A Lady that knows everything: Bridgerton's Lady Whistledown and Eighteenth Century Journals

Dearest Readers, break out the Madeira. The day eagerly awaited throughout the ton is finally here. Bridgerton has returned! Here at AM, this is all the excuse we need to go on the hunt for scandal – and what better place to find it than in Eighteenth Century Journals, where a real-life precursor to the infamous Lady Whistledown lays society’s secrets bare. Prepare to meet Mrs Crackenthorpe, a Lady that knows everything.

As fans of the show may already know, Bridgerton is set in 1813, placing it near the end of the Georgian period and firmly in the glory days of Jane Austen. Fortunes and fates were made and broken on the wheel of society, and having one’s indiscretions aired in a scandal sheet like Lady Whistledown's could spell disaster for young debutantes and established gentlemen alike – as several members of “the ton” discovered in season 1 of Bridgerton. 

Our Mrs. Crackenthorpe first appeared to English society over a century ahead of Lady Whistledown, however, with the first issue of her society journal The Female Tatler going to press in July 1709. The eighteenth century was the heyday of the free press, with the newspaper industry flourishing following the abolition of the 1662 Licensing Act in 1695. Shrewd writers in this new market were quick to realise that gossip sells – as is still the case today! – and Mrs. Crackenthorpe was one such writer.

Image © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Apparently modelling the paper after Richard Steele’s journal The Tatler, founded in the same year, she opened with a glib address to Steele under his pseudonym: ‘I Hope Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq; will not think I invade his Property, by undertaking a Paper of this kind, since Tatling was ever adjug’d peculiar to our Sex…’ She went on to assert her intentions for the paper as a reformative device, stating that:

‘… when we daily hear of unaccountable Whims, and extravagant Frolicks, committed by the Better sort, we must expect those of inferior Classes, will imitate them in their Habits of Mind, as well as Body, and the only way to correct great Men’s Foibles, is handsomely to ridicule ‘em; a seasonable Banter has often had a Reclaiming Effect…’

Whether this reclaiming effect was borne out in the lives of The Female Tatler’s readers is, of course, impossible to say. It seems much more likely that both Mrs. Crackenthorpe and her audience simply had a taste for the salacious. Although she followed the custom of hiding her subjects’ identities behind witty pseudonyms – a luxury certainly never provided by Lady Whistledown – Crackenthorpe seldom held back once she had a piece of gossip between her teeth. In between sly asides about Lady Coupler’s wind or Mrs. Slip-shoe’s flirting lie the meatier, more damning tidbits regarding a certain Lady’s attempted shoplifting of a gilded teapot from the nearby India House from which to drink her Bohee; or, worse still, the hoyden daughter of a Well-bred Lady proclaiming a preference for the footman in front of a great deal of company.

If these slivers of gossip have whet your appetite for more, the rest of Mrs. Crackenthorpe’s stories (and her true identity) all lie within Eighteenth Century Journals. And although Lady Whistledown is a work of fiction, Dear Readers, I think we can all agree that she is a woman Mrs. Crackenthorpe herself would be most proud of.

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