S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership. I read Twitter a lot. You know, as one does. And a couple of months ago, I saw a viral tweet that made me think I must know more. It was by the journalist Sara Gyung. It said, People keep asking for my opinion on Cancela culture. And the only thing I have to say is that the Atlantic was nearly destroyed in 1869 by thousands of subscription cancellations over an article by Harriet Beecher Stowe insinuating that Lord Byron effed his sister. Then there was another tweet. The best part of this saga being that he most certainly did. Like I said, I had to know more.
S2: This is Decoder Ring, a show about cracking cultural mysteries. I’m Willa Paskin. Every episode we take on a cultural question, habit or idea. Crack it open and try to figure out what it means and why it matters. Hundred and fifty years ago, Lord Byron and Harriet Beecher Stowe collided in the pages of the Atlantic. The resulting smash up endangered an August American publication altered the reputations of two of the most famous in their time authors that have ever lived and most lastingly besmirched the less famous woman at the story’s center. At issue were so many of the topics that are still consuming us today civility, celebrity, feminism, fairness, fake news and bad literary men. Also, it’s hella juicy. So today, undercoating. What did Cancela culture look like in the 1860s?
S1: There are three major players in the story. The romantic poet Lord Byron, his wife, Lady Byron, born Annabella Millbank, and the American author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’m going to begin with Lord Byron, because in addition to being the oldest of the three, his gargantuan celebrity and its incredible longevity are the stage upon which all of this plays out. One way to see this whole incident is as a referendum on the shifting meaning of Byron, a poet whose most lasting legacy was not his poetry but himself.
S3: He’s had this incredible cultural impact, possibly more than any other figure among the romantic poets, but not for his poetry, for his persona. Laura Miller is Slate’s book critic, and people who have never heard of him are basically still in love with him, whether they’re reading Regency romance novels or Twilight.
S4: Byron was born George Gordon Byron in London in 1788. His father, a womanizer and a gambler nicknamed Mad Jack, died when Byron was three, leaving his second wife and son without much money. Byron was born with a malformed foot of which he was very conscious. Was raised in Scotland. But when he was 10, he unexpectedly inherited the family title, Becoming a Lord. Byron lived an outsized life, and there is a bounty of gossipy facts about him, like forbidden from bringing his dog to Oxford. Byron brought a small bear. He once described WORDSWORTH as turds worth. He was very handsome and personally kicked off a craze for the open collared shirt and a knotted neckerchief. The details of his diet were widely known. He would sometimes drink vinegar to maintain his figure. He was voraciously omnia sexual betting men and women. To cite just one par for the course example, he claimed himself to have had liaisons with over 200 women during a visit to Venice.
S5: It’s easy to sort Byron into the framework of modern celebrity what he ate, what he wore, who is beefing with who he was sleeping with. And that’s not a coincidence. He created that framework.
S6: Byron. He was really the first true celebrity. The first person whose primary claim to fame was just himself was just this persona that he created and that he conveyed in this poetry.
S1: This persona first made its appearance in Child Harald’s pilgrimage, a travel poem that Byron wrote while he was on a grand tour of Europe in the years after university, when the first two Cantos were published in 1812, they made Biron an overnight sensation. I awoke one morning and found myself famous, he wrote in the poem. The protagonist, Harold, like Byron, visits Portugal and Spain, Albania and Greece. He is angsty, naughty, alluring. Here’s how Biron describes Harold early in the poem Quite Low in Albion’s Isle.
S7: There dwelt a youth who mnay in virtue’s ways to take delight, but spent his days in ryot most uncouth and vexed with mirth. The drowsy ear of night me insouth. He was a shameless white soor given to revel and ungodly glee. Few earthly things found favor in his sight save concubines and Carmo company and flaunting Wasilla’s of high and low degree.
S1: This type of character has a name, of course, the bionic hero.
S8: You know, we we just take for granted now the idea of the brooding, tormented loner hero who breaks rules and is a genius. And no one really understands him, but he follows his own instincts even though it causes him this tremendous pain. Byron really invented that persona.
