Beau Jest: The Joke’s On Brummell

copy-of-beau-bonhams.jpgEveryone knows the jests and bon mots of Beau Brummell’s as recounted by Captain Jesse. The “do you call that thing a coat?” line, and the “who’s your fat friend?” one, and the several others. Personally, my feeling has always been that you probably had to have been there, since the wit strikes one as being not so much clever as nasty. Perhaps context really is everything.

Reading Harriet Wilson’s memoirs, I was delighted to see that my reactions were confirmed. Wilson, a shrewd dame de compagnie, notes that Brummell’s position in society was “enough to make many seek it who cared not for it; and many more wished to be well with him, through fear, for all knew him to be cold, heartless, and satirical.” She was perfectly aware that  “his maxims on dress were excellent… but his affected manners and little absurdities amused for the moment,” and that’s about all. In short, Brummell was, in Harriet’s eyes, rather boorish and boring.

And Harriet knew everyone. She was herself a rather good judge of people, lively and bright, although totally lacking in any formal education. The most famous English courtesan during the high Regency period, her charms were recognized by Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington, among a multitude of others. As Lesley Blanch, editor of the memoirs notes, “She liked variety, and had, on her own admission, le diable au corps – brisk appetites.”

But what’s interesting in regard to Brummell is that Harriet recounts a wonderful little joke at his expense that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s so subtle, so unlike Brummell’s humor, which tended to be brutal and rather gross, that you wonder whether he even knew he’d been gotten.

One day a friend and patron of hers, Lord Robert Manners, who, as Harriet slyly notes, “Spoke but little yet he possessed a certain degree of quaint, odd humour,” was approached by Brummell.

“Those leathers are not bad; who made them?” asked George Brummell one day of His Lordship. “Why, the breeches maker,” said Bob Manners, speaking very low.

I suppose it’s the “speaking very low” that caps it. I would have loved to have seen Brummell’s reaction. I’m sure he laughed louder than anyone. — G. BRUCE BOYER

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6 Responses to “Beau Jest: The Joke’s On Brummell”

  1. John M. Gilheany Says:

    I harbour the hope that there may have been much more to Brummell’s humour than mere nastiness.

    However, we know of the dreadful gaze cast upon those brave enough to walk past the ‘Beau Window’ of White’s club when the dandies of the day and their chief sat in sartorial session. Even the Duke of Wellington shuddered at their ‘terrible tribunal’ – captured, so crisply and extensively, in a satirical poem by Henry Luttrell.

    We have the recollections of Captain Gronow (or ‘No grow’ – as the ‘Body Dandaical’ less-than-kindly christened him); a dandy himself who was nonetheless so scathing as to assert that during their Regency reign there was “nothing remarkable about them but their insolence … They hated everybody and abused everybody …” (indeed it’s quite a huge lambasting at the end of his book although he doesn’t appear to hold Brummell directly responsible, at least).

    William Hazlitt’s attempt at salvaging some of Brummell’s sayings in 1820 seems to capture the capricious essence of their character.

    And yet “you probably had to have been there” (as many of us, no doubt, dearly wish to have been) which remains the difficult fact of the matter when so few ‘Brummellisms’ have been bequeathed us by history.

    We have an apocryphal description of his eyes revealing “more than a hint, of mockery” (Kathleen Campbell) whereas Georgette Heyer seems to give Brummell the benefit of the doubt in her novel Regency Buck.

    However, biographers have interpreted Harriette Wilson’s testimony as having been laden with sour grapes because Brummell simply didn’t fancy the mediocre floozy and probably wouldn’t stump-up for a decent mention in her literary racket even if he did have the cash.

    Maybe being in the midst of a spiteful society before making it worse simply corrupted his nature (benevolent enough at Eton) along with eventual alcoholism and more definite afflictions?

    Anyway, don’t be unduly deceived by much of the above; I’m still quite new to actual dandyology and would be interested in what more erudite enthusiasts may have made of Martin Chekel’s version of matters: ‘Beau Brummell’s Etiquette for Gentlemen’ released on that Kindley thing earlier in the year.

  2. Nick Willard Says:

    Here’s one contemporary’s — William Hazlitt — take on the Brummellian sense of humor:

  3. JES Says:

    I do love the Duke of Wellington’s response to Harriet’s threat of publishing the details of their affair unless he paid up: Publish and be damned!

  4. Michael Mattis Says:

    Mr. Gilheany is quite erudite. You should write for us.

  5. John M. Gilheany Says:

    You certainly flatter me sir and indeed I should be glad to submit something for consideration when my ‘writer’s voice’ becomes that bit better conversant with Dandy lore.

    Having recently returned from the ‘Georgians Revealed’ exhibition at the British Library, I left feeling less than scholarly in the historical sense and mostly disappointed, dandaically speaking, however there is a gem among the exhibits in the form of Scrope Davis’ hastily abandoned trunk which I delight in sharing with you …

    … perhaps when I get round to reading his particular biography and other essentials, I’ll have something resembling a valid take on things to present.

  6. John M. Gilheany Says:

    I’ve spent a while exploring the nature of Brummell’s humour in an article soon to be accompanied by a spot of Regency ‘Blackadder’ fanfiction over on Wattpad:

    Although substantially sourced, the overall content may be somewhat repetitious by standards. Nonetheless, I believe the angle is fresh and comments are easily added, here or there, should sirs feel inclined …

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