From the Archives: Beau Brummell by John Doran (1857)

A section of “Beau Brummell” from Miscellaneous Works Volume I: Habits and Men by John Doran (1857)

I scorn to crowd among the muddy throng
Of the rank multitude, whose thicken’d breath
(Like to condensed fogs) do choke the beauty
Which else would dwell in every kingdom’s cheek.
No: I still boldly stepp’d into kings’ courts,
For there to live is rare.

from: DECKER’S Fortunatus

The Distinction of Nash was his impertinence; the characteristic of Orlando the Fair, his affectation. To make a third, Jove joined the other two; and George Bryan Brummell was, as the elder Mr. Weller says, “the consikence of the manœvre.” Had he only possessed intellect rightly directed, and even an infinitesimal degree of principle, he might have achieved a better reputation. The Greek sage who declared that man needed but three things whereby to prosper, — first, impudence; second, impudence; third, impudence, — rather overrated his αναδεια. It is true that a modest man runs great risk of being overwhelmed in his moral “passage of the Beresina,” but he usually has principle to float him; whereas the knave who swims or struggles near him, be he never so impudent, ultimately exhibits an alacrity in sinking. It is in the immortal fitness of things that it should be so ordained. I think Brummell must have been a descendant of the little tailor who is said by another tailor, Stow, to have whined himself to death for the love of Queen Elizabeth. I mean him of whom Lord Charles Cavendish wrote:

I would not willingly
Be pointed at in every company,
As was the little tailor that to death
Was hot in love with Queen Elizabeth.

Brummell, like the audacious schneider, had a soul that was at once given to the “confecting of costume,” and consorting with the great.

Brummell, like many a steward’s son, was partly the victim of his father’s ambition. His sire was smitten with more desire to see him a gentleman than an honest man. The lad was brought up with as much reference to his future condition of gentility, as Miss Killmansegge was with respect to her present and future prospects of Pactolian hue. Brummell was not a baby to suck a coral of less aristocratic value than that old mouthpiece of the unfortunate Monmouth which for years was given solace to the gums of babies of Buccleuch. He was a lad who had an aversion for steel forks long before silver implements were familiar furniture at the tables of the middle classes, of which his father was a member; and scarcely was he a youth ex ephebis, and felt himself free from home restraints in gentle Henry’s shades at Eton, when he not only modernized the white cravat or stock which marks the Eton boy, but he put a gold buckle to it; and all the school “confessed the present god.”

The condiscipuli of that time and place have as much realized Hood’s as Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” The most rollicking tumbled into discretion, and became bishops; the most gentle were drafted into the army, and became blackguards. Some took to the stage, and some took portraits. A few achieved greatness; the majority have died away and are forgotten. “Blithe Carew was hung,” and Brummell “went up like a rocket and came down like a stick.”

Brummell was like Goldsmith. Do not smile: I do not mean that he had the great writer’s simplicity, industry, or goodness of heart. He was, nevertheless, like him in one respect. Poor Oliver, at Trinity College, Dublin, went in for honours, and failed. So Brummell, who, in 1793, was an undergraduate at Oxford, was a competitor for the Newdegate Prize, and lost it. From that hour he abhorred books and bookish men. He had condescended to exert himself so far as to faintly run for the laurel. When he saw it awarded to a better man, he declared that he would never run again, but walk over the course of the world and win his prizes without effort. He had already indicated the paths by which he meant to gain the honours dimly alluded to. His example at college had already abolished cotton stockings, and made dingy cravats vulgar. Even D.D.’s looked at the audacious innovator, and ceased to be, what the initials designated, “deucedly dirty.”

The unsuccessful student was soon in possession of what he considered far better than “book learning,” a third of £65,000. It was no great inheritance for a cornet in the 10th Hussars. That illustrious regiment had not yet achieved that renown of folly and of shame for which Croly pilloried it nightly, to the delight of assembled thousands, in his ‘Pride shall have a Fall.’ It was however the aspiration and the terror of all young heroes who longed to be enrolled in the sacred cohort, and who dreaded the fabulous cost of the luxury. The officers, like their ancestors at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, wore their estates upon their backs — some of them before they had inherited the paternal acres. If the gorgeous costume and its never-ending variations did not effect this consummation, the expenses of the mess, where the mild warriors banqueted like barbaric sovereigns, and the cost of the delicate amusements of those perfumed knights, rarely failed to accomplish it. At the head of all, glittering example of the “gentleman,” careful of carriage, courteous of speech, not ungenerous by impulse, but icy-cold of heart, was the Prince-Colonel, George, afterwards Fourth of the name. The Prince’s chief intimate was Lord James Murray, subsequently Lord Glenlyon: at whose house at Datchet, old Queen Charlotte “did never counsel take, but sometimes tea.”