S1: He didn’t just invent it. He embodied it, inspiring two centuries worth of copycats.
S3: So like every sort of change, Dean, every bad boy, especially every vampire hero, because actually the first vampire story was based on Biron, the first real vampire story even before Dracula was a story that was written by Byron’s doctor, who, like so many people the time, was completely obsessed with Biron.
S1: This obsession, which began after the publication of Child Harald’s pilgrimage, was called even at the time bairo mania. His picture was everywhere. His looks were copied and lusted after. One of his poems sold 10000 copies in a day, and his every move was widely gossiped about. And there was so much to gossip about. Take the most famous of his many affairs with Lady Carolyn Lamb. She’s the person who described Byron as mad, bad and dangerous to know at this point, more famous than almost any line of his own poetry. When things are going well between the two of them, she sent him a thatch of blood tinged pubic hair, but they were not always going well.
S3: At one point, you know, they were at some social event and she smashed a bottle and gouged her wrists with the broken glass and this very theatrical suicide attempt because he wasn’t paying enough attention to her.
S1: All of this was happening during the Regency right before the Victorian era.
S8: At the particular moment that he was active was a time that was sort of notable for a sort of laxity of public morals.
S3: You know, you could do it. You could you could fool around, but you were expected to maintain a certain level of decorum. Now, he outraged public morals.
S1: Nevertheless, he did this with an accumulation of scandal capped by one particularly outrageous outrage, even by the standards of the Regency.
S9: It was like a hot mess, like incest was like a little too far for that movie. Yeah, most definitely.
S1: OK, so now, though, it’s still the early 19th century. We’re getting to the part of Byron’s life that will become 50 years later. The contentious subject of the brouhaha at the Atlantic. We’re getting to Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half sister, a woman named Agusta Lee Agusta. Lee was a child of Lord Byron’s father, Majak, and his first wife. She was five years older than Byron, and the two didn’t meet until he was almost a teenager. They got to know each other well only after Byron returned from his grand tour of Europe in 1811. At some point in the years after this. Byron and Agusta, who was already married, began to have an affair. One he would describe as the most enjoyable love affair of his life. In May of 1814. And this is still the height of bairo mania. Agusta Lee gave birth to a daughter named Medora, who is believed by Agusta, Lee, Medora and Byron himself to be Byron’s child. Upon seeing the baby for the first time, Baron wrote a letter to his close confidante, Lady Milbourne, one of the most powerful women of the Regency era, expressing relief that she was not deformed. It is not an ape! He wrote. And yeah, well, all of this was going on. Byron was exchanging letters with a quiet, bright, mathematically inclined young woman named Anabella Milbank. The woman actually who coined the phrase bairo mania after observing its effects and others. Miranda Seymour is the author of In Byron’s Wake The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s wife and Daughter.
S10: Amabella Moorebank was a country and probably wealthy and rather brilliant young woman from the north of England. She was regarded as a tremendous catch.
S1: Anabella had already turned down five proposals when she met Biron at a party at Lady Melbournes. Lady Milbourne was also Antibalas aunt. Byron, who didn’t dance because of his foot, noticed Anabella not dancing as well. He was so intrigued that despite barely knowing her, he made an odd, offhand, not entirely serious proposal of marriage through Lady Milbourne Anabella declined. But the two began writing letters to one another.
S11: We all know Byron as the most wonderful letter writer. They just rock from seeing every kind of shocking thing and having fun. But in his correspondence with Anabella, Bond changed character. He started imitating Anabella and managed to write letters that were actually remarkably boring, and he kept up writing remarkably boring letters about deep, sea worthy subjects like Italian poetry and religion and so on and so on.
S1: For two years, from Annabel’s perspective, then Byron did seem to be Tamal, someone she was already reforming. When he finally proposed again, she accepted immediately. She was in love, though Byron professed a desire to be tamed. His motivations were more complicated.
S11: He desperately needed to cover up this incestuous relationship with his half sister and the child that they believed to be does and also was in desperate need of money.
