Gossip, so the Bible tells us, is evil. However, Shirley Brooks, a 19th-century editor of Punch, hit the other truth when he observed that “the love of evil is the root of all money”. Newspaper proprietors and diarists have learnt this lesson well. Indeed, newspapers are at present awash with gossip, from the sexuality of various cabinet ministers to the more amusing revelations from the safely dead Woodrow Wyatt.
The chattering classes, who have most to fear from it, are apt to deplore gossip. How could Lord Wyatt be so ungentlemanly as to reveal that his daughter only got into Oxford because he pulled the right strings? How could he reveal what Lady Thatcher privately thought of members of her cabinet? And how can the sexuality of Peter Mandelson or Nick Brown be anybody’s business but their own?
Yet the truth is that while we deplore gossip, especially if it is about ourselves, we not only love it but we actually need it. Unless we are to go back to old-fashioned history – “one damned king after another” – gossip is what puts the flesh on the bones of the past. The Wyatt diaries, Glenn Hoddle’s locker-room book on the World Cup and the tabloid headlines about Ron Davies and Nick Brown tell us far more about life in the late 20th century than the Court Circular. Social historians rely as much on the tabloids as the broadsheets.
It is a luxury for intellectuals to deplore gossip, and they are being disingenuous when they do. No less a figure than Geoffrey Brereton, fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, considered Jean Froissart, a contemporary of Chaucer and Petrarch, to be one of the greatest medieval European writers. Yet Froissart is, essentially, a gossip. This is exactly what makes his writing so important and so attractive. Froissart recounts, for example, while telling us that he cannot possibly tell us, that he has heard that the Duchesses of Normandy and Orleans were obliged to flee from the Jacquerie in their underclothes. This is clearly gossip but because it took place 600 years ago we choose to call it history.
Any lapse in time gives gossip status. Historians of Carolingian Europe spend hours discussing whether Charlemagne (d 814) kept his daughters at court because he wished to have sex with them. I hardly think this was considered a proper subject for conversation in the Great Hall. But now historians, who would never dream of buying a contemporary copy, long for a 9th-century Daily Mirror to see what the gossips were saying. People who in the 1930s would have felt uncomfortable reading speculation about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor now unashamedly watch television programmes and read articles about their private lives. Yet it cannot really be construed as in the public interest to know whether Charlemagne committed incest (especially as we have no means of ever ascertaining the truth) or what Edward and Wallis gave people for dinner. But because it is now “history” rather than “gossip” we read and speculate about Charlemagne or the Duke of Windsor with no sense of intruding on their private lives.
We also have the new phenomenon of “charitable gossip” exemplified by, for example, Clive James. These people deliver their revelations, in his case about the late Princess of Wales, with an air of moral righteousness because the money received goes to charity. As a member of the public I deplore this kind of Jesuitical reasoning. As a historian, however, I commend it because it is out of just such revelations that interest will be sustained in public figures beyond their deaths.
The royal biographers Andrew Morton and Penny Junor are busy bridging the gap between gossip and history. We despise them now but future generations will be grateful. In 200 years, students writing theses on the role played by the Princess of Wales in the destruction of the British monarchy will read Morton and Junor as essential sources, much as reading Froissart is essential for a more complete understanding of the hundred years war.
Lord Wyatt, it is true, was not trying to turn himself into a historian but was following Dr Johnson’s advice and writing for money. As a result of what his daughter Petronella calls “his best joke yet”, the Wyatts’ finances are increasing even as their list of friends diminishes. A good joke indeed. Yet the point of good gossip – and Wyatt’s is not just good, it is vintage – is that it is not a joke. Future Wyatt generations will certainly not want his diary to be treated as anything so trivial. They will be keen that its importance as a primary historical source is acknowledged. In time they will be gratified to read heavyweight articles in learned journals discussing the benefits to post-feminist woman of patronage at Oxford colleges and how the purchase of a Dior dressing gown for a child was symbolic of the decadence and vanity of aristocratic life in the dying days of this century. In the same way, what may have caused outrage in 1358 became, by the late 20th century, a matter of pride for the descendants of the duchesses who fled in their underclothes. A malicious slating of an ancestor by the 12th-century writer Gerald of Wales (he would have made an excellent right-wing tabloid journalist) is now a cause for celebration as it means that your family was once important. It is, perhaps, particularly important if your family is no longer one which would be of any interest to today’s satirical writers.
Those chattering-class columnists who sanctimoniously decry tabloid speculation should beware of ridiculing sources which will be valuable for the future. And those who, like Ron Davies, find themselves the subject of the speculation should take heart. The headlines may be uncomfortable and embarrassing now. But once the gossip, “a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it” as George Eliot described it, becomes “real, solemn history” (Jane Austen), your descendants will be eternally grateful. Gossip may be evil but history is the stuff of which legends are made. Only be patient.