From the Archives: The Life of Beau Brummell (1864)

“Beau Brummell” from Eccentric Personages by W. Russell (1864)

Beau Brummell

It is a solemn truth that every death-bed is the final scene of a great tragedy, though the death be a beggar’s, the bed one of straw. Yet to the human imagination the supreme catastrophe is magnified in its impressive terror when the miserable death strikingly contrasts with the glittering life, as, for example, in the instance of his splendid Grace of Buckingham, who expired

In the worst inn’s worst bed,
Where tawdry yellow strove with dirty red;

and — a modern illustration — the tinsel life of Beau Brummell fading into the darkness of death in the hospital of the Good Saviour, Caen, France.

The perverted, lost life of the famous Beau Brummell dates from the 7th June, 1778. He was one of three children — two boys and a girl. The father of George Bryan Brummell was secretary to Lord North, of disastrous memory. The noble lord’s administration, however unfortunate for his country, was greatly beneficial to Brummell senior, who was able, by wise thriftiness, to save upwards of sixty thousand pounds, which, at his death, when the future Beau was but sixteen years of age, was bequeathed in equal portions to his children.

Beau Brummell received a fair education, and was a student at Eton when his father died. He exhibited, very early, much cunning perception, and seems to have foreseen the Georgian Era which was soon to dawn, when taste in tailoring would be a more potent introduction to “high society” than fame in arts, arms, or learning. He was, besides, well fitted by nature to be a distinguished clothes-peg. His face was not so handsome as the late Count d’Orsay’s; but his elegant figure would show off a tailor’s skill as well as could that doubtful nobleman, or Prince Florizel — Mr. Thackeray’s Prince Florizel, — afterwards George IV. George Brummell had one virtue in perfection-that of cleanliness in person and apparel. Lord Byron, who knew him well, has said, with respect to his dress, that it was only remarkable for its exquisite propriety. The noble lord himself belonged to the now happily obsolete class of “Dandies.” Young Brummell’s general character whilst at Eton was that of a “clever idle boy.” He had some humour. Too good-natured humour. One trifling anecdote is sufficient proof of this: — a bargee having offended in some way the Eton students, was seized by a number of the exasperated lads, and was about being hurled from the bridge over the Thames into the river, when George Brummell interposed in perhaps the only manner that, during the excitement of the moment, would have been successful. “My good fellows,” he exclaimed, “don’t: the man is in a high state of perspiration, and would be sure to catch cold.” The droll way in which this was said tickled the boys. They burst into laughter, and the alarmed bargee was set at liberty with a solemn warning not to offend again.

From Eton George Brummell went to Oxford, and was entered at Oriel College. Previous, however, to leaving Eton, he had attracted, by the “exquisite propriety” of his dress, the favourable notice of the Prince of Wales, who had seen him on the terrace at Windsor. That favorable notice, which the young man plumed himself upon as about the highest honour that could be conferred upon a human being, was unquestionably the great calamity of his life – the unbarring of a door which led by a primrose path for a considerable distance, presently with abundance of nettles and thorns, towards the end, whence there was no turning back, to the abyss of shame and ruin.

At Eton young Brummell was smitten with the exceeding loveliness of a youthful damsel, the niece of Colonel Brewster, a retired officer in the service of the East India Company. The young lady had perhaps not been strictly educated, her uncle, by whom she was adopted as a daughter, not having long returned from India. George Brummell would appear to have been as much in love as such an incarnation of vanity and conceit could be; but was suddenly disenchanted. “How is it that you are never seen now with Colonel Brewster’s niece ?” asked one of his companions. “Don’t speak of it, there’s a good fellow,” rejoined young Brummell, with a shudder; ” she asked for soup twice.”

At Oriel George Brummell was remarkable chiefly for breaking the College rules, and assiduous tuft-hunting. He was a devout believer in the doctrine enforced by Mr. Thackeray in one of his lectures at the Marylebone Institute — “Cultivate the society of your betters, young men.” By betters, meaning persons of the highest reachable social position possessed of present wealth and distinction, and in some cases glorified by the gleam of stars and garters shining in the distance. He entered himself as a competitor for the Newdegate Prize, and, though diligently “coached,” was unsuccessful — not a result to be surprised at.

