The Ultimate Man of Style
by Ian Kelly
416 pages, Free Press
Review by Kate Kasserman
George “Beau” Brummell was a commoner whose family had done well enough to plop him, with the usual high hopes of strivers, into a world that was a bit (and later considerably) above the class into which he’d been born. This well-researched, very readable book looks at just exactly how he managed his climb – yes, pretty much what he’s famous for, the art of lookin’ good – and documents his inevitable fall with the same cold-eyed clarity. Be warned in advance: the fall is deep and hard. And no, Brummell never climbs out of it.
It wouldn’t make much sense to discuss someone’s social ascendancy without talking about the society that he briefly ruled, and Beau Brummell paints an admirably detailed picture of Regency London and a variety of the characters populating its hoity-toity upper branches (some of ’em mighty deplorable, some admirable, and many, like Brummell himself, just kind of depressing), as well as the social forces grinding away in the sub-basement of the unconscious.
England was having a “manliness” moment. Her feelings apparently had been considerably dinged by losing America, resulting in a frenzy of self-criticism that she simply had produced weedy little half-men (er, of all the many, many forces contributing to that surprise upset war, there was certainly no lack of courage or guts or general martial ability on the part of the British; but try explaining that to wounded amour-propre!). Schools got tough (even savage) in order to raise a hardier breed (although Kelly makes a compelling argument that mercilessly beating children had zero impact on manliness while causing a sizable uptick in a certain psychosexual development now known as “the English vice”). And, come the early 19th century, Napoleon offered a fine proving-ground for Britons to demonstrate their mettle.
Beau Brummell did not want to fight Napoleon. The nation’s finest paramilitary indoctrination could not change the fact that he was, at the core, a butterfly and no Spartan. However, he did admire the Spartans’ clothes sense (although he seems to have preferred the Athenian); and making clothes look manlier was Brummell’s wildly popular contribution to the age. Lace! Is! For! Girls! Picking whisper-soft fabric for tight trousers is for boys.
Like many people who are certainly not stupid but just as surely not inclined towards abstract thought, Brummell blithely lived some face-smacking contradictions in apparent total oblivion to them. A charming, sweet child who stuck up for the underdog turned into a bit of a bullying yahoo when he climbed to the top of the social ladder. I had been rather looking forward to seeing examples of Brummell’s wit, and they were an eye-opener. He seems to have had two modes: “Your socks suck” and “I have more friends than you.” Wit it ain’t; I can imagine the lines being amusing in the moment (as long as one’s own socks were not the focus of attention), but everything would hang on the delivery. The content is null.
And that is the tragedy of poor Brummell. He simply refused to put any meat under the salt, prancing off tra-la-la with the wildly expensive tastes he had invented and, disastrously, gambling even when he could not afford to do so. That he had such high-powered connections let him run astonishingly into debt, because everyone assumed (quite reasonably) that he could snap his manicured fingers and get a job whenever he needed one. He probably could have, if he’d done so promptly enough; but it wouldn’t have been stylish, so he didn’t. (Also, it would not have been fun.) And he trousered and cravatted and snuffed and gambled his way into a pit that ground him up for hamburger meat.
When Brummell’s debts drove him to France (and finally to the expedient of begging for work, when it was too late and he could barely get anything), he couldn’t dress the way he liked and his friends were far away (the ones he hadn’t alienated by insulting their socks), but the kicker is that his high-living antics had left him with a raging case of syphilis that shredded both his body and mind just when he needed all his resources in order to put himself back on his feet. And the syphilis won – with agonizing slowness.
The final part of the book examines Brummell’s fall as carefully as it documented his rise and ascendancy, and it is pretty grim stuff – but also offers a meaningful credit to both author and subject. The morality-play potential of the topic is bald (“Tut tut, you didn’t get a job and you overspent your means and you were not too nice at some very injudicious moments – a plague of boils and dementia for you!”), but Kelly stays his hand and simply lays out the facts he has dug out with such care. And Brummell himself – well, he stayed the course. He plastered a smile on his face, when his mind was working anyway, and did the best he could with what he had at hand. I suppose you could say that he just didn’t learn, and maybe there’s nothing laudable in it. But when a butterfly is savaged by a bird and lies on the ground with half a mangled wing, it isn’t usually going to turn into a cat and spring forward to triumph. But maybe it will try to flutter its remaining half-wing a little; and that is beautiful too, in its way. It certainly has style.