Truly Modern Celebrity
Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style
By Ian Kelly.
Free Press, 2006. xv + 393 pages (312 pages of main text, minus Notes and Bibliographies).
32 pages of B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $26.00.
Reviewed by Sarah S. G. Frantz.
George Bryan Brummell is one of the iconic figures of the Regency period, perhaps more culturally significant than the man for whom the era is named, the Prince Regent himself. Beau Brummell, after all, taught men how to dress, almost single-handedly changing the entire look of the male wardrobe in a revolution called The Great Masculine Renunciation—a revolution that still has a direct effect on modern culture every time a man wears a power suit.
Ian Kelly has written a much-needed, brilliantly-researched biography of this sartorial demi-god, contributing an easily- accessible, well-written, enjoyable volume to the current academic examination of the changing meaning of masculinity in early nineteenth-century England. As Kelly claims so aptly: “The way men began to dress because of Brummell was an arresting corollary to the sea change in attitudes toward masculinity, and the debate over gentlemanly behavior that reverberates in the novels of Jane Austen as much as in the politics of the Enlightenment.”
Kelly begins the actual biography with a strict chronological examination of the first twenty-one years of Brummell’s life, encompassing his early schooling and his time in the Tenth Light Dragoons, the Prince of Wales’ own regiment. The vivid descriptions of Brummell’s time in the army in Brighton provide “a vivid reminder that the world Elizabeth Bennet dreaded for her sister Lydia in Pride and Prejudice was very real, very brazen and based all around the Tenth Light Dragoons’ officers’ mess.” It is only when Kelly falls victim to the apparently irresistible biographers’ urge to speculate on Brummell’s formative “psychosexual health” that the narrative stretches credibility—although Kelly redeems himself later when he logically and systematically considers the mystery of Brummell’s likely sexual orientation.
Kelly covers the next seventeen years of Brummell’s life, from 1799 to 1816, after he left the army and moved to London, by organizing the book into sections that follow Brummell’s daily routine—and by extension, the daily routine of most aristocratic men of the time. Kelly begins in the “Morning” with Brummell’s toilet and London shopping. “Afternoon” describes Hyde Park and the gentlemen’s clubs, and “Evening” is spent at the Theatre, Almack’s, and the brothels. “The End of the Day” deals with Brummell’s ruinous gambling addiction.
While this structure satisfies the love of Regency detail of those of us brought up on Austen, Georgette Heyer, and modern Regency romances, its very historicity means that Kelly pairs incidents that happen fifteen years apart with no recognition or discussion of the changes in Brummell’s life, in London culture, or in British history during that tumultuous period. I was confused, for example, as to when exactly Brummell finally fell out of the Prince Regent’s favor. Kelly’s description of the party Brummell hosted at which Brummell responded to being snubbed by the Prince with the famous quip to the Prince’s companion, “Who’s your fat friend?” is related in the chapter on Almack’s and men’s clubs with nary a date. Kelly doesn’t discuss either the Napoleonic Wars or England’s internal unrest at all, sustaining the popular view of Regency London as a timeless round of shopping, parties, and gambling that in some small measure contributes to the critical view of Austen’s novels as themselves timeless.
For the period after Brummell left London in debt and disgrace, Kelly jumps back into a chronological examination of his sixteen years in exile in Calais and his ten years in Caen, where he variously acted as Ambassador Consul, was jailed for debt, and died of syphilis in an asylum. Kelly’s unrelenting detail of the truly awful progression of Brummell’s syphilitic condition, while revolutionary in its diagnosis of Brummell’s disorder, is rather depressing. It’s horrifying to read of Brummell, the fastidious man who once stunned and reeducated his peers by washing every part of his body every day, “left lying on a soiled straw mattress,” his mind and body ravaged by syphilis, his linen “changed once a month.” But then I was also tempted to reach through history and shake Brummell when reading about his complete inability to subsist on his income, even after he is devastated both physically and emotionally when jailed for debt in Caen.
In the Introduction, Kelly claims boldly that “Beau Brummell has a story as both symbol and man,” that he is “the first truly modern celebrity.” The biography describes in engaging detail the origins and originality of Brummell’s fashion, style, and legacy: the clothes and the manners—“the poise, deft wit and air of languorous indifference”—of the gentleman. But Kelly ends the biography abruptly with the death and burial of a ruined man, without any re-examination of Beau Brummell the symbol. While this move seems slightly disingenuous and left me needing to read the bold claims of the Introduction again, it does serve to emphasize the humanity of the man George Brummell, rather than belaboring the legend of the Beau immortalized in a Billy Joel song.
S. G. Frantz is an assistant professor of English at Fayetteville State
University, North Carolina, and an officer in the North Carolina Army
National Guard. She is currently editing a volume of essays on
how female authors construct their male characters.
News v.22, no. 3, Winter 2006, p. 27
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