The new cornet superseded the old friend. The latter was a mild, gentleman-like man, popular with everybody but his creditors, quorum pars fui; and I may add, that he is pleasantly and gratefully remembered by one at least of them. Brummell however took the Regent by storm. There was no resisting him. The Prince was fascinated. Brummell might be absent from parade, neglect duties even more important, and laugh at all suggestion and reproach — “our general’s friend was now the general.” He did precisely what he pleased, nothing that he ought; and in three years he was full captain, to the full disgust of older officers, who enviously admired while they deeply cursed him.

Never probably was the Beau in such full-blown glory as at this period of his gold-lace, best jokes and increasing sway. He was in the very height of his ecstatic enjoyment, luxuriating in the gentility of a “gentil Hussard,” and mastering his profession, not exactly after the fashion of Marlborough — he was in the very paradisiacal state of aristocratic soldiership, when the regiment was ordered to Manchester. Brummell nearly fainted at the idea of such vulgarity, and he left the regiment in infinite disgust. The step gained for him an immense increase of reputation — among fools!

The world had not been to him hitherto as to our old friend, Pistol — an oyster, which he with sword could open. He may be said to have failed, both by book and blade. He was now to really soar by other means. Now came the period when he evinced his disgust of vegetables by confessing that he had once eaten — a pea. Then was the funny time when his slavish hearers laughed at the joke wherein he wrapped an excuse for being hoarse, on the ground that he had slept in a house with a damp stranger. It was not half so excellent a joke as that enunciated, unwittingly, by the poor old Irishwoman suffering from catarrh, and who accounted for the same by stating that she “slept last night in a field and forgot to shut the gate.” However it was good enough for a man who really fancied that he manifested humour when he expressed unconsciousness of there being such a place as Bloomsbury-square; and we may add, that it was good enough for his hearers also.

It was at this period that he patronized the late George Lane Fox, of Bramham Park, Yorkshire; and the patronage cost the latter a superb gold box, set with diamonds — a present, if I remember rightly — for I have heard Mr. Fox tell the story as often as Diggory heard Mr. Hardcastle tell his one story, from the Czar Alexander. Mr. Fox and Brummell had been seriously engaged, for some hours, on matters of dress, after which they discussed the not less serious question of dinner. At the banquet, the first-named gentleman showed his golden and glittering gift to the select company, who were loud in their praise, and unbounded in their admiration. As the party were to adjourn to the Opera, to hear Ambrogetti and Camporese, Mr. Fox announced his intention of depositing his box, by the way, at his house in Albemarle-street. “The whole court,” said he, “will be at the Opera, and I may get robbed of my souvenir!” The company laughed at the saillie, and the wine span round.

After a sederunt of some continuance, the select society departed for “the old house in the Haymarket.” Mr. Fox and Brummell rode together. The carriage stopped in Albemarle-street, according to directions given to the coachman; but what with the wine, and a new dispute touching the depth of cravats and the height of collars, the gentlemen had forgotten why they had ordered the driver to pull up; and after striving for some time, in vain, to remember, they grew tired of conjecturing, and sped away to hear “Fin ch’ han del Vino!”

They had been perhaps an hour in the house, when Brummell, in the very middle of “Il mio tesoro,” came to the end of a dissertation on pantaloons. “The gentlemen with thin legs, and no calves to them, were great patrons of what had not hitherto been admitted into the category of dress” — namely, trousers. Conservatives and Irish gentlemen advocated pantaloons. Brummell had given his judgment with the sententious elaboration of Dr. Chalmers on a question of Erastianism; and to refresh himself after the fatigue of the process, he begged of Fox to furnish him with a “prise de tabac!

