Back in the days when I was an Episcopalian Sunday School teacher for middleschoolers, my little charges would often ask me how to go about picking out boyfriend. As our parish had not yet completely caved to the you-can-fall-in-love-with-anyone-and-God-will-honor-you-big-time load of tosh posing as new Christian revelation, these were always young ladies posing the question. The young gentlemen made a beeline to Mr. P for his wisdom on the female persuasion. Anyhoo, I would always issue the girls two standards while assuring them if they held to it, they would be happy women the rest of their lives:
1. Never date a boy who wears a smaller pants size than you.
2. Never date a boy who wears more make-up than you. And yes, hair products and moisturizer count as make-up.
After reading this, I've learned that my advice to my young ladies has stood the test of time and would have well served the young ladies of Georgian England if I had been around back then:
Brummell was the first "dandy" -- today he would be called a "metrosexual" -- a type memorably defined by the historian Thomas Carlyle: "Others dress to live, he lives to dress." An orphan but a rich one, he persuaded his trustee to buy him a commission in the 10th Light Dragoons, a cavalry regiment known as "the Prince of Wales's Own" because it had been created to satisfy the military daydreams of the obese "Prinny" (later George IV). The Prince was its Colonel-in-Chief, but since there could be no question of sending the heir to the throne into battle, it followed that his personal regiment would never see combat either. A commission in the 10th Light was a purely social cachet, an entree to aristocratic circles for ambitious commoners like Brummell. Stationed in the royal resort town of Brighton, their sole duty consisted of prancing around on state occasions wearing luscious uniforms inspired by Prinny's fantasies of himself as a warrior-king.
He wanted to look like a "hussar," a Hungarian word for the medieval tribesmen who hunted wolves on horseback and slung the pelts over their shoulders. The 10th Light swanked about in a half-on, half-off fur pelisse, miles of ropey braiding, real silver tassels hanging from the sleeves, a leopard-skin helmet with a fur crest, and skintight leather breeches worn without underwear to eliminate panty lines. To top off this fashion overstatement, the Dragoons still powdered their hair and wore it in a queue despite the tax on powder levied in 1795 to pay for the war with France.
Brummell spent five comic-opera years in the 10th Light, resigning his commission in 1799 when he reached his majority and came into his inheritance, but the experience served his purpose. He had met the Prince and built a friendship with him on the marshy foundations of wish-fulfillment; the tall, superbly built Brummell was the man Prinny wanted to look like, and Prinny was the ultimate aristocrat that Brummell wanted to live like. It was a dangerously insubstantial structure, held together by their mutual obsession with clothes...
Life did not turn out well for the great coxcomb:
...His present biographer, Ian Kelly, says that Brummell's was "a fractured personality, rebuilt in masquerade in the mirror of other people's expectations of him." This could apply to any of today's neurotic celebrities but Brummell differed from them in a most refreshing way: he never came to believe his own propaganda. Rather, he saw through his host of acolytes and sycophants and dismissed them with genial contempt. "It is folly that is the making of me," he told the Duchess of York, one of the few people he really liked. "If the world is so silly as to admire my absurdities, you and I may know better, but what does that signify?"
He was so elusive that posterity has never even been sure of his sexual orientation. Kelly disagrees with historians who claim he was gay or bisexual. The sudden quarrels that flared up between him and the Prince had a quality of bitchiness that suggests a tendril or two of subconscious homoeroticism, but it is generally agreed that the Prince was straight to a fault.
He was close to the bisexual Lord Byron but he was also ten years older, and Byron liked late-adolescent page boys (he made Lady Caroline Lamb dress as one).
He never married, and as far as is known, never fathered any illegitimate children as men of his class routinely did, but he died of syphilis, so if he was not gay he presumably caught it from a woman. Who? Where does an "emotionally unavailable heterosexual," as Kelly calls him, turn when he wants sex? To prostitutes, obviously, but Kelly thinks he also might have had affairs with the upper-class courtesans of the day, as well as adventurous older women like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, an ancestress of the late Princess Diana.
I disagree. He probably resented sex because, like the perfectly groomed female fashion plate, he hated to get messed up. He could only let loose with women who didn't matter.
He was also a compulsive gambler, a virtual guarantee of a low sex drive. He would bet on anything, even the progress of George III's insanity. Despite his heavy losses he was safe from his creditors as long as he remained friends with the Prince, but his self-destructive streak caused a final break between them. One night at a ball, the Prince, who by now was Prince Regent and so overweight that he resembled a featherbed, greeted Lord Alvaney but ignored Brummell. "Alvaney," asked the Beau in a loud voice, "who's your fat friend?" His bitchy lese majesty ruined him. He escaped England one step ahead of his creditors and spent the last 25 years of his life in France.
IAN KELLY HAS PRODUCED such an evocative portrait of a man and an age that we almost sneeze whenever Brummell takes snuff from the elegant little boxes he designed. His simple opening sentence -- "On June 7, 1778, a fair-haired boy was born in Downing Street, London" -- is as effective as Brummell's less-is-more sartorial taste, so that it sticks in the mind and infuses a tragic story with qualities of purity and pathos that shine through even in the passages describing his terrible death.
The syphilis attacked his muscles, causing stroke-like spasms that pulled his mouth permanently open; when he spooned up his soup it spilled back out again, until the manager of his little French hotel told him he was disgusting the other patrons and asked him not to use the dining room. His spinal nerves gave way, causing a stumbling, zigzag walk that people assumed was drunkenness. All his mucous membranes became ulcerated and his tongue swelled up and turned black.
The British Consul in Calais arranged for him to be placed in an insane asylum in Caen. Large tumors formed on his scrotum. He became incontinent and fouled his room so often that the staff, unable to bear touching him, hosed him down from a distance. And at the end, "the brain itself shrank away from the insides of the skull and granulated."
That the perfection of manly grace could come to this makes a superbly entertaining book one with a moral as well.
How utterly foul. Metrosexuals, consider yourselves warned.