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I'm afraid my title is somewhat misleading because George Brummell, universally known throughout his adult life as 'Beau', was much more of a leader of fashion than ever he was a follower. Born into a comfortable life of privilege, Beau cut a swath through fashionable London, a man who truly understood the meaning of the word celebrity and one who sadly ended his days, poverty stricken and ravaged by disease, in a French lunatic asylumn. But his journey from birth to death was eventful and interesting to say the least. The by-line under the title of this book is The Ultimate Dandy but it could just as easily have been The Original Celebrity.
This book about Beau Brummell's life has been written by Ian Kelly who isn't a qualified or professional historian but an actor by trade and it seems eminently suitable that a thespian should record the life of Beau Brummell, a life which was frequently dramatic and for the most part played out centre stage in the theatre of Georgian and Regency England.
Ian Kelly, although the author of this book, pays homage to the original biographer of Brummell's life, Captain William Jesse, whose book on Beau Brummell "is the primary source for all subsequent biographies, including this one." Yet even Captain Jesse drew a veil over the cause of Brummell's death, possibly because he was published at a time when the profligate ways of the Regency had given way to the stifling and priggish hypocrisy of Victorian England, and heaven forbid that their delicate sensibilities should be disturbed by the mention of the word syphilis!
George Bryan Brummell first saw the light of day on 7th June 1778 in Downing Street and it's highly likely this would have been in apartments in Number 11. Beau's father, Billy Brummell was secretary to the sitting Prime Minister, Lord North, and as such, was granted grace and favour lodgings there. The Brummells, Billy and his wife Mary, were Georgian yuppies, upwardly mobile in the largest city in the world, a city full of excitements but also dangers. By the time young George was two years old, Downing Street was besieged by an anti-popery mob demonstrating their dissatisfaction with Lord North's attempts to bring in more lenient attitudes towards Britain's Roman Catholics. This event must have unsettled Billy Brummell because after that time, young George and his two elder siblings, along with their mother, spent more time at Hampton Court, in another grace and favour apartment, rather than in Downing Street.
Another sign of the Brummells' upward mobility is that they commissioned Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint a portrait of their three children. This, in fact, was the first and only formal portrait made of Beau, although there were a handful of miniatures and sketches drawn, none of which, his contemporaries claimed, truly represented his appearance. During his life, Beau seems to have gone out of his way to avoid having his portrait painted which has certainly added towards preserving his mystique.
Following the collapse of Lord North's government, Billy Brummell's resigned from the Civil Service, though the family continued to prosper and they moved into their own property at Donnington Grove near Lambourne in Berkshire. His carefree childhood days were numbered though and, like many other children of the wealthy and privileged, George was duly sent off to Eton at the age of seven, where his older brother, William, was already a pupil. Ian Kelly describes the kind of education given at Eton. "They studied classics in the morning, and bet on horses and brawled with bargemen in the afternoon; their education would encompass Greek tragedy in the original but also the bawdy low-comedy of the Christopher Inn and its rumoured brothel. They would grow from small unworldly boys into classical scholars and seasoned drinkers. It was an education well suited to the age."
The author goes into considerable detail about Eton; the kind of subjects studied, the meals eaten, fellow students and tutors, etc., much of which was couched in very general terms and was more to give colour to the narrative rather than impart information about Beau in particular. One interesting snippet here was that the study of the works of Shakespeare did not then appear on the curriculum at Eton. Apparently, Shakespeare's plays were only just enjoying something of a revival through the actor/manager, David Garrick.
George was known as 'Buck' during his schooldays and there is little doubt that it was at Eton, despite his fellow students being mainly his social superiors, that key elements of his legend are already in place. 'Buck' Brummell used his good looks and formidable wit to good effect and in accounts by his contemporaries, the words most commonly used to describe him are, 'handsome', 'athletic', 'manly', 'a good fellow' and 'full of animation and wit', which lends credence to the fact that George was already an object of male admiration and possibly male desire. Although there has never been any evidence of his homosexuality, the author hints at his possible bi-sexuality though suggesting the fact that he later contracted syphilis points more towards his heterosexuality as the likelihood is this was contracted from one of the many courtesans who graced the lives of the young men about town. Whatever his orientation, Beau Brummell's life was played out both at school and in his adult life in what has frequently been described as a homosocial situation in that he was mainly in the company of men, very typical for males during the late Georgian and Regency period.
On leaving Eton, George attended Oxford and then managed to bag himself a position in the flashest regiment in town, the 10th Light Dragoons and thus began his friendship with the Prince of Wales (Prinny) who was Colonel in Chief of the Regiment. It was said that "Life as a dragoon officer was a school for scandal" and it was during this period, when George was still only nineteen, that he had his introduction to a life of soldiering by day and carousing by night, along with many of his old Etonian schoolmates, and the courtesans of the demi-monde who followed the drum.
