My recent blogs about King George IV and Lady Worsley got me thinking about the media’s influence on our attitude toward historical figures. Sir Richard Worsley tried to make a life for himself after the crim. con. case, but it haunted him for the rest of his life, thanks to the caricatures. Displayed in print shop windows and print sellers’ umbrellas, these reached a great many more people, from all walks of life, than did newspapers and printed reports of legal proceedings.
King George IV had a similar problem. He “had the great misfortune to live through the golden age of English caricature from 1780 to 1830 when the high and mighty were not spared.”*
“No account betrays the impact of satirical iconography on memory and hence on verbal caricature more obviously than Thackeray’s”** (Beerbohm’s essay tackles Thackeray’s version of history.)
“Even now Gillray’s and Cruikshank’s prints more deeply influence our sense of the prince than any contemporary textual description. Modern attempts to rehabilitate George IV’s reputation as connoisseur or statesman in effect still do battle with the caricatures.”**
The years I’ve spent researching his world lead me to the same conclusion. I keep finding myself comparing and contrasting. That nasty divorce case, for instance. So I wonder why Henry VIII, who went through six wives, isn’t a bigger villain. He executed two—and their bad conduct was mild compared to Caroline’s, as England belatedly discovered.
As to libertines, I reflect on Charles II. He had a harem of mistresses, yet frequented brothels. He showered his favorites with riches. (Susan can tell you how many ships it took to carry the Duchess of Portland’s stuff back to France). He begat many bastards, and gave most of the males dukedoms or earldoms. He got the nickname the Merry Monarch.
Edward VII was a serial adulterer, too. But “Punch never hinted at his philandering. It was left to the French magazines, which did not circulate in Britain, to show him frequenting brothels, fondling naked prostitutes, smoking and drinking to excess.”*
“Unlike George IV, Charles II and Edward VII left behind them no enduring monuments for which the nation could be grateful.”*
They didn’t leave behind so many caricatures, either.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.