His failure was more than compensated by the gift of a cornetcy in the Tenth Hussars, then commanded by the Prince of Wales, who had so admired the eccentric exquisite on the terrace at Windsor. The notion of making George Brummell a soldier! He rode pretty well, yet but for one fortunate circumstance never have recognised his company when the regiment was paraded: One of the non-commissioned officers had a remarkably large blue nose — red and blue, more correctly — and of very brilliant tints. That nose was Brummell’s beacon. “My good fellow,” said he, offering the man a handful of silver; “my good fellow, take care to keep up that illumination; it’s worth the cornetcy to me.”

His inefficiency as a soldier did not, however, prevent his rapid advancement. He was gazetted Captain on the 1st of June, 1796, through favour of Prince Florizel, with whom he continued to be a great favourite. He was also the “Soul of the Mess” — a very earthly, mundane soul, the coarse quality of which no coating of varnish could conceal from moderately discerning eyes. Still the protégé of a prince, and that prince the colonel of the regiment, would necessarily be a pet of the dandy officers of the aristocratic Tenth, especially as Brummell claimed to be the direct descendant of a line of illustrious ancestry, dating from the Conquest. The endorsement of Prince Florizel sufficed to make current this claim to an illustrious, as distinguished, I suppose, from a noble descent.

The remark attributed, I fancy wrongly, to the Chancellor Oxenstiern, of Sweden, who, alluding to some flagrant instances in question, exclaimed, “See with what little wisdom the world is governed,” might, with perfect appositeness, be paraphrased into, “See with what slender wit the world of fashion may, under certain circumstances, be amused, delighted, entranced. Before what a poor humanity all that glittering, pretentious throng will bow down in wondering admiration.”

The very best witticisms recorded as the utterances of George Brummell, in his time “the glass of fashion and the mould of form,” and with which he set the mess table of the gallant Tenth in a roar, were sorry stuff. He had a slight cold, and being asked how he caught it, said, “I went to Pietri’s Hotel, and was shown into a room where there was a damp stranger.” This sally convulsed the officers of the gallant Tenth. Again — this was after he obtained his captaincy – “Why, Captain Brummell, you surely are not off with charming Lady M__ .” “An ounce of civet, good apothecary,” replied the incipient beau, who had probably read elegant extracts from Shakspere; “an ounce of civet, good apothecary – I positively saw her eating cabbage!” “But surely you, Captain Brummell, sometimes eat vegetables?” said a somewhat gruff old major. “Yes, yes, major, yes; I once ate a pea.”

Having attained his majority, and come into possession of his inheritance, £30,000 or thereabouts, the principal having augmented during his minority, and there moreover being ugly rumours afloat that even the Tenth Hussars might be ordered upon foreign service, George Brummell, who had a constitutional objection to expose himself to the action of that villainous saltpetre which ought never to have been digged out of the bowels of the harmless earth, sold his commission and retired from the service.

George Brummell at once determined to cultivate “a life of pleasure” — Sybarite, Epicurean pleasure; therein being as one with his patron the Prince of Wales. That flowery path to ruin was gaily trod. Mr. Brummell took a house in Chesterfield Street, furnished it in exquisite style, and forthwith devoted himself to the cultivation of society in “high life,” and the best mode of tying white neckerchiefs. He succeeded in both those grand objects of ambition to his heart’s content. “I can stand,” he boasted, “in the pit at the opera, and beckon to Lovain (Duke of Argyll) on one side, and to Villiers (Lord Jersey) on the other, and see them come to me.” Fortunate Brummagem Beau Brummell! But the tie and set of the white neckerchief was his America of discovery. The how and the why disturbed the peace and exercised the ingenuity of the whole fashionable world. Vainly was he importuned to disclose the wonderful secret. The oracle remained persistently dumb. Not even to the Prince would he shed a ray of light upon that sacred mystery. It was only when hurriedly leaving England to avoid a debtor’s prison, that he vouchsafed to enlighten “high life” through the medium of his friend Lord Alvanley. “Starch is your man,” he wrote with a pencil, directing the scrawl to that nobleman. The Lord Alvanley was delighted, and gave in after-years substantial proofs of his gratitude for so signal a favour. The “beau monde” participated in the enthusiasm of Alvanley at the solution of the grand secret. Such were your Gods, O Israel! And these Brummells, Peers, Princes, were contemporaries with the men who wrestled down the giant wars which for a quarter of a century had convulsed Europe!