S10: There was also the fact that Lady Milbon was very, very supportive of the much needed Melbourne, who was tremendously fond of FA and was horrified by the story which Byrne told her Mrs Abased, and she said You cannot put your name at risk in this way. Your reputation will be ruined and you must, must, must get married.
S1: Anabella and Biren were married in January of 1815. As a harbinger of what was to come, he told her that day she would find she had married a devil. Lady Byron did not know from the outset about his relationship with his sister, who was very friendly towards Anabella. But at some point she became aware of it. When Agusta the stayed with the Byron’s Biron, would Siew Anabella upstairs? Early in the evening. Bad as that was, it wasn’t the worst of it. Byron flaunted his ongoing affairs and threatened violence when Lady Byron became pregnant. She would lock herself in her room while Byron was raging for fear that she’d miscarry. Towards the end of her pregnancy, she became convinced Biron was going mad and took preliminary steps to have him committed.
S10: It was just a dreadful year in Barnes life. He’d like he’d lost a lot of money. He was in a very nervous state and she’d left because she really feared for her life. Arne, when he was in one of his new tool prints, was a very frightening character indeed.
S1: In December of 1815, Anabella gave birth to their daughter, Agusta. ADA, yes, named after his sister Agusta Lee, who grew up to be known as ADA Lovelace. The woman now famous in her own right for being the first to imagine a thinking machine, the computer. One of the reasons Anabella had ADA study math was in the hopes of counteracting her father’s moody nature, even though ADA barely ever met him. Byron last laid eyes on her when she was a newborn because in January of 1816, Anabella left Byron. They’d been married for a little over a year. The end of Byron’s marriage was scandalous, but was only one of the strikes against him. Others included his liberal politics, his bisexuality, his attempts to sodomised both his wife and Carolyn Lamm. And, of course, the incest altogether. It was enough to push Byron out of England. Not that he didn’t want to go. Letters from this period show that he was eager to get away from his marriage, his country, his expenses and the scrutiny. In 1816, he set sail for Europe, and though he didn’t know it then he would never come back. At the time, he played up the tragedy of his parting. He wrote a poem about his angst, having to leave his country, his wife and child. But the public wasn’t really buying it. There’s a cartoon from the time drawn by George Krock Shank’s of Biren on a small boat for Lauralee, waving to Anabella and Ayda on the shore. Even as he stands amidst bottles of alcohol, three bosomy women hanging off of his body.
S11: The public view was very partisan. Akal by burhan’s departure and sympathy at that time was in line with this.
S1: Byron’s adventurous life continued in Europe. He may have been a little disgraced, but he was still regarded as a singular, poetic genius. And it’s not like bad behavior was off brand for him. He wrote more cantos of child Herald’s pilgrimage and his best regarded work. Don Juan. He continued to have affairs. He had another illegitimate child with a young woman named Claire Clairemont. That’s a whole other unseemly rabbit hole. If you’re looking for one to go down and a more stately multi year relationship with the Italian Countess Teresa Giudice, who will reappear later in this saga. He also became more and more involved in the movement for Greek independence, eventually going to Greece to fight the Turks. In 1824, at the age of 36, while fighting for the cause, he died in misselling gate in death. His reputation was restored.
S11: Her own death in this noble cause that caused an overnight sensation. And change your view about.
S1: Despite everything that had happened between them, Anabella still known as Lady Biren because the two never officially divorced, spend the rest of her life looking out for his legacy, including financially supporting Agusta and Madory.
S11: Lee Anupama remained devoted R-IN until the day she died. Do you know who his death after he died? She nons in grief. Christian knew Brian GREENE. She saw him. GREENE In his memory, she did a great, great deal to honor him.
S1: And that’s we’re going to leave the Byron’s for right now to head to America and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Harriet Beecher Stowe is the other major figure in the story. And though she was otherwise not at all like Byron, she was also extraordinarily famous in her own lifetime.
