In Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton, London society is set on fire thanks to a newsletter penned by an anonymous writer whose sharp pen captures all the pomp, circumstance and gossip of the season. Bridgerton fans will recognize this writer, Lady Whistledown, as an integral part of the series. For viewers, she serves as a narrator. For the characters, she is known as the pseudonymous author of the salacious gossip newsletter, Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers – making and destroying fortunes with each issue.
The invention of fictitious “editors” to narrate similar publications was a much-used tactic of eighteenth-century journalists, and these editors could take any form, from a cantankerous Scotsman to a cosmopolitan green parrot.
Although Lady Whistledown’s character is designed to protect the secret writer of the diaries, she clearly takes on a life of her own. This is underscored by the casting of Julie Andrews as the voice of the bulletin. This unique character is further highlighted in the second season when, even after the author’s true identity has been revealed, Andrews continues to narrate the show and read the contents of the diary as Lady Whistledown. All of these dynamics are recognizable in the periodical press of the 1700s.
At the dawn of the 18th century, London society was awash with cheap printed matter. A very popular form of inexpensive printing was the literary periodical, which usually contained a single essay and appeared once or twice a week. These essays usually contained opinions on whatever the periodical was about, and there were periodicals on everything, including politics, fashion, culture, and most often, gossip.
These periodicals were read in cafes and private clubs, which also provided some of the best known periodicals of the 18th century with their subject matter. In 1709, for example, Richard Steele launched The Tatler. It was a periodical which promised to “unmask the false arts of life, to draw the disguise from cunning, vanity, and affectation, and to recommend a general simplicity in our dress, speech, and deportment.” .
Like the secret author of Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, Steele confronted a fashionable society of which he himself was an integral part. His solution was to write not as himself, but as the fictional Scottish astrologer Issac Bickerstaff.
Bickerstaff was actually invented a year earlier by Jonathan Swift as part of a year-long hoax at the expense of quack astrologer John Partridge. Steele was able to incorporate Bickerstaff’s characteristics into his own diary, while signaling to readers the tone and approach he wished to adopt: playful, self-deprecating irony and gentle satire.
The term coined by 18th century scholars for this fictional editorial voice used in periodical writing is “eidolon”. Eidolons acted as an equivalent of what we might now recognize as a publication’s house style.
Readers would get to know these eidolons and, in doing so, would come to recognize the tone and subject matter that these periodicals would adopt. At the same time, it made it easier for other authors to contribute to essays without compromising the consistency of a journal. For example, Steele was soon joined on The Tatler by Joseph Addison, who would similarly write essays under the name Bickerstaff.
Addison and Steele also collaborated on the most famous periodical of the 18th century, The Spectator, which was published between 1711 and 1712 (the current magazine of the same name was inspired by this periodical). They wrote in this periodical under the name of Mr Spectator, a distant observer of humanity whose ambition was to bring “philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to inhabit clubs and assemblies, tea tables and cafes”.
Decades later, literary polymath Eliza Haywood has pushed the boundaries of what an eidolon could be.
In 1747 Haywood launched The Female Spectator, a periodical loosely modeled on Addison and Steele’s original, but addressed explicitly to women. Haywood adopted not one but four eidolons: the editor, a beautiful single young woman, a happily married woman, and a “widow of quality.”
In 1746, Haywood took his experimentation even further and launched The Parrot, a periodical dubbed by a non-human eidolon: a green Javan parrot. The parrot, who was taken from his home at a young age and shipped around the world by various owners before ending up in London, has looked askance at the behavior he witnessed from his cage and has been an outspoken advocate for the causes of the marginalized, whether women or supporters. of exiled King Stuart James II, or slaves.
The legacy of these literary periodicals and their curious eidolons goes far beyond the use of house styles in journalism today. They also played a role in the development of more explicit literary forms, such as the short story and the novel, as authors and readers learned to engage with the notion of psychologically complex fictional constructs.
And, of course, we also see their legacy in Bridgerton. And as in Bridgerton, it wasn’t often that these authors protected their anonymity for long (in many cases, their identities had been an open secret from the start). However, this rarely damaged readers’ affection for their long-term eidolons. So, even though we all now know who she really is, long live Lady Whistledown.