That Beau Brummell was the rage amongst the upper ten thousand is indisputable. No dinner, no ball, no assembly was held to be complete if he were absent. Very careful was he to preserve his exclusiveness. He recognised the peerage, but no other class of society, and like another Regency George the Fourth impostor, John Wilson Croker, affected to be ignorant that there was such a locality as Russell Square “within the confines of civilization.”

Once, when remonstrated with by the wealthy father of a young man whom he, Brummell, had helped to “pluck” at cards, he said,  “Upon my honour, sir, I did much for your son. I once gave him my arm all the way from White’s to Walters’. Think of that, sir!”

Brummell, as I have said, had some humour of a weak eau-de-cologne kind. He condescended to accept an invitation to dine with a rich young man whose acquaintance he had made in a gaming-house. The young gentleman called upon him about half an hour before the time that dinner would be served to remind the Beau of his promise. In the meantime Brummell had received an invitation from Lady Jersey, and just as the rich nobody was speaking with Brummell, her ladyship’s carriage stopped at the door to convey the distinguished dandy to her residence. “Well,” said the plebeian acquaintance, “I see you will no’ honour me with your company to dinner this evening. Lady Jersey’s claim is of course paramount. As my house lies in the direction of her ladyship’s, I will ride with you part of the way.” “Good God!” exclaimed Brummell, “ride with me! But perhaps you mean to get up behind.” By the by, one of the Beau’s notions was that a sedan chair “was the only vehicle for a gentleman.”

One Mr. Snodgrass, a F.R.S. and grave philosopher, happened to attract the notice of Brummell. The name offended the Beau, and he would ring the bell, and knock at the door about midnight, when there was no one up but the philosophic student himself. The window of the venerable man’s study was thrown open, the venerable head thrust forth, and an angry demand screamed forth in pantaloon treble to know the meaning of such knocking and ringing at that dead waste and middle of the night. “Is your name Snodgrass?” asked the mellifluous, bland voice of Brummell. “Is your name Snodgrass?” “Yes, it is — what then?” “Only, my dear fellow, that it is an extremely vulgar name. Snodgrass is decidedly vulgar.” “You be” — we need not print the participle past — was the reply as the window was slammed down. The torment was fitfully repeated till at last Mr. Snodgrass found himself obliged to appeal to the authorities, and Beau Brummell received an emphatic warning that such conduct would incur ignominious punishment. The Beau kissed the rod, and no more disturbed the philosopher’s peace. This incident suggested the once popular farce of “Monsieur Tonson.”

Once Brummell was induced to accept an invitation to dine from a wealthy alderman, having first, however, obtained the civic dignitary’s promise “not to tell.” The dinner was served, and Brummell, who had made himself waited for a considerable time, at last arrived. There was a baron of beef on the table. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed, glancing at the table; “Good heavens — Ox!” and vanished.

The familiar terms upon which he stood with the so-called great men of the realm will be sufficiently illustrated by one or two anecdotes.

He was walking with the Duke of Bedford along Pall Mall, when his Grace asked him if he liked the cut of his coat — an improvisation of the Duke’s tailor. Beau Brummell examined critically the ducal coat, and the survey finished, said, with an air and accent of deep compassion, “My dear Bedford, do you call this thing a coat?”

Again, being on a visit at Belvoir Castle, the seat of the Duke of Rutland, where a numerous company was assembled and feeling somewhat indisposed, he left, at an early hour for him. Suddenly sounding a powerful alarm or fire-bell, which at once arrested the flying feet of the dancers, — “I beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen,” said the Beau, from the gallery which overlooked the salon de danse; “I beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen, but there is no hot water in my room.”