S12: Stowe was born in New England in 1811, the sixth of eleven children to a family, there was the equivalent of American religious and intellectual royalty. Devout and fiercely abolitionist, she wrote the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published in 1852. The book about a Christlike slave named Tom made the abominations of slavery a concrete injustice to millions of white people who had previously thought about it only abstractly. It became the bestselling book of the 19th century.
S13: Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 10000 copies a week when it was published in book form 100000 copies. By the end of the first year in this country, a million and a half copies. In England the first year.
S12: John Headrick is the author of Harriet Beecher Stowe A Life.
S13: She was invited to go on an anti slavery tour of the British Isles. After the book was published and she was just fettered at crowds of 2000, 3000 people in Glasgow and London and so forth. Queen Victoria came just to see her. Yeah, it was yeah.
S14: She was truly an international phenomenon.
S1: ANSTO’s second trip to Europe in 1856. She had an extended audience with Lady Biron. Still had grown up reading and admiring Byron’s work, meaning his wife and grandchildren would have been a thrill in and of itself. But Lady Byron, in the years since her separation from Byron had become serious about a number of causes, including abolition. Despite both being reserved women, they had an intense personal connection.
S15: She was very, very, very smitten. I think it’s the right word by Lady Byron, she said. She had almost like a girlish reaction. She felt this throbbing, feeling it from the interview with her, like she was almost infatuated by her.
S1: The bond between the two was so strong that Lady Biron shared with Stowe the details of her harrowing marriage to Byron, including his relationship with a ghastly.
S15: I mean, she just had an extraordinary emotional response to her. Her intelligence, her her her range of of knowledge and the fact that she was this injured woman who told her first story personally after this encounter.
S1: The two women stayed in touch, wrote letters, saw each other at least one more time. And then in 1860, Lady Biron died at the time of her death. Despite the past scandals, she was a well regarded woman. Miranda Seymour SEAMARK, Lady Byron’s biographer.
S11: Again, within 90, Barr died in 1860 and revered. She was regarded as almost a saint.
S1: And that’s how things stayed until 1868. That year, Byron’s former lover, Countess Teresa Giudice, only published her memoir. I mentioned Teressa earlier. She had a long affair with Byron after he left England for good three.
S11: The idea that Anabella had told foreign continent she had been cold hearted, she had not understood his great. Nothing. Nothing said about incest. Your mind, Jostein, and the great. Nothing. And she was cold hearted, miserable woman who should never have been married to a wonderful man who. In fact, hold your breath and celebrate. And he went to bed with women when they threw themselves at him because he was such a gentleman. Do you think a book like that, which are call actually for more, could never be seen again? It was published during Humarr when there wasn’t much news going on and the gentlemen of the press upon it with absolute delight.
S1: It’s at this point when Lady Biron is under attack from today, said Yuichi, only. And the press that Harriet Beecher Stowe feels called upon to defend her friend. Stow’s intentions in doing so were good, but they were not entirely disinterested. Stow’s fame was on the wane. The civil war was over. It was the middle of reconstruction. And she was almost 60. Her most recent novel had been badly reviewed. It would be ungenerous to say that she was simply looking for a way back into the spotlight. But she did see in Lady Biron a righteous means of doing just that. In defending Lady Biron, she could do two things at once. Stand up her friend, and once again align herself with a surging moral cause. This time the one for women’s rights.
S15: Women really expected that after the civil war, you know, they would be granted the right to vote too. Joan Headrick, Stow’s biographer again, and they started agitating in public around the issues of sexuality and divorce. So this is the context where where sexuality was now being discussed publicly. So also had just read MIL’s on the subject. Women. And written a couple of people about how this had just opened her eyes, so she’s thinking about women’s rights now.
S1: In other words, the moment when Stowe wrote her piece was not entirely unlike our own. The world was changing rapidly and there was a new feverish attention being paid in some quarters to the mistreatment of women. And here was his legendarily libidinous male writer whose prolific sexual shenanigans had long been part of its towering reputation. Despite his abhorrent and menacing behavior towards his own wife, so sees all of this and she thinks she can do something about it. She can bring this a moral man to account and do right by her friend and herself in the process.
