Tuesday, 8 November 2005

Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Dandy by Ian Kelly

More than any other single person, with the possible exception of the Prince himself, George Bryan Brummell epitomised the "Regency Age" (which I tend to define as lasting from about 1780 to 1830). He was described by Byron as one of the "three great men of our age" alongside Napoleon and Byron himself. "But of we three," the poet continued, "the greatest of all is Brummell." In his essay on Dandyism, Who is a Dandy, George Walden suggests that the modern world is defined by three things: science & technology; liberal economics; and fashion. He suggests therefore that the three most important influences on today's society are Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, and George Bryan Brummell. Does Brummell's life match up to such glowing encomia, and does Ian Kelly's biography match up to its subject? While the answer to that first question is open to debate, the answer to the second is undoubtedly yes.

Ian Kelly does more than just recount Brummell's life story. He places it within its context, in terms of social, economic and political history. He begins with London in the mid-18th Century, where Beau Brummell's grandfather William was employed as servant to an MP from Hertfordshire, and where his grandmother, the daughter of a pastrycook, was a washerwoman. From this humble beginning William did well, through hard work and loyal service, and his employer was sufficiently impressed that he helped William's son Billy secure an appointment as office boy to another MP, Charles Jenkinson, later Lord Liverpool. Billy's own diligence secured him rapid preferment and he became an underclerk at the Treasury, working for Charles Townshend, and then his successor as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord North. When North became Prime Minister, Billy Brummell followed him to Downing Street, and, as was the way of such things, in the course of his duties there he amassed a fortune, and an apartment at Hampton Court where, having married his courtesan mistress on the King's orders, he raised a family of two boys, William and George Bryan, and one daughter, Maria.

In 1786, at the age of eight, Brummell went up to Eton alongside his older brother, where he studied for six years. Kelly shows that this was an important episode in Brummell's life. It was, he argues, in his role as a Poleman in Eton's raucous Ad Montem festivities that Brummell found the spare minimalist style of dress that he perfected during his adult life, and which is still at the heart of men's fashion today. It was at Eton that Brummell's first encounter with the opposite sex is recorded, in the form of a noisy serenading of the headmaster's daughter from below her window.

After Eton came Oxford, but not before another important amatory episode, Brummell's brief and unhappy relationship with the daughter of his parents' neighbours at Hampton Court, Julia Storer, who later achieved notoriety alongside Harriette Wilson and her sister Amy as the "Three Graces" of the demi-monde.

After Oxford Brummell joined the army. He did not join just any regiment, but, thanks to his father's fortune and contacts in the fashionable and political world or perhaps his own encounters with the heir to the throne, he was able to join the 10th regiment of Light Dragoons, whose Colonel-in-Chief was the Prince of Wales, and so which was destined not to serve abroad. The Prince of Wales' Own were modelled in drill and uniform on European Hussar regiments, among whose virtues are spectacular (and very expensive) uniforms. It was, Kelly suggests, his time in the army that honed the rhetorical whimsey at which Brummell had shown himself adept at Eton and Oxford into the darker wit that he deployed so readily in later years. Brummell sold out late in 1798.

All this serves as the scene-setter for the period in his life for which Brummell is best known, the years from 1799 to 1816 where he ruled London Society as the arbiter of elegance. For a biographer this period poses something of a problem, in that very little actually happened. Kelly negotiates this brilliantly by describing Brummell's life in terms of "a day in the high life", taking us through the morning: Brummell's famous levée, and the circle of friends that attended it; his choice of tailors and other suppliers, the afternoon: riding on Rotten Row; visiting Brooke's, White's and Watier's, the evening: visiting the theatre; attending that famous Seventh Heaven of the Fashionable World, and then on into the demi-monde, where the seeds of his downfall were eventually sown.

This central section of Kelly's book contains the best account of the life of the haut ton in early 19th Century London that I have come across. It is certainly more reliable than Venetia Murray's High Society in the Regency Period, and the copious bibliography is a great blessing too. Kelly has been both thorough and meticulous in his research.

From 1816 Brummell's life begins its gradual decline as his debts and syphilis take their toll. Once Brummell moves to France, never to return (Kelly considers, but tends not to favour, the suggestion that an entry in Berry Brothers' weighing book from 1821 is a genuine indication of Brummell's visiting London that year), the focus of the book moves away from the glittering world that he left behind and concentrates on his activities in Calais and then, from 1830, Caen. One of Kelly's great finds in researching this book was the detail of Brummell's last days as venereal disease destroyed his body and his mind. The last few chapters of the book are quite harrowing reading, as Kelly does not flinch from a comprehensive account of the pathology of tertiary syphilis, alongside his description of Brummell's increasing penury and his desperate attempts to seek support from his old friends. Brummell died on 30 March, 1840 in the Bon Sauveur asylum in Caen.

Kelly opens Beau Brummell with a short essay on what Dandyism has meant, in Brummell's time and our own. He ends with an epilogue on Brummell's legacy, tracing his influence through later dandies such as Oscar Wilde and Nöel Coward to the likes of Jarvis Cocker, his overwhelming influence on men's tailoring and even, thanks to Coco Chanel, women's fashion. While Brummell has most influenced the English, the French and the Americans, he can also be seen as part of the inspiration for Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and even Nabokov's Humbert Humbert in Lolita.

Beau Brummell is illustrated with both colour prints and black-and-white drawings, including a useful map of fashionable London in 1800. Kelly's written style is very easy to read (although the book's physical bulk makes it rather unsuitable for reading on the bus or tube).

As a reference book for the Regency Age, as well as a comprehensive account of a remarkable individual, I unhesitatingly recommend this book to you all.

Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Dandy by Ian Kelly, Hodder and Stoughton, 2005. £20-00

Technorati Tags:


Pam said...

What an excellent review. I think I shall buy it for my dh for Christmas on your recommendation.

Norma said...

not sure I'll be able to find this book in Belgium