Ian Kelly's Beau Brummell is a fantastic biography, painstakingly researched and dissected, but never entirely disconnected. Brummell is portrayed in a light that is alternately harsh and sympathetic. Though the novel praises his genius and wit in rising above his station to the very firmament of London society, it also censures his inability to live economically and his slavish devotion to his image, as well as his cruel little bon mots. It gives us an enchanting glimpse of the sparkling ballrooms of London, the intricate whirls and dances of society comportment and the lives of the rich and famous. Having read many books about this time period, it was delightful to see names that I've come across in fiction, not realizing they were real people after all (Lord Alvanley, for instance, and Lady Georgiana). It also shows this glittering beast's vast and rather disreputable underbelly, the world of Cyprians and gaming clubs, which together lead to Brummell's ultimate downfall.
I wonder, if Brummell had never burst into the scene with his impeccable taste, what would men be wearing today? Or women, for that matter? Would men still be wearing breeches and buckles, with flowery waistcoats and powdered wigs? Without Brummell to inspire Coco Chanel, would women never know the freedom of a good pair of trousers?
I've had this image in my head of Brummell ever since I first read about him in a Georgette Heyer novel (developed a bit of a crush on him, full disclosure), but I never read more than his Wikipedia page until now. He was, for all his faults, a rather remarkable man. I wish I could have half his eloquence and social ease, the way he effortlessly won everyone over even in France, where his fortunes had dwindled to practically nothing. I still wish men had even a fraction of his devotion to cleanliness and appearances, because good lord, will it kill them to dress up a little bit once in a while?
It's easy to dismiss Brummell as a fop, a fribble of a man who met an ignominious end, but when you realize much we owe this dandiest of dandies, not just in fashion but in literature and manners as well, it's pretty stunning to see how far reaching his influence was and continues to be.