The request for a pinch of snuff reminded the then heir of Bramham Park of the fact, that it was his much-prized box which he had designed to leave in Albemarle-street. He proceeded however to perform the required act of hospitality; but on putting his hand to his pocket he found the latter empty, and the box gone. In two minutes he was in the passage below, recounting his loss to Leadbitter and Townsend, and asking from them what hope existed of his recovering the abstracted property. When they learned that an hour had elapsed since it had been stolen, Leadbitter gave the opinion of himself and brother that the loss was irreparable.

“By this time,” said Townsend, “it’s in the melting-pot of Slack Sam, the Jew Gonoff.”

“What’s a Gonoff?” asked Mr. Fox.

“Oh!” said Townsend, with an air of learning and superiority, “Gonoff is Hebrew for a ‘thief.’ Did you pass any suspicious character on going upstairs?”

“I passed nobody but Lady Cork,” said Mr. Fox.

“And Lady Cork, George,” said the vivacious lady, who was coming out, “does not pick gentlemen’s pockets of snuffboxes.

“No,” replied the young Yorkshire squire, “Lady Cork is only a voleuse de cœurs. In the meantime, I have the satisfaction of knowing that my gold box is gone to a Gonoff.”

“And that Gonoff,” said Townsend, with his familiar laugh, “is Hebrew for ‘thief.’”

* * *

Captain Jesse has limned Brummell at elaborate full length, and the gallant artist has done his spiriting very impartially, considering the Cruikshank sort of portraiture with which the beau once affected to represent the captain. “My dear Jesse,” said the dandy once to him, “My dear Jesse, excuse me, but you look very much like a magpie!”

This impertinence was not met in a vindictive spirit. The biographer of Brummell describes him as a beau, but not a beau of the Sir Fopling Flutter or Fielding school. That is, he was not so nastily nice as the first, nor so irretrievably nasty as the second. The captain thinks that his beau would not have been guilty, like Charles James Fox, of wearing red-heeled shoes. I am not so sure of this. Fox was, like all democrats, proud of spirit, and he wore red heels, because these were the distinctive marks of nobility in the galleries of Versailles. Brummell was more original, and he would not have adopted the talons rouges, simply because they were the productions of the inventive genius of another. He had at first a taste that was not unimpeachable. There was not much variety about him. He dealt in contrasts, and he was given to jewelery. His example in the latter way was seized, not by the young aristocracy of England, so unlike their Elizabethan ancestors, who not only covered themselves with gold and jewelery, but took gold-dust, liquid pearls, and coral draughts for their medicine; Brummell’s example was not adapted by these, but it was by their men-cooks. These latter blazed in the pit of the Opera like the caballeros at a Chilian theatre when the chief magistrate retires to the back of his box; and flint, steel, allumettes, and cigars are all in a glow, or helping to produce it. I have heard abundant wonder expressed at the amount of jewellery and precious stones which were then worn by culinary artists who loved music and patronized the Opera. It was, however all borrowed finery. The pins and brooches, the chains, the breloques, the virgin gold and the diamonds pure, were the property of Ude, who realized a good share of the thirty thousand pounds he bequeathed to his disconsolate widow, by letting the finery out nightly, at sums varying from two to five shillings!

Brummell, with his usually acute perception — that is, acute in one direction — saw that fame was to be achieved by simplicity; and, as Captain Jesse remarks, “scorning to share his fame with his tailor, he soon shunned all external peculiarity, and trusted alone to that ease and grace of manner which he possessed in a remarkable degree. His chief aim,” adds the biographer, “was to avoid anything marked; one of his aphorisms being, that the severest mortification a gentleman could incur, was to attract observation in the street by his outward appearance. He exercised the most correct taste in the selection of each article of apparel of a form and colour harmonious with all the rest, for the purpose of producing a perfectly elegant general effect; and no doubt he spent much time and pains in the attainment of his object.” This is no doubt true. Brummell put in practice, he hardly knew why, the principles of harmony and contrast of colours, long before Monsieur Chevreul wrote his theory and explanation of those principles.