And so began the rise and rise of 'Beau' Brummell, his way smoothed by his friendships with the sons of the cream of British society, along with the patronage of George, Prince of Wales. His friendship with the latter even gained him the position as one of the groomsmen at the marriage of the Prince to Princess Caroline of Brunswick. George's time as a soldier was brief and he sold out of the regiment shortly before they were to move from Brighton to be stationed in the north of England and he's reputed to have said to the Prince of Wales "You must be aware how disagreeable this would be to me. I could really not go. Think, Your Royal Highness, Manchester!"
Using the money he'd inherited from his now deceased father, Billy, Beau set himself up in a house in Chesterfield Street in the heart of London and began to carve out a career for himself as a man of fashion. He was, by all accounts, tall (approximately 6' 2"), slim, handsome with a great personality and his unfailingly cheerful demeanour gained him many friends. It seems he was extremely well liked by all who knew him.
He furnished his house in the latest style and invited friends to attend his "levee" where they would come upstairs to watch him prepare for the day ahead. He was already noted for his simple, pared down elegance and many men were now beginning to emulate his style of dress. His simple rules for dressing were to wear clean linen which had been 'country cleaned', meaning it had been dried away from the sooty atmosphere in the centre of town; no perfume (something unheard of then because perfumes and pomades were used to mask unpleasant bodily odours); and, strangest of all, daily bathing! Beau Brummell was scrupulously clean in his personal habits and the author conjectures that this may have been because he'd already seen the early symptons of the disease which was to kill him. With so many admirers of his style, Beau Brummell had 'arrived.'
But never was the phrase 'The higher they rise, the harder they fall' more apt because by 1816 it was obvious to his closest friends that Beau had contracted syphilis and despite the treatments available which did, to some extent, cause the symptoms to disappear, the disease itself did not but progressed through its secondary and tertiary stages causing dementia and eventually death.
Ian Kelly has written a truly absorbing account of Beau Brummell's rise to fame and celebrity followed by his fall from grace and tragic death which is full of eye witness accounts from Beau's contemporaries and friends. This is the life of a man who had no particular claim to fame other than his ability to make people laugh with his witty repartee, his good looks and his unfailing sartorial elegance. It's widely acknowledged in fashion circles that Beau Brummell created the rules of male dressing which prevail even today and the understated chic of a Paul Smith suit and even the theatricality of a Vivienne Westwood creation owes a great deal to Beau.
Reading this account of Brummell's life, I'm not sure that I would have liked him really. He was undoubtedly charming but there was something shallow about his chosen career and he appears to have held himself aloof from society, so I suspect that even his closest friends never truly knew this man. It was as if his life was a masquerade. Even now, he's something of an enigma, certainly with regard to his sexuality which seems to have been very well hidden to the extent that he comes across as almost asexual.
Of course, the accounts of his fall from grace and slow degeneration into madness are sad to read, and must have been the experiences of many at that time, which certainly make for an appreciation of modern medicine. In the case of syphilis, if the disease didn't kill you first, the mercury and other treatments applied certainly would!
Ultimately, this is the story of a man of his time, a forerunner in many ways to Oscar Wilde as Beau seems to have had the same sometimes cutting wit and be surrounded by a coterie of admirers. And like Wilde, Beau ended his days in poverty in France. Maybe because it's getting on for two hundred years since his death, although he had my sympathy, it wasn't deep felt. After all, this is a man whose existence was rather shallow, his fame somewhat fleeting and his descent into death lasted nearly as long as his moment in the sun.
On the whole, I feel that Ian Kelly has produced a 578 page book which is packed with information as well as some illustrations, although the four sketches of Beau are so varied as to resemble four different men. The author provides an excellent analysis of the social scene enjoyed by the well-heeled Georgian gentleman, although he is guilty of too many theatrical references for my taste. There is also a good notes section at the back giving the bibliography and details of his sources. Where I feel he has failed is to reach the core of Beau Brummell the man, although I don't feel that this is the author's fault. From his early adulthood Brummell deliberately cultivated an aura of mystique and following diagnosis of his disease, further distanced himself from his peers. Maybe that's the reason he's still remembered, because he's every bit as much of an enigma now as he was in his glory days.
I'll leave the final words for the man himself. Beau Brummell set out his rules for the fashionable gentleman about town saying "In society, remain just long enough to make an impression, then leave." And that's exactly what he did.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Price: £7.69 (paperback) or used copies from 1p at Amazon Marketplace.