Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

On Guy Fawkes’ Night in 1709, Henry Sacheverell, an Anglican minister, preached an incediary sermon in St Paul’s against religious non-conformity in the church. It was widely interpreted as a coded attack on the then Whig government, not least by the government itself, which attempted to have Sacheverell tried for sedition.

Whatever his other talents, Sacheverell was unquestionably a gifted self-publicist. When he printed his speech it was a publishing phenomenon, selling 100,000 copies – at a time when the entire British electorate numbered perhaps 250,000. He toured the country and was mobbed wherever he went. He posed for portraits. His image appeared on playing cards, tobacco pipes and fans. He became, in short, a celebrity.

More than that, historian Greg Jenner argues in this stimulating and hugely enjoyable book, Sacheverell became Britain’s first celebrity. Other people had been famous before, of course, and the concept is deeply rooted in our culture: the foundational text of Western literature, The Iliad, arguably pivots on the idea, when Achilles chooses early death and eternal glory – what the Greeks called kleos – over a long and quiet life. But the confluence of fame with a mass media – the first daily newspaper launched in 1702 – and commercial potential of image exploitation metastasized the phenomenon into the industry we know today.

For some, the contemporary cult of celebrity sometimes feels like a toxic novelty. But for every aspect we might think indicative of a diseased modernity, Jenner has historic, and sometimes ancient, parallels. Is the media’s obsession with Kim Kardashian’s arse any more peculiar than the brief madness at the end of the 19th-century which saw newspapers vie for a sight of the ears of Parisian actress Cléo de Mérode, which she routinely hid beneath her hair? Was the £198 million Barcelona paid for Brazilian footballer Neymar obscene? Jenner points to Roman charioteer Diocles, who earned enough to fund the Roman army for three months: the US, today’s comparable hemegon, would need $15 billion for that.

We like to scorn social media influencers and others who want to be famous and don’t really care how. It speaks to the shallowness of our culture, we think. But in 356 BC a man named Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the wonders of the ancient world, simply because he too craved the kleos that Achilles sought, and the concept of kleos – happily, for his sake – did not distinguish between different kinds of glory.

Dead Famous, though, is all about such distinctions. It is at once a history of celebrity and an analysis of what it comprises, its mechanisms and pathologies, from image manipulation through to the quasi-religious ecstaties and devotions of fandom. And the money, of course: part of Jenner’s thesis is that what makes the modern phenomenon distinctive is the freedom capitalism provides to profit from someone else’s fame.

Jenner is highly sensitive to the nuances of meaning between celebrity, fame, glory, renown, and so on, and the extent to which they are discrete or overlapping phenomena. As a consequence, he pushes back against social historians such as the late Daniel Boorstin who characterise celebrity as a corruption of ‘true’ fame which speaks to ‘real’ human achievements. Celebrity, as we have experienced it since the 18th century, Jenner argues, is a three-way compact between celebrities, the media and us, the public, and its very attainability is part of its allure.

It emerged at a moment when it became possible to commoditise identity for the first time – and what is celebrity if not a kind of ready-to-wear divinity, a visibility cloak, conferring recognition on all those who wear it? That it too readily becomes threadbare is almost the point. Oscar Wilde said of the actor Edmund Kean – both of whom feature in Dead Famous – that seeing him perform Shakespeare was like reading by flashes of lightning. To want to be that lightning flash is a very human wish.

Jenner is a public historian, probably best known as a consultant on the popular Horrible Histories series and for his successful BBC podcast series You’re Dead To Me. Readers familiar with his work will recognise the tone of Dead Famous: energetic, information packed, and laced with jokes, word play and pop-culture references. It’s probably fair to say that he sees his role being both to entertain and inform, and the former is very much to the fore in the book’s barnstorming pace, particularly in the opening chapters.

No doubt there will be some for whom the humour obscures the argument; others may find the seriousness – and, make no mistake, this is a deeply serious, intellectually incisive book – dampens the fun. But most readers, I think, will feel that Jenner is in a sweet spot where the two qualities co-exist happily, balanced out into a cohesive and refreshingly distinctive whole.

Arguably, in its fast turnover of subjects, Dead Famous embodies some of the effects of celebrity itself: the sense of momentary illumination, of transience, before one marvel is supplanted by the next. And I did occasionally wonder whether all the famous people Jenner writes about really fall within his definition of celebrity. (I’m looking at you, Clara the rhino.) But ultimately that is one of the book’s manouevres: it makes the reader question what celebrity is, what we really value in those we idolise – and why.

Because revere them or revile them, celebrities are ubiquitous: flawed and fragile vessels for the dreams of others, things to gaze in wonder at or curse, like the stars we name them for. And so celebrity-watching itself becomes a rapt human astrology, offering hope, inspiration — and warning — as we struggle for our own still sense of being in the noise of modern life.

This is an extended version of the review that appeared in the Financial Times on Saturday, 18 April 2020.

Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.

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