He had quite as correct an eye with regard to harmony of shape as to that of colour. The highest in the land were not ashamed to seek a sort of professional opinion from this man as to the propriety of their costume. The Duke of Bedford once did this touching a coat. Brummell examined his Grace with the cool impertinence which was his Grace’s due. He turned him about, scanned him with scrutinizing, contemptuous eye, and then taking the lappel between his dainty finger and thumb, he exclaimed in a tone of pitying wonder, “Bedford do you call this thing a coat?”

But he did not spare his own relations. He was one day standing in the bow-window at White’s, amid a knot of well-dressed admirers, when one of them remarked, “Brummell, your brother William is in town. Is he not coming here?” “Yes,” said Brummell, “in a day or two; but I have recommended him to walk the back streets till his new clothes come home.”

Brummell however may be excused if he became vain of his power. For a season he was undoubtedly the very King of Fashion, and a terrible despot he was; but he was flattered by kings, or by their representatives. The Prince of Wales passed long matutinal hours in Brummell’s dressing-room in Chesterfield-street, watching the progress of his friend’s toilet. The progress was occasionally so extended that the Prince would dismiss his equipage, invite himself to dinner, and the master and pupil, Arcades ambo, set to; and “fore gad, they made a night of it!”

Never had tailor two such patrons as these two. The young lord, who numbered among what the “Clerical Tap-Tub” — as the clergy call a certain “religious” print, famous for its nasty advertisements — styles “perverts,” was nothing to these illustrious two. When the young lord of whom I speak was at Oxford, and got, as young lords sometimes will, into difficulties — on the overhauling of his wardrobe, it was found that he had ordered, in seven months, upwards of three hundred and seventy waistcoats! The youthful aristocrat however was a follower of the two Georges, only “longo intervallo.” George Brummell’s wardrobe, indeed, dwindled down to the suit in which he died; but the wardrobe of the other George sold, after his death, for upwards of fifteen thousand pounds. How many a poor man might have been warmed beneath the cloth the Sovereign never used! The original cost of the wardrobe would not have surprised Alexander, but we do not live in the days of the Macedonian; and in the ear of high-priced bread, England was half-appalled at the thought that a hundred thousand pounds had scarcely purchased what was sold for fifteen. Among it was a celebrated cloak, the sable lining of which alone had originally cost eight hundred pounds. Lord Chesterfield, as little nice about wearing a cheap cast-off garment as one of his own lacqueys, procured this mantle for little more than a fourth of the original price of the lining.

Brummell never recovered the effects of the wager which he won by telling “Wales” to “ring the bell,” and which order, although obeyed, was followed by another for “Mr. Brummell’s carriage.” He struggled indeed long, and not unsuccessfully, to retain his place among dandies and wits; but his prestige gradually failed, play went against him, liabilities increased, and creditors were clamorous. He put a bold face on his ugly position, and was never more brilliant or at his ease than the last night he appeared at the Opera — one Saturday night, when, with the Sunday before him, he had determined to fly leisurely to the Continent, and leave his creditors to regret their confidence in him.

He was eloquent that night with an anecdote having reference to Weston, the famous, tailor of Bond-street. “That fellow Weston,” said Brummell, “is an inimitable fellow — a little defective perhaps in his ‘linings,’ but irreproachable for principle and button-holes. He came to London, Sir, without a shilling; and he counts more realized thousands than our fat friend does ‘frogs’ on his Brandenburg. He is not only rich, but brave; not only brave, but courteous; and not alone courteous, but candid. The other day he was coming up from some d — d place on the coast, by that thing, the — the — stage-coach.” (It was Brummell’s boast — not a true one, as it was with the last Marquis of Bath, who died full of years — that he had never ridden by a “public” conveyance of any kind, whether by sea or land.) But to resume: “There were two women in the coach,” said Brummell, “two deucedly pretty women, and an over-dressed fellow, who was of course an ass; and who was so over-civil to the prettier of the two, that the persecuted creature appealed to quiet little Weston for protection. Weston, Sir, talked to the fellow with an aplomb that would have done honour to either of my friends the Lord Primate, or the Lord Chancellor. The brute — not the tailor, but the ‘gentlemen’ — was deaf to remonstrance, and ruder than ever. Thereupon, Weston, without losing his self-possession, stopped the coach, dragged the astonished fellow out, explained to the outside passengers the state of the case, and found his challenge to fight received with acclamations by everybody but his designated opponent. He compelled his unwilling adversary, however, to stand upon the defensive, and a most terrible thrashing he gave him. But his coup de grâce, Sir,” said Brummell, “was the most finished thing I ever heard of. Weston, Sir, picked him up from the ground, held him at arm’s length, and in a cruel loud voice exclaimed to him, ‘Now, Sir, it may be a pleasure to you and to your friends, to know that you have not only been well licked, but you have been licked by a tailor!’