S15: But the problem is, she’s not. She’s such a novice at this. You know, she hasn’t really got a very well worked out philosophy of women’s rights. She’s she’s just sort of fallen into this suddenly. So what she thought would be, I think, the the Uncle Tom’s cabin of a women’s sexual slavery. It just didn’t work out that way.
S1: In fact, it backfires spectacularly.
S5: In 1869, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a piece defending Lady Byron for The Atlantic Monthly, The Atlantic, which is the same Atlantic that is still publishing today, was founded in 1857 in Boston with the ambition to be a first class literary magazine and exponent of the American idea, a kind of American ideal. The mission statement included in its first issue was signed by the likes of Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne and Stowe famous, popular, a moral beacon, an embodiment of exactly the noble and literary American values of the Atlantic itself aspire to represent. Stowe was one of the publications star writers. The piece she wrote for the magazine about Lady Byron is still, to this day, a fun read.
S16: Beecher Stowe begins by snop sizing and dismissing the claims of Teresa Joo-Cheong, his book, which he says is rousing up new sympathy for Byron and doing its best to bring the youth of America once more under the power of the brilliant, seductive genius from which it was hoped they had escaped.
S5: Byron was a bad habit. She thought America had kicked. But now he’s back and she’s going to help kick him out again. She shares all of Byron’s misdeeds, or highlighting Lady Byron’s immense class and forbearance in remaining quiet about his sins, which include incest.
S16: The paragraph in which she takes a decades old open secret about Byron and his half sister and deems it fit to print reads as follows He fell into the depths of a secret, adulterous intrigue with the blood relation so near in consanguinity that discovery must have been utter ruin. An expulsion from civilized society.
S5: It was immediately apparent to the acting editor in chief, the writer William Dean Howells, who this piece was potentially explosive. Haoles consulted a number of people about whether or not he should run it. Some told him no. The doctor and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes senior told him yes, basically saying he should do it for the CLECs because it will, quote, attract considerable attention.
S1: Howard’s position was further complicated by Stow’s star power as one of his colleagues joked with the ring of truth. He might have felt like he couldn’t say no to her. And haoles also came to think asto did that this telling the truth about Byron’s misdeeds was the righteous thing to do. He wrote soon after, quote, The world needed to know just how base, filthy and mean Biron was in order that all glamour should be forever removed from his literature. In other words, the art could not be separated from the artist, and they ought to both go down. In September of 1869, The Atlantic publishes the true story of Lady Byron’s life, whatever the complicated motivations for printing it. A combination of moral outrage and wanting to make a splash. Wanting to tell the truth about Byron while keeping Harriet Beecher Stowe happy. The piece is received and this is an understatement very badly.
S17: So it created an uproar. There was a howl from England.
S1: Susan Goodman is the author of Republic of Words The Atlantic Monthly and Its Writers 1857 to 1925.
S17: It was seen as being so distasteful when people saw it as a move on the Atlantics part to make money by publishing something that was sensational.
S18: And so that that was considered tawdry.
S1: The Atlantic Monthly was widely seen to have published out of bounds, poorly sourced, dirty laundry about a poetic genius. The piece was riddled with factual errors and this gave readers a further excuse to dismiss it. One of those errors had to do with the dates of the Byron’s marriage still made it seem as though Anabella had buried Byron knowing about the incest. And this turned people against her. What kind of woman would accept that? Only a vile one. The fact that Byron was dead instead of as it might now making the whole thing less contentious only made it more so he wasn’t alive to defend himself. But there are also plenty of ways in which the pieces reception sounds familiar. Now, as then, people might wonder if consensual incest was really any of our business. And like us, they look to famous people to take sides and they did. The feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton defended the piece, but she was in the minority. Far more were outraged about it, including Charles Dickens, who wrote, quote, Wish Mrs. Stowe was in the pillory. All the back and forth about the scandal, all the hot takes published about it basically were gathered into a book. The print version of an explainer called The Sto Byron Controversy. And then, of course, there were the cancellations. The magazine began to hemorrhage readers who struck their subscriptions and mass, even though there doesn’t seem to have been an organized campaign to do so.
