And don’t forget that, whilst high street bookshops might be closed at the moment, many of your local indies are still delivering – personal favourites include Booka Bookshop and The Big Green Bookshop!