Our national conversation is overwhelmed by tittle-tattle, rumour and gossip. Last week, a salacious email listing George Osborne’s alleged improprieties was circulated among the Westminster bubble. Inevitably, it was then circulated to everybody else, too. Meanwhile, the internet is aflutter with rumours about the identity of a BBC journalist who’s alleged to have paid a teenager tens of thousands of pounds for sordid pictures – and this isn’t even the first sex scandal involving a broadcaster this year.
Some might think our modern obsession with grubby tales shows a lack of seriousness. But a love of gossip is nothing new among the English. In the 18th century, coffee houses emerged in which pontification was of a more high-minded sort than that found in the ale houses. They were also the source of many a spurious tale, usually about the new and growing high-minded classes which frequented them.
These whispers would often leak into the press, then beginning to flourish, and by the end of the century they were being illustrated by satirical printmakers, including the likes of James Gillray. With acerbic wit and superb skill, gossip and mockery became a form of art. New prints were pinned up in Piccadilly’s print shop windows and, according to one witness, Londoners went wild: ‘The enthusiasm is indescribable when the next drawing appears; it is a veritable madness. You have to make your way in through the crowd with your fists.’
Foreign visitors were amazed at this insatiable desire to ridicule the private follies and foibles of high society. ‘The English do not spare themselves’, one French visitor noted. ‘Their princes, their statesmen and churchmen are thus exhibited and hung up to ridicule, often with cleverness and humour, and a coarse sort of practical wit.’
A notable example was during the election campaign of 1784.