S18: They lost about a third of their subscribers. They had about 45000 subscribers and they lost 15.
S1: This is more than just financially calamitous.
S17: You know, it damaged their reputation, took away their moral authority. I think that when people read the Atlantic, this is probably true today when people read The Atlantic or The New York Review of Books. They feel as though that that somehow that’s a sign of how smart they are or how cultured they are. You know, it it confers something. And so when they when the Atlantic. Didn’t live up to that idea that that people had, which was in part a reflection of who they wanted to be. Then they broke their connection to the magazine. It didn’t reflect their values any anymore.
S1: The Atlantic and Star were asking people to rethink Byron and rethinking a particularly beloved celebrity was also not something people wanted to do then, any more than they want to do it now.
S3: It’s one of those things where people just didn’t really want to believe it. Laura Miller again. They were just in love with him. Would they?
S19: They were in love with what he represented, the sort of Promethean figure, the grandeur.
S8: And, you know, he was such a slovenly he was so unkind to his wife.
S3: And, you know, he was bad according to Victorian ideals, which is basically what she was saying. But the value of someone like Byron in particular, because I think he represented all of the transgressive impulses that people couldn’t allow themselves to express, so they needed him even more.
S1: If you think about the true story of Lady Byron’s life as a boulder tossed into a lake, the effect on the Atlantic is the big splash, immediate, obvious, dramatic. But the Atlantic survives the impact basically by washing their hands of the whole thing.
S17: They just let it blow over, basically.
S1: Susan Goodman, who authored a book about the Atlantic again, House didn’t get fired.
S17: He blamed Harriet, though, you know, for exaggerations.
S1: Let’s see how else would actually go on to become the editor in chief of the magazine, which slowly built its subscriber base back up. Stowe, for her part, was completely blindsided by the reaction.
S15: She just could not believe the reaction of the American press.
S1: John Headrick, Stow’s biographer again.
S15: She never thought that they would disbelieve her story, which she heard directly from Lady Biron, but instead they just decided that Lady Biram was insane or had a disease minder, you know. And of course, they accused Stoll of being prurient and and and taking this sensational story and dragging it before the public. And yet some said even if this is true, you shouldn’t you shouldn’t say it in public.
S1: But instead of backing off, stoat digs in. She turns the piece into a book, The Vindication of Lady Biron. There is also at that point, a defense of her decision to write the piece in the first place.
S15: She never regained the kind of stature that she once had. She probably would have continued to lose it anyway. But this didn’t help.
S1: Still, when Stowe dies in her 80s in 1896, this is a minor ripple. A footnote in the story of the woman who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ultimately, the story’s most tidal repercussions. The people knocked flat by the wave, kicked up by this boulder of a brouhaha. Are the dead ones. Lord and Lady Byron. Since their separation. Lord and Lady Byron’s reputations had become something of a zero sum game. When one was up, the other had to be down in the years immediately after Lady Byron’s death. She had been on top, but still is peace and the work that was responding to turn this upside down.
S10: Miranda Seymour, again, one of the most interesting things about Harriet the book is that room was completely restored as a kind of angel.
S1: To be clear, she is talking here about his persona, not his poetry, though Byron’s work was wildly esteemed in his lifetime. By the time all this is happening, his poetry has become something of an afterthought. And this mess doesn’t change that. It just gives his persona a hard polish.
S10: That was the beginning of a new passion. Ah, and the great figure? No. Beaumonde injured on debacle, which is his new role. The injured husband and that role. Hurricane 1 20th century.
