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Public Talk, Printed Pages: Gender, Gossip, and the Formation of Eighteenth-Century British Print Culture

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In the variegated print culture of eighteenth-century England, gossip’s power shapes new media forms, creates communities and profits, and destroys reputations. This dissertation argues that gossip provides a template for personal and communal exchanges in the century’s emerging media forms, including novels, periodicals, and engravings, media that often create textual worlds predicated upon its logic. Each chapter locates gossip via a physical space in London, framing case studies of the coffeehouse, tea table, and brothel. I analyze these locations via multiple texts: 1720s biographies of sex worker Sally Salisbury; novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747) and Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724); periodicals including the popular The Lady’s Magazine (1770–1818), the obscure The Tea-Table (1724), and the racy Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies (1761–93); and a range of popular engravings such as William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (1732). This archival breadth demonstrates how gossip both helps create these works and shapes their reception and remediation in the cultural imagination.Print’s proliferation echoes gossip’s own functions and circulations: the seemingly countless reiterations and remediations, the conversations about people one will likely never meet, the difficulties of tracing materials back to their ultimate source, and the continued concerns about truth or authenticity. I argue that the preoccupation with truth and authenticity in these print forms is evidence of an underlying unease with gossip’s reputation and power, even as gossip provides the means for growth and profit, both financial and social. Understanding gossip’s often contradictory aspects—it works to critique, but also affirm, social norms; creates community networks, but also exclusive inner circles; and transmits vital or simply diverting information—thus highlights its facility in transcending genres, gender, and even temporality.

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This item is under embargo until December 9, 2028.