In the opening scene of The School for Scandal, Sheridan shows us a world of libellous gossip, deception and social hypocrisy. Snake and Lady Sneerwell applaud their friend for planting malicious rumours in the Tête-à-Tête – a monthly gossip column that featured in the Town and Country Magazine (1.1.17‒18).
The first gossip columns
The notorious Tête-à-Tête was one of the first gossip columns ‒ a forerunner of today’s celebrity magazines. In the late 18th century, readers were already obsessed with the real or imagined sex lives of the rich and famous. Every month the column dissected the affairs of a different couple, with two oval portraits to illustrate each piece. Pseudonyms and initials were used to describe the subjects, implying tact and discretion, but most readers knew who they really were. The editors admitted that they had been sued repeatedly for libel.
Tête-à-Tête column about Fanny Abington
Four months before the first performance of Sheridan’s School for Scandal, the play’s star comic actress was featured in the Tête-à-Tête. Fanny Abington (1737‒1815), who played Lady Teazle, was having an affair with the politician Lord Shelburne (1737‒1805). Using the pseudonyms Malgrida (a famous scheming monk) and Thalia (the muse of comedy), the article charts their paths to fame and explains how their liaison began.
It describes Mrs Abington’s struggles as a friendless orphan, and hints that she was lured into prostitution. It then celebrates her stellar career on stage in Dublin and London, and hails her as ‘one of the most accomplished women of the age’.
The column gives us an insight into how actresses were treated in this period – adored and celebrated, but also exploited. There was a quiet acceptance that men at the highest levels of society kept actresses as mistresses. In turn, some women made use of their celebrity and beauty to gain financial independence.
When Lord Shelburne propositioned Fanny Abington, she set out a series of demanding terms: ‘fifty pounds a week – no visits at her own house – to see what friends she pleased, male and female – no interruption to her dramatic business – a chariot and a set of horses’. As an actress at Drury Lane, she was famously demanding. When Sheridan took over the management of the theatre, she doubled her wardrobe allowance to £120.
Review of The School for Scandal
In May 1777, Town and Country featured a review of the ‘new comedy’ performed ‘with uncommon applause’. Ironically, given the content of the scandalous Tête-à-Tête, the reviewer celebrated Sheridan’s ‘genius and wit’ in satirising ‘hypocrisy and scandal’.