S1: Biron to be an injured husband. He has to have a cruel wife. The thing about Lady Byron is that she seems to become later in life not to put too fine a point on it. A bit of a prig, abstemious, controlling, a proud goody two shoes. It’s nothing that bad and certainly nothing that excuses Byron’s behavior towards her. But then as now, it’s nothing that fun. She’s just a deeply unromantic figure, surrounded by these deeply romantic figures who didn’t always speak kindly of her. Byron insulted her in his poetry. Her daughter, ADA, resented some of her controlling ways, even as she assiduously kept her mouth shut. In the years right before and after her death, this wasn’t really held against her. She had her critics, but she was a very respectable, devout, well-behaved woman. She was, in a lot of ways, a very good Victorian. But when Stow’s article comes out, people don’t just defend Byron. They go on the offensive. They latch onto Lady Biron self-regard.
S10: The complaints about her and warped into a malevolent killjoy with an anti artistic temperament was out to get Byron Noboru, a wonderful woman who her night almost seemed to have been turned in to a woman who was being described as I don’t know. I can now draw on the wickedest woman in England, and there was no incest. The main thing they want to say works the work, no incest or a delusion. Melody Barnes, mind. An idea. And book after book after book.
S1: Lady Byron was cast as cold, uptight, heartless, prudish and vindictive. The wet rag to Biron swaggering genius out there. Besmirching his name. His every flaw was forgiven. Her every flaw was magnified. And this remained the predominant conception of her for more than a century.
S20: In other words, Lady Biron, the least powerful, least famous, and shore. least charismatic participant in this whole contra temp’s, is the only one who was, in the contemporary sense, cancelled. As I was working on this piece, I kept thinking about something that Laura Miller, Slate’s book critic, said to me about romanticism.
S21: We still live in the sort of emotional and cultural soup of romanticism. And so if I were to describe it to you, it would be like I was describing what we live in now. If we have an idea of like the individual genius or the importance of gut feelings over reason or the imperative for self-fulfillment, all of those things are romantic ideas that were basically formulated during the romantic movement. But we just kind of take them for granted.
S22: We don’t really remember what the world was like before the romantic movement.
S12: This whole story underscores this. We’re still swimming in the same soup. Still working with the same archetypes, asking the same kinds of questions. Fighting the same kinds of fights, fascinated by the same sorts of things. I mean, imagine if something similar were to happen right now. If a respectable outlet were to run a piece alleging misdeeds about a famous man based only on the words of the victim herself.
S4: Now, as then, the whole thing would be an enormous attention consuming to do.
S5: There would be pieces about the place of open secrets in our culture. Outraged at the outwits frenzy for attention had led it to run such bad reporting questions about whether it was fair to judge a previous era by the standards of a new one and debates about the merits of the accusations themselves. Are they real? Are they really that bad? Should they have been shared? Has this whole thing gone too far? All of this would be capped by a lot of fretting about how we’re now supposed to relate to the bad man at the center of the story, even if after the dust settles, he goes on pretty much as he was. I’m not saying everything is the same. We are now at a moment when Stow’s basic position that there is a moral reason to expose the bad deeds of famous men is ascendant and blaming the victim. What happens too much is more generally understood to be an evil unto itself. But you only have to think of the recent Michael Jackson documentary or the cavernous hearing. To see it were not so far away from all of this. Even if in 1815, Biron stands didn’t have the ability to swarm at Lady Baron’s Twitter account making death threats. Still, if you’re looking for a little reassurance that things have changed. You can find it in the fact that ours is the age that finally took a harder, better look at Anabella Millbank. It’s only relatively recently well into the 2010s that biographies like Miranda Seema’s have much more meticulously done with Harriet Beecher Stowe tried and failed to do 150 years ago. Restore the reputation of the flawed, by which I mean the human woman married to a much more famous man. You know what they say.
S23: Better on canceled late than never.
S24: This is decoder ring. I’m Willa Paskin. You can find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin, and you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode? You can e-mail us at Decoder Ring at Slate.com. If you haven’t yet, subscribe and read our Feed and Apple podcast. Or ever you get your podcast and even better tell your friends. This podcast was written by Willa Paskin and edited by Benjamin Fresh, who also does illustrations for every episode. It was produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Fresh.
S4: Cleo Levin is our research assistant. Thanks to June Thomas, Gabriel Roth and Sasha Leonor on our thanks for listening. We’ll see you in a few weeks.