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Tag Archives: Beau Brummell

My recent posts about Beau Brummell and Harriette Wilson (Part I and Part II) have made me think about the similarities between the two. Both were leaders within their particular social circles. (Yes, I know courtesans were not accepted in the haut ton but they lived the high life and had their own milieu, which included some of the wealthiest and most influential men of their times.)

From what I’ve read, I don’t get the impression that either was intentionally cruel by nature, yet they could be snarky, as in Brummell’s famous “Who’s your fat friend?” in reference to Prinny. Harriette says she didn’t think about hurting Lord Ponsonby’s young wife when she took up with him, and she enjoyed taking pokes at Wellington:

“My old beau, Wellington, is going on famously, thanks to the fineness of his nerves, and his want of feeling, and his excellent luck. I do not mean to say he has not a good notion of commanding an army; for, though I do not understand things, I am willing to take it for granted that this is the case.”

For a time, any gentleman aspiring to appear fashionable had to gain Brummell’s approval and enjoy Harriette’s favors. Both were the “cool kids” of their period. In the end, their fame didn’t save them from the consequences of their lifestyle. I think I’m not guilty of schadenfreude (a cool word I discovered recently that basically means enjoying the suffering of others) because ultimately, reading these books made me feel sad for them. But it did make me think about how being an “It” person was no guarantee of a happy ending.

Romance novels frequently acknowledge that. Heroes and heroines are often loners or wallflowers. Sometimes they have a more established spot in their local social circles, but even then, they’re generally not the mean sort who establish who’s in and who’s out. That is usually left to a minor class of villains.

One story I read stands in contrast: AIN’T SHE SWEET? by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The heroine, Sugar Beth, was a bona fide mean girl before life roughed her up and changed her. Phillips did an amazing job getting under Sugar Beth’s skin. So much that I caught myself rooting for her, even though I’m exactly the sort of person she would have picked on in school.

What do you think about cliques and snarky characters in stories? Any that you’ve read that were done particularly well?

Elena

As I mentioned before, I’ve recently read Beau Brummell by Ian Kelly. I’m not going to attempt a review; it’s the first Brummell bio I’ve read and I haven’t the credentials to critique it from an academic standpoint. I found it a good read, both fascinating and depressing in places and would recommend it to anyone interested in this part of social history. Someone here said it went on rather long. I think the fact that nearly equal space was devoted to Brummell’s decline and death of syphilis as to the height of his popularity, what we usually see depicted in Regencies, made it hard work to read to the end. But that was his life, and a sobering story it is.

Anyway, to the tidbits.

One thing that always puzzled me was whether to spell his name with one or two l’s. Two l’s always looked more English to me but I’d seen it both ways. The Author’s Note explains that Brummell’s first French biographer in the 1840s used a single l, but that his birth record has two l’s and that is the way he signed it. So I feel vindicated.

Brummell never sat for a full length portrait and I’ve never known how he really looked. The plate of miniatures and etchings in this book is not much help, which Kelly himself admits. Look at these guys! They don’t even look related, although I think the one on the middle right is hot. I like the sideways glance and the humorous quirk to his mouth. Right or wrong, this is how I’ll picture Brummell at his best.

So what do you think? Which of these pictures best reflects your idea of the Beau? And do you prefer two l’s or one?

Elena
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I recently picked up two books from my research TBR pile, Ian Kelly’s BEAU BRUMMELL: The Ultimate Man of Style (2006) and HARRIETTE WILSON’S MEMOIRS: The Greatest Courtesan of her Age (1957), edited and with an introduction by Lesley Blanch. I’m not done with the latter yet, but one thing caught my attention in both Kelly’s and Blanch’s introductions: their views on the subject of personality and celebrity.

Blanch’s introduction begins: “The nineteenth century was an age of great personalities, a last splendid flowering before twentieth-century anonymity and mass living engulfed them in its drab tide.” I was rather surprised. Even though this was written in 1957, surely they had celebrities then as we do now.

Contrast this with Ian Kelly’s prologue, in which he writes of Brummell that: “His fame eclipsed even that of his royal master, and his personal cult was described as so bizarre and alarming by his contemporaries it is reasonable to posit him not only as a key personality in the first anonymous metropolis, but as the first truly modern celebrity.”

Further, Blanch writes with what seems rather like nostalgia that the courtesan “does not flourish in an industrial age. She may be said to have vanished with the nineteenth century, the first half of which, specifically, was the heyday of all those women whose personality and style, more than beauty alone, were such that they could command, besides large sums of money, independence and respect.”

I would agree that we no longer have exactly this sort of courtesan, but I think this type of celebrity still exists, though in somewhat different form and not constrained by gender.

Here are some more snippets from BEAU BRUMMELL that seem apropos:

“He came to symbolize a new attitude in response to the novel urban landscape. He was indifferent to politics, above the vagaries of fashion, sought only to be envied and make people laugh and accrued around his person a cult based on his perceived personality. He was a celebrity in the first age when such a term was used.”

“Like a modern celebrity, his image—of an insouciant, audacious, stylish brat—had a power of its own that overcame truth.”

This makes me think about modern celebrities. Some are famous for their activity in the areas of politics, social action, music, film or other arts. I find them interesting and like to know what they’re working on, though I don’t care who they’re sleeping with. Then there are celebrities like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians. I find them a snooze but maybe that’s just me. Perhaps they are something in the tradition of Beau Brummell and Harriette Wilson.

Still, I find the Regency personalities more entertaining and more witty. Beau Brummell has also left an enduring legacy in his influence on men’s clothing. I think the style he promoted really is flattering to most men. When ordinary guys look good in business suits or in their tuxes at a wedding party, we have Brummell to thank for it. Harriette, on the other hand, hasn’t left much beyond her memoirs. They do provide a fascinating glimpse into a side of Regency society we don’t often read about elsewhere.

What do you think about the cult of personality and celebrity? Do you have any favorites, historical or current, and what do you think makes them interesting?

Elena

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