Beau Brummell was born on this day in 1778. Brummell became prototype for the Regency Dandy and perhaps “the first British celebrity,” if not more: “There are three great men of our age,” said Lord Byron, “myself, Napoleon and Brummell, but of we three, the greatest of all is Brummell.” Byron must be granted his usual tongue-in-cheek, of course, as must the anonymous author of this contemporary, Brummel-inspired ditty:
My neckcloth, of course, forms my principal care,
For, by that, we criterions of elegance swear;
And it costs me, each morning, some hours of flurry
To make it appear to be tied in a hurry.
But Brummel, as described in T.H. Lister’s popular society novel Granby (1826), was famous for more than the cut of his clothes:
In the art of cutting he shone unrivalled. He could assume that calm but wandering gaze which veers, as if unconsciously, round the proscribed individual, neither fixing nor to be fixed, not looking on vacancy nor on any one object, neither occupied nor abstracted, a look which perhaps excuses you to the person cut and, at any rate, prevents him from accosting you.
Virginia Woolf’s profile of Brummell in The Common Reader (Second Series) reflects that he died penniless and insane, after a lifetime of disdain — “The French Revolution had passed over his head without disordering a single hair. Empires had risen and fallen while he experimented with the crease of a neck-cloth and criticised the cut of a coat.” Woolf also reflects that “his ghost walks among us still”:
The reason for this eminence is now a little difficult to determine. Skill of hand and nicety of judgment were his, of course, otherwise he would not have brought the art of tying neck-cloths to perfection. The story is, perhaps, too well known-how he drew his head far back and sunk his chin slowly down so that the cloth wrinkled in perfect symmetry, or if one wrinkle were too deep or too shallow, the cloth was thrown into a basket and the attempt renewed, while the Prince of Wales sat, hour after hour, watching. Yet skill of hand and nicety of judgment were not enough. Brummell owed his ascendency to some curious combination of wit, of taste, of insolence, of independence — for he was never a toady — which it were too heavy-handed to call a philosophy of life, but served the purpose.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.