Everyone 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