Tatler was the original source of gossip – much like Lady Whistledown in Bridgerton
Psst! A word in your ear: Gossip Girl is back, but with corsets. It’s like Tatler on telly, circa 1812. What am I talking about? The new Netflix period drama Bridgerton, which transported us to Regency London when it premiered over Christmas. There are headpieces and carriages galore, and Lady Danbury’s godson is a priapic duke. But most intriguing of all is the Gossip Girl sub-plot, in which the trials and tribulations of our lavishly costumed heroes are revealed via an enigmatic narrator, Lady Whistledown, who wreaks havoc and delight with her regularly published scandal sheet.
Readers of Tatler will be quite accustomed to the thrill of printed gossip. Indeed, it has been serving up the plumpest titbits since 1709, more than 100 years before the fictional Lady Whistledown put quill to parchment. Back then, you would have paid just a penny for Tatler. It was printed three times a week and distributed to all the coffee houses of Covent Garden, to be devoured with a hot chocolate and containing as much spice and froth as a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte.
Tatler’s founders, Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, laid the foundations of the vibrant and boisterous magazine still published today, which has been emulated and replicated around the world. Then, as now, there was no shortage of society scandal to report on. The very first issue, of 12 April 1709, recounts the tale of a gentleman ‘of a noble family’ who, while brushing his teeth at a tavern in Pall Mall on his 21st birthday, gazed upon a beautiful young lady in a carriage and spent the next four years going mad trying to find her. As Tatler notes: ‘Our poor lover has most understanding when he is drunk, and is least in his senses when he is sober.’
OK, as scandals go, it’s not exactly Watergate. But those early Tatlers coined a new tone of satire that came to define 18th-century literature. By the time of the abdication crisis in 1936, society scandals had changed from being mere gossip to news of national importance. The Profumo affair of the 1960s, Lord Lambton debacle of the 1970s, and Jeffrey Archer furore of the 1980s paved the way for perhaps the most scandal-rich decade on record – the 1990s, when hardly a day seemed to go by without a cabinet minister or member of the Royal Family being found in flagrante delicto by a salivating red-top press. Today, with the tightening of rules following the phone-hacking controversy, the power of newspapers to dig up society dirt has diminished. But as series such as Bridgerton show, our appetite for really juicy gossip, whether real or invented, is greater than ever. XOXO.
This is an abridged version of an article from the February issue of Tatler on sale 4 January. Elsewhere in the issue, Charlotte Edwardes profiles Camilla Parker Bowles’ nephew, Ben Elliot, the top-dog at Quintessentially who has found himself at home in Westminster. Further in, Ben Widdicombe digs deep into the Peltz family’s wealth (the family who are soon-to-be Brooklyn Beckhams’ in-laws) and Tatler goes inside Charles and Camilla’s inner circle.
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