By Cara Ludlow
"This taste for idolatry may seem irrational, but the truth is, we just can't seem to help it."
Every day, tabloid newspapers are plastered with A-listers' latest affairs, terrible new hairstyles and unexpected drug addictions. Colin Firth can't take a leisurely Sunday stroll down Portobello Road without being harangued for selfies. Our appetite to 'keep up' with the Kardashians has funded the shitty American series for over a decade.
This taste for idolatry may seem irrational, but the truth is, we just can't seem to help it. We're easily infatuated by beauty, intellect, passion, creativity, and wealth. Television and social media have allowed us to come tantalisingly close to our idols, and learn how to look and act just like them. But the concept of celebrity is far from a modern phenomenon. In fact, it began over two hundred years ago, when Romantic poet Lord Byron awoke to discover he was the most famous man in Europe.
The Showbiz Poet
In 1812, the first two cantos of Byron's epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage rolled off the printing press, and were snapped up from booksellers at an unprecedented rate. It was the story of a charming, cynical and disillusioned young man, who leaves his hedonistic lifestyle behind to travel the world. Childe Harold - the archetypal 'Byronic hero' - enchanted his readership and, almost overnight, they transferred their affections to the poet himself.
Byron was a real-life version of his protagonist, and soon became known everywhere for his striking good looks, fierce intellect, and string of scandalous love affairs. He was mobbed on the street by desirous young women, sent locks of hair and marriage proposals, and was gossiped about in every parlour in Britain and beyond. Papers were splashed with his name, whether it was news of his alleged incestuous affair with his half-sister, or the story of his mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb, posting Byron her pubic hair and stabbing herself in desperation after he cut off their relationship. This was the first time such mindless hysteria surrounding one person had ever seized Europe.
Byron took to fame easily, and he and his publisher happily circulated rumours and fanned the flames of his scandals. Even his eating habits turned into a fad diet. He had a propensity to fatten, and often restricted himself to either bread and soda water or potatoes soaked in vinegar, and smoked cigars to suppress his appetite. Many young people took up the diet to try and achieve the fashionable pale and thin appearance of the Romantic era.
This kind of behaviour seems all too familiar. The hoards of adoring girls conjure up images of One Direction fans swamping the boy-band's tour bus; Lady Caroline's self-immolation smacks of the self-harming 'cut for Zayn' trend among young female fans when Zayn Malik decided to leave the pop group; and the dieting another version of any 5-2 or Ketogenic fad popularised by Beyonce or Gwyneth Paltrow. But Byron was a very different type of celebrity to anyone who has achieved his level of popularity today.
"Lady Caroline Lamb, posted Byron her pubic hair and stabbed herself in desperation after he cut off their relationship"
Bookshelves and Battlegrounds
Byron's first flit with fame was his controversial address to the House of Lords on the Luddite riots in Nottinghamshire. Stocking weavers had been made unemployed as new 'wide frame' machinery was brought in to replace them, and they'd vengefully smashed up workshops across the county. The government was looking to make 'frame breaking' a capital offence, and they were certain Byron would support them. To the chamber's horror, he flamboyantly defended the workers' rights, and denounced Britain's leadership as worse than any 'despotic infidel government'. Effectively, Byron had committed political suicide on behalf of the working men of his constituency.
If that wasn't enough, in 1823, Byron joined the Greek struggle for independence from Ottoman rule. He spent an extraordinary amount of money repairing Greek warships, and organising his own military squad, as well as drumming up support from committees in London. Byron fell ill and eventually died during the revolution, and was hailed across Greece as a war hero. The country's national poet even composed him a long and beautiful ode in gratitude for his services.
Byron's poetry and ideas went on to inform Western thought and literature, and Childe Harold - among many other of Byron's works - remains a canonical masterpiece of the English language. Few authors and poets today can eschew this man from their bookshelves.
It's easy to view Byron's celebrity as just another example of unhealthy idolatry, and we can partly blame him for kick-starting our obsession with fad-diets and sex scandals. But Europe had also fallen in love with a radical politician, a profound philosopher and poet, and a revolutionary fighter. Since the conception of celebrity culture, we've increasingly doted on style over substance, to the point that practically no mainstream celebrities can claim the level of positive influence that Byron achieved in his lifetime. Justin Bieber, Harry Styles, Zac Efron: eat your hearts out.