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Gossip, men, and Victorian politics

By Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton)

Gossip in politics today brings to mind the political rumour-mill from the fallout of Brexit, political infighting, or frequent leaks from the White House criticising the Trump administration. But gossip, the ability ‘to talk idly, mostly about other people’s affairs’, isn’t unique to twenty-first-century politics.[1] In the Victorian period, it could even serve a more positive political purpose. Gossip facilitated intimacy not only between women but also men. The sharing and receiving of gossip allowed men to identify and participate in different political communities, such as in the gentleman’s club.[2]

Although popular culture recognised that men gossiped, advice literature still lamented it.[3] The anonymous etiquette guide How to Shine in Society from 1867 dedicated a page on how to deal with gossip, advising its socially-aspiring readers not to ask a stranger about a third party, or to say anything, good or bad, about them as this could inadvertently cause offence.[4] Gossip and gentlemanly codes of behaviour were considered incompatible; men did not ‘bring a petty tale’ to a gentleman as J. R. Vernon noted in the pages of the Contemporary Review.[5] Although advice literature criticised gossip as betraying gentlemanly ideals, men’s behaviour in politics proved different.

Gossip played a key role in politicians’ social and political integration into London clubs. Gossip formed, policed, and strengthened the bonds of friendships in communities.[6] Writing in 1878, Henry Lucy, the popular parliamentary sketch writer for Punch, reflected on the impact of gossip following the Russian army’s march on Gallipoli. He noted how the ‘listless, dull, emotionally decrepit assembly of yesterday’ had become ‘an eager, intense, solemnly earnest gathering’, following the ‘little bird that flutters about the Reform Club, the Carlton, and the other places of political resort’.[7] The power of clubs in spreading information in just one evening demonstrated the extent of communication networks, facilitated by the latest technological advancements such as the telegraph. Gossip accelerated the speed and spread of political information and showed how clubs could impact parliamentary attendance, and the emotional barometer of the House of Commons.

Gossip also acted as a way to police behaviour within clubs and Parliament, as seen in a letter written by the son of the Conservative party leader, Edward Stanley, concerning one of William Gladstone’s emotional outbursts towards fellow MP Benjamin Disraeli. Men judged manliness on the qualities of self-mastery over one’s emotions and rationality.[8] Men’s pursuit of the ‘cult of the “stiff upper lip”’ minimised the ‘display of affection – even the awareness of inner feeling’.[9] Yet, on 16 December 1852, Gladstone went against these expectations of men’s behaviour in startling ways. Stanley recorded his thoughts on the outburst in a letter to his country friend the following morning. Gladstone rose ‘choked with passion, for which he could find no vent in words’, leading members of the House to fear ‘an outbreak incompatible with parliamentary rules’.[10] After the end of the debate at 3am, Stanley went to the Conservative Carlton Club, where he noted that those men who supported Gladstone kept away, as ‘they could not have escaped insult’.[11] Such comments reveal the significance of the internal policing in the Carlton Club and the negative impact Gladstone’s behaviour had on his political peers. Here, gossip played an important role in reinforcing the correct emotional regimes of the House, and the Carlton Club.

Overall, gossip helped stabilise dominant understandings of masculinity, underpinning and legitimising the power relations of the British political system as a whole. Though rescuing men’s gossip from history can be difficult, it should not stop us from considering its vital role in Victorian politics.

References:

[1] ‘Gossip, V.’, OED Online (Oxford University Press), www.oed.com/view/Entry/80198.

[2] Jennifer Coates, Men Talk: Stories in the Making of Masculinities (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 6, 41.

[3] Amy Milne-Smith, London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late-Victorian Britain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 90–91.

[4] Anonymous, How to Shine in Society (Toronto and Clifton: The Toronto News Company, 1867), 21.

[5] J. R. Vernon, ‘The Grand Old Name of Gentleman’, Contemporary Review 2, May 1869, 573.

[6] Milne-Smith, London Clubland, 88.

[7] Henry Lucy, A Diary of Two Parliaments. The Disraeli Parliament, 1874-1880, 2nd edn, (London: Cassell & Company, Limited, 1886), 1885, 330 (24 January 1878).

[8] Ben Griffin, The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women’s Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 173, 191.

[9] John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth Century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family and Empire (London: Pearson Education Limited, 2005), 110.

[10] John Vincent, ed., Disraeli, Derby and the Conservative Party: Journals and Memoirs of Edward Henry, Lord Stanley 1849-1869 (Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1978), 90.

[11] Ibid., 90 (16 December 1852).

Image: ‘Houses of Parliament’, from “Some Account of the Great Buildings of London: historical and descriptive … With thirteen autotype illustrations by F. York” (no known copyright restrictions, via British Library Flickr)

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