There have been various versions of the origin of the Beau’s quarrel with the Prince Regent. The accepted story was that Brummell, having dined at Carlton House, and being desirous of tasting some wine of a celebrated vintage, said, “Wales, ring the bell;” whereupon the Prince did ring the bell, and to the answering servant, said, ” Order Mr. Brummell’s carriage.” The same story or something like it used to be told of Thomas Moore and the Regent. Brummell always denied that he had so misbehaved himself. According to the Beau’s own version, his disagreement with the Prince was entirely owing to the marriage of his Royal Highness with Mrs. Fitzherbert. He had in some way offended that lady, and the “night crow,” all powerful for a time, placed her veto against his admission to Carlton House. The Prince deeply resented Brummell’s behaviour towards or concerning Mrs. Fitzherbert; and fop, fribble as he was, George IV was “a good hater.” He never forgave. Brummell used to show his resentment in his own small way. Once after the final rupture with the Regent, the Beau, riding through Bond Street with Lord Sefton, met the Prince, who was taking an airing in a carriage. Seeing Sefton the carriage was stopped. The prince and peer exchanged some commonplace courtesies. Sefton presently rejoined Brummell. “Who is our fat friend in the carriage?” he asked, affecting not to have recognised the Prince. This sort of thing used to be thought very witty, cruelly sarcastic!

In the meantime, the Beau’s thirty thousand pounds are rapidly diminishing, becoming fine — very fine by degrees, and unbeautifully less. At last all is gone, and Beau Brummell’s exquisite neckties will not appease the clamour of his furious creditors.

One incident in the eccentric life of this gay, glittering human moth should be mentioned before I follow him into exile, and show what this “observed of all observers” was when the paint and plumes were stripped off. If not a vain boast, which is most likely, it speaks, in perhaps a dubious sense to his credit. The Beau was on a visit to Earl H___. It was understood that his stay would be a long one. Three or four days only had passed when Brummell, brusquely presenting himself, said to his lordship, “My lord, I must leave at once. I cannot stop here.” “Why, in Heaven’s name?” “I am in love with her ladyship, your wife.” “The devil you are! But never mind that. A passing fancy. Nothing more. Her ladyship is not in love with you.” “Well, your lordship, I am afraid her ladyship does incline to be in love with me.” Brummell left immediately.

Beau Brummell will be most faithfully depicted by these stray anecdotes — Alderman Coombe, an extensive brewer, had lost a considerable sum of money to the Beau, who, with hilarious impudence said, whilst pocketing his winnings, “All right, Alderman Coombe; in future I shall never drink any porter but yours.” “I wish,” retorted the angry alderman, “that every other scoundrel in London would say the same, and keep his word.” In this passage of arms between the Beau and the Brewer, the latter had certainly the best of it.

At last all was gone: the pet of high society, the inventor of unapproachable neckties, was cleaned out. He must make himself scarce as quickly as might be; but in order to pass over the strait which divides Dover from Calais funds were required. There were half a dozen executions in his house, and no money could consequently be obtained by sale or by hypothecating or pawning of furniture, plate, &c. In this extremity, George Bryan Brummell sent a note to one of his friends, a Mr. Scrope Davis. I subjoin the note and the reply:

May 16, 1816.
“My Dear Scrope, — Lend me two hundred pounds. The banks are shut, and all my money is in the Three per Cents. It shall be repaid to-morrow morning. — Yours, G. B.”

Mr. Scrope Davis to G. B.
” My Dear George, — It is very unfortunate, but all my funds are in the Three per Cents. — Yours truly, Scrope Davis.”

Brummell must have been more successful in other quarters, as he certainly raised funds enough to enable him to reach Calais, and support himself there till he could organize a method of levying black-mail on his titled English friends, upon whose charitable alms Beau Brummell, the star of fashion, was thenceforth content to exist.

