Wednesday 15 December 2021

Beau Brummell by Ian Kelly at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


December’s Reading Circle was held online, not because of fears of covid but due to the jet-setting (and Trans-Siberian Railway-riding) exploits of the author Ian Kelly, who joined us from a log cabin in Northern California to talk about his book Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy. This allowed the group to chat about all the exhibitions, theatre and books they wanted safe from their own homes as a storm raged outside. 

Beau Brummell is the biography of a man whose position in history seems to be built on the thinnest of threads; famous for his poise, his wit and his immaculate fashion sense, he dictated the fashionable world of London, influenced the creation of modern West End tailoring and died penniless, raving and incontinent in an asylum in Normandy. The book set out to prove that he was more than a ‘fribble’, a word Johnson defined as the verb ‘to trifle’ but which also came to be used as a noun. 

One of the pleasures of having an author at a meeting is to explore ‘backstage’ of a book, to see what it set out to be and the process that shaped it into what it became. This book started when Kelly was looking up a quote from Brummell to use in his book on the eighteenth century celebrity chef Marie-Antoine CarĂ©me. ‘Who’s your fat friend?’ Brummell asked a friend satirically after being snubbed by the Prince Regent. This jest finally severed the patronage of the admittedly rotund royal. Ian Kelly said he was hoping to write a book about tailoring, the growth and shaping of the West End of London as a shopping hotspot and to explore the realm of masculine fine dressing with the creation of the dandy - or as he put it, ‘a nice book about clothes and shopping.’ It was his discovery of Brummell’s medical records in an asylum in Caen that opened up a whole new line of enquiry when it became clear that the disease which killed Brummell was tertiary syphilis – a discovery which led to a very excited call to his publisher.

Initially though, Brummell led a rather charmed life. His grandparents may have been servants to the wealthy, but his father had got in with the North administration where he’d legally (and most likely less-legally) acquired a fortune. Born the second son of the family in number 10 or 11 Downing Street and later raised in grace and favour apartments in Hampton Court, the young George Brummell had his portrait painted by Reynolds when he was three years old. This almost cherubic figure was sent to Eton where he became everyone’s friend and ‘had a genius for excelling in apparently trivial acts,’ like making cheese on toast. Later he took his inheritance and joined the Hussars, largely because of the fetching uniform. There he became friends with the Prince Regent, even becoming best man at the Prince’s wedding. 

After quitting the army, he used his connections to live off credit where he formed the ‘dandiacal body’, holding levees where the important and fashionable would watch him dress. Unlike the of former macaronis, Brummell’s style was based on muted tones and sharp cuts. Precision and attention to detail were the hallmarks of a gentleman, not flashy excess. He also underwent a vigorous bathing routine and used a series of razors to shave ever closer. Amazingly, many of the shops that supplied Brummell with his clothes are still in business and holding their records so there is a very detailed portion of the book about the skill that went into creating the perfect dandy. Thanks to the wine merchants, The Berry Brothers, there’s even regular accounts of his weight, as it became a fashion to use their scales.

Brummell’s delicate balance of credit was due partly to sales of an item going up if it was known he used it (like macouba snuff) but also due to his relationship with the Prince Regent. As long as people expected him to do well out of a future George IV kingship, the future expectation of money was still there. Like most relationships with ‘Prinny’, Brummell’s was not always a smooth one. Although it suited the prince to adopt the dandy look, his tastes were rather more flamboyant than Brummell’s. What’s more, Brummell’s ‘brand’ relied on a certain cynical and imperious attitude which could offend the thin-skinned royal. After the gaff about the ‘fat friend’, Brummell’s creditors started calling and he had to escape to France.

In Calais, he resumed his celebrity, gained a whole new group of creditors and become one of many British residents who couldn’t go back home but needed a passport to go further into France. When George became king, Brummell started to petition for the position of a consul, which was denied to him until just before George’s death, making Brummell consul to the Norman town of Caen. It was not a strenuous job and he told the government that such a position was probably not needed, hoping to be moved to somewhere more glamorous. The position was axed, but Brummell was not offered anything else.

Unable to live within his means, he found maintaining his lifestyle increasingly difficult, even with a subscription of people back in England to support him. He was put in debtors’ jail until another call for funds across the Channel had him released. The first thing he did was dress up in his best outfit, attend a formal dinner and sit down to a very welcome meal of salmon. By this time he was not well though, sometimes losing control of his muscles and eventually becoming doubly incontinent and strapped to his bed. The hotel he lived in couldn’t help and he was sent to an asylum where he was kept as comfortable as possible until he died.

The book contains a vivid description of syphilis, of how it would have started as a rash and eventually progressed to a horrid and degrading end. There’s a lot of discussion in the book of Brummell’s sexuality. Many previous works had depicted him as asexual, too dedicated to his look to worry about anyone else. From his death though, this is clearly not the case. He certainly moved in circles where sex could be had at any price, attended parties held by ‘The Three Graces’ and other courtesans. He was known to propose marriage frequently, though never to pursue such proposals seriously and he wrote letters that could be construed as ‘flirty’ to a number of women. He also wrote letters that could be construed as ‘flirty’ to men, including Byron. Certainly he lived in a homo-social world, from school to the military, and it’s clear that both men and women looked at him in an erotic way (and, judging from the cut of his trousers, that he wasn’t against encouraging that). Ultimately, it can’t be known when he caught the disease or with whom. Ian Kelly said that one of the features in writing history is that the writer can only present evidence as it is found, leaving readers to decide for themselves.

Ian Kelly described his book as commercially risky, being too long (at 500 pages) about a subject which has an aura of embarrassment which meant there hadn’t been a post-war biography of Brummell. Only recently has the idea of the ‘over-aesthetic’ man been discussed, together with and notions of male fashion and metro-sexuality. It’s interesting how hard it is to pin down George Brummell, to say exactly what he is famous for and what impact he has had. The book starts with the Greater London Council having difficulty describing who Beau Brummell actually was. It was a difficulty we had fun engaging with.

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