Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A Beau Brummell Anecdote

Beau Brummell created what is now referred to as "dandyism" due to his uniqueness of character. But it was also partly due to the fact that he was born into a time when bathing and changing your clothing once a day was considered to be a strange eccentricity (it's hard not to cultivate one's vanity when everyone around you literally stinks).

Brummell was an interesting figure, a major influence on fashion, and an arbiter of taste. But he was also heartless, cruel, and affected. "Dandyism," Barbey D'Aurevilly wrote, "is the product of a bored society, and to be bored does not conduce to being kind."

Timesand tasteshave changed. In the past, people would watch Beau Brummell dress with relish; now people watch Ferran Adrià cook (with relish). The former polished his boots with champagne; the latter polishes off his beets with champignons.

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The following excerpt is taken from Carlo Maria Franzero's Beau Brummell: His Life and Times (1958)

"The history of Brummell is, indeed, written upon sayings, often absurd, like that of Byron who said that he would rather be Brummell than Napoleon. The real meaning of such a saying is lost; perhaps Byron meant that Brummell's empire of taste and fashions was more imaginative than Napoleon's empire of countries and peoples.

Brummell was a mass of contradictions: he could be exquisitely polite and appallingly rude; he could say telling things or be as gay as a young boy. The clubs resounded with laughter when Lord Alvanley recounted the story of how, that afternoon, the Prince of Wales, who had just received the present of a horse, asked Brummell for his opinion. Brummell, instead of examining the animal in the usual way, went behind the horse and studied its tail for a considerable time, until the Prince at last asked him what he was doing. 'Sir,' Brummell answered, 'you should never look a gift horse in the mouth.' "

1 comment:

Tyler said...

Regarding Byron's famous comment, Barbey D'Aurevilly interpreted it similarly in his treatise Dandyism (1845), which Carlo Franzero almost certainly read:

"We shall never follow the action of Brummell on his contemporaries, and the mot of Byron, who said that he would rather be Brummell than the Emperor Napoleon, will always seem meant ironically or a piece of ridiculous affectation. The real meaning of such a saying is lost.

"However, rather than insult the author of Childe Harold, let us understand the reason of this audacious preference. Being a poet and a man of imagination, therefore a judge of the subject, he was struck with the empire that Brummell wielded over a hypocritical society, weary of its hypocrisy. This fact of personal autocracy suited his capricious genius, better than any other kind of omnipotence."

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"The real meaning of such a saying is lost..." I do believe this sentence -- and the paraphrased (via D'Aurevilly) sentence that proceeds it -- catches C.M. Franzero's hand in the cookie jar!