The habits of this eccentric gentleman clung to him through life. He was as preposterously exclusive when a fugitive from his creditors, and living upon the charity of his former acquaintances, as in the days of his ephemeral prosperity. He took up his quarters at a Calais hotel, where he lived in very comfortable style for seventeen years. His correspondence and the occasional visits of great people imposed upon the French tradesmen, who believed that he was suffering under a temporary eclipse only, and would again shine out resplendently, a bright particular star in the aristocratic galaxy of England. The French are an acute people, but they have strange notions with regard to England and English society. For example, they believe the Lord Mayor of London to be a potentate second only in dignity and power to the monarch of Great Britain.

It is not at all surprising that they should have believed in Beau Brummell. The Duchess of York, a very amiable lady, sent him not only money, but a table-cover worked with her own hands. This steadfast friendship of her Royal Highness seems to show that, after all, the vain coxcomb must have had something good in him. Lord Sefton moreover paid him a visit; so did Wellesley Pole and Prince Puckler Muskau, the Prussian nobleman who once made a small splutter in the literary line.

Let us pass swiftly over the decline and fall of this once celebrated gentleman. His debts in Calais rapidly accumulated. His English friends, generous as many of them were, could not supply his extravagances; and when George IV passed through Calais on a visit to Hanover, and did not send for ce célèbre Brummell, the faith of the French in the great man sank to zero as quickly as did that of Justice Shallow in Sir John Falstaff, when Henry V (in the play) publicly rebuked and cast him off. Brummell was refused credit, and a prison was not obscurely hinted at. Driven to desperation, he applied to the Duke of York to procure for him, through his influence with the Ministry, a Government appointment. The application was successful, and on the 10th of September, 1830, Beau Brummell was appointed English Consul at Caen, at a salary of four hundred pounds per annum.

Landed at last, one would think, safe out of Fortune’s reach. Not at all. His debts followed; his foolish habits clung to him to the last, till at length the only person whom he could rely upon to befriend him was Mr. Armstrong, a grocer established in Caen. “My dear Armstrong,” he wrote one day, “lend me seventy francs to pay my washerwoman.” Yet the man who wrote that note would not “honour” with his presence any assemblage at which people in the remotest degree connected with commerce were to be met with!

Beau Brummell had been Consul but about two years when he appears to have been smitten with positive lunacy. He memorialized Lord Palmerston, then Foreign Secretary, to the effect that there was no necessity for a British Consul at Caen. He appears to have imagined that if he gave up the Caen Consulship he would certainly obtain a more lucrative one — in sunny Italy, he hoped. Lord Palmerston took the unfortunate Beau at his word — abolished the Caen Consulship, presented Mr. George Bryan Brummell with a solatium of two hundred pounds, but gave no hint of the recipient obtaining any other appointment. This was the climax. No sooner were the arms of England taken down from the front of his house, than his French creditors determined at once to arrest his no longer inviolable person. This was done with a great deal of unnecessary display and circumstance; and poor Brummell was carried off to jail. A very weak creature the pet of courtly circles proved, when subjected to the pressure of misfortune. He could do nothing to help himself; continued to weep and wail, and pour forth bitter complaints that his dinner was not regularly served — that his washerwoman did not get up his white cravats so well as she had formerly! At last, the grocer, Armstrong, who appears to have been actuated by a real sympathy for the broken-down Beau, proposed that he himself should go to England and personally solicit — being, of course, furnished with proper credentials — the help of Mr. Brummell’s rich friends. This was done. Armstrong’s mission was so far successful that sufficient funds were obtained to release Brummell from jail. But the Beau’s future was bleak and dreary as ever. The end was near at hand. The intellect, such as it was, gave way; and it was determined by Mr. Armstrong and other friends to obtain him an asylum in the hospital of “Le Bon Sauveur.” This charitable design was carried out; and George Bryan Brummell, screaming with idiotic terror, for he fancied he was about to be again shut up in jail, was conveyed to the convent or hospital. There he died, and was buried. The sad lesson which this life teaches needs no interpretation. He who runs may read its mournful significance.


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.
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