“From this time forth,” continued Brummell, after the generally excited laugh had subsided, “I shall religiously pay my tailors’ bills. This act of Weston has heroified the profession.”

Alas! poor fallen potentate! he could not have paid his share of the table d’hôte, had he sat down at that at which Candide encountered half-a-dozen dethroned kings in Venice. A few hours after he was an Adullamite in Calais, warming the poor pallet afterwards to be occupied by Romeo Cates.

Some half-century to come, the grandson of Mr. Millais perhaps may limn the scene when George IV, on his Hanover trip, suddenly observing at Calais, his ex-friend making his way, pale and serious, through the crowd, sank back in his carriage with a “Good God, Brummell!” and almost fainted at the recognition.

During fourteen years did the fallen dandy impatiently support his exile, and very patiently endure the disgrace of living on the charity of his friends and on that of compassionate and, too often, insulted acquaintances. He abused the fare set before him with delicate courtesy, and ridiculed the hosts who had gone to some expense to make his misery tolerable. He never learned modesty; never had a heart; not even one made out of brains, as in the case of Fontenelle. In his fallen state he annoyed his hearers with repetitions of abuse, levied against those he had known in the period of his spangled vanity. He was particularly bitter against the Duke of Clarence, whom he described as “a man who did very well to wear a cocked hat and walk about the quarter-deck crying ‘luff!’” and who was so rough and uncivilized, according to the narrator, that the latter was compelled to “cut” him!

Destitute, idle, and in debt, his position at Calais was one that would have appalled any honest and industrious man. It simply annoyed our hero, because he was no longer imperious master. His impudence however did not forsake him, but his independence did; and when he accepted the consulship at Caen, with its poor £80 per annum set apart to provide for his necessities, the remainder to be devoted to the liquidation of his Calais debts, he was as much a pensioned slave as the veriest lacquey could be.

His pride was wounded, but his arrogance flourished. This, too, was shaken when the consulship was suppressed; and the pride and arrogance were crushed when his friends had died off, contributions ceased, debts increased, and the solid door of the gloomiest of prisons stood barred and locked between him and the world.

Retributive justice fell upon this splendidly useless human being. He had been proud of two things, his extreme refinement and his mental qualifications. He was terribly smitten in both directions. After his release from prison he fell into the tender keeping of the Sisters of Charity of the “Bon Sauveur” at Caen. He was an abject pauper, and worse. His infirmities were of that sort at which a nice and healthy nature is repelled; and he who had detected vulgarity in the odour of a rose became, in his degraded hours, ere death relieved him, offensive to a degree that turned sick and disgusted the charity of all but of the Sisters who nursed him.

There was something again awful in the direction in which his mind “drove,” while his soul itself was fast drifting over the turbulent cataracts of time into the boundless lake of calm eternity. He was for ever imagining himself among the scenes and companions of his days of noisy but empty triumph. It was his custom of an afternoon, when convalescent and clean, to arrange the furniture of his little room as for expected company. There all alone sat the spectral fop waiting for spectres; and as to his mind’s diseased eye these glided in, and to his deceived ear were duly announced, that ghastly shattered beau arose and went into mock raptures: he received his “dear duchess” with delight; and favoured shadowy countesses were led by him to the visionary sofa; and the intangible lords were touched familiarly upon their non-existent shoulders; and the whole phantom soirée was gone through with a solemn trifling, till the shadows which came had as shadows departed, leaving with the solitary host just sufficient reason to enable him to appreciate the utter nothingness of all the scene, and to burst into childish tears at the recollection of the stupendous folly.

Beau Brummell Statue on Jermyn Street, London

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *