This Charming man

Who’s a Dandy?, by George Walden, Gibson square Books, 180pp, £12.99

October 21 2002 / New Statesman

George Walden and I were once friends. We visited Moscow together, and I used to go to his house for drinks and dinner. Those dinners were an intimidating, though enthralling, experience for an impressionable young man. Walden was an elegant host: before dinner there would be fine champagne and animated conversation in his drawing room, where you would find books double-stacked on every available surface and toppling towers of journals and literary magazines, and where you would encounter philosophers, politicians, literary editors and the occasional visiting writer from Paris. I recall, during one of these evenings, Walden speaking about a little book by the obscure French novelist Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, which he then removed from his shelves. It was a study of the dandy Beau Brummell. Walden urged me to read the book; but my French, I told him, had scarcely progressed beyond 0-level. Someone should translate it, he replied.

Well, there are some jobs that you just have to appoint yourself to—because Walden, in his desire for the curious story of the life and death of Beau Brummell to become more widely known, has gone ahead and translated Barbey himself. First, however, he offers his own thoughts on dandyism in an entertaining introductory essay. He opens with a vignette of Beau Brummell living out his last days in squalor and poverty in the Normandy town of Caen, a figure of ruined elegance who, Walden writes, had let himself go entirely. Brummell, once a friend of the Prince Regent and perhaps the most celebrated figure in London society, had fled to France to escape gambling debts. There, on the streets of Caen, he was glimpsed by the young Barbey. The novelist never forgot the sight of this English dandy, who, despite failing health, incontinence and the shame of his fall, continued to dress with a fearless, self-celebrating extravagance, though his clothes were now rags and his complexion blanched.

Born in 1778, George Bryan Brummell was educated at Eton and Oxford and, from an early age, moved with an aristocratic crowd, yet he himself was neither rich nor titled. Rather, he was languorous, fastidious—and gloriously self-absorbed. He was, Walden writes, the “prince of fashion and autocratic ruler of the Age of Elegance”. He was, unlike Byron, whom he knew, no writer or political adventurer. His poems have long since been forgotten and his letters were seldom enlivened by wit or distinction of phrase. His real gift was for conversation and for ostentatious display, if not for hedonism (he drank but, like the true dandy, he was abstemious when it came to the pleasures of the flesh and was certainly not homosexual). Byron spoke of “a certain exquisite propriety” in his clothes.

George Walden has had a varied career, as a diplomat, Conservative MP (he was briefly minister for higher education in the Thatcher government) and as a newspaper polemicist. As a columnist, he would often write in twilight mode: disaffected and rancorous, our new age of manic populism and “hyperdemocracy” was, for Walden, the manifestation of a wider defeat, an evasion of the real truth about our present cultural and political mediocrity. He has been caricatured (once, regrettably, by this reviewer, which led to the end of ourfriendship) as the personification of Institution Man, a member of the postwar elite—the generation drawn instinctively towards the BBC, higher diplomacy and Westminster politics—that led the country to near-ruin, and as a wilful pessimist, always ringing the bell of bad news. In truth, he is, pre-eminently, as this book reminds us, one of our most acute and penetrating cultural critics. He has an instinctive understanding of the fundamental emptiness of contemporary British culture—with its cult of cool, its celebrity fixation and its obsession with surfaces and style—and of how the collapse of the ideological certainties of our old bipolar world has left us not only perplexed, but also morally bereft.

But why dandyism? Walden writes pithily about the cult of the modern “democratic dandy”, ephemeral figures from the worlds of pop and television such as Jonathan Ross and Jarvis Cocker who affect the nonchalant foppishness of a Brummell but who are neither startling nor memorable. How can they be when, today, we are all so much in thrall to dress and appearance?

More worthy of consideration as true dandies, in style and hauteur, are the American writer Tom Wolfe and the rock star Adam Ant, neither mentioned by Walden. Ant enjoyed considerable success in the early 1980s, following early experiments on the punk scene, through reinventing himself as the “dandy highwayman” and, later, as an ironic version of “Prince Charming”. Ant has since declined into impecunious disaffection, a marginal figure now, who, like the aged Brummell, is perhaps sustained in his disappointment only by the memories of a former radiance.

To Walden, the democratic dandy is essentially a fraud, the product of a bored society; one senses he finds something fraudulent in the whole cult of dandyism, even in the great Brummell himself. To Barbey, however, there was something heroic about the singularity and defiance of Brummell, who deferred to no one in matters of taste, not even to the Prince Regent.

Brummell flourished in an age of aristocratic privilege, but did not affect “the arrogance of the aristocrat or of the misanthrope”. He was not beautiful—Barbey writes of how a riding accident had “marred the Grecian line of his profile”—but he was, to the last, unforgettable, his entire way of life an affront to the cant and puritanism of English life that even today can be glimpsed in, say, the foolish excesses of John Major’s “back to basics” campaign.

Beau Brummell spent his last days, alone, destitute and semi-deranged, in the Hotel d’Angleterre in Caen. There were mornings when he would wake and ask immediately for his rooms to be prepared as if for a great party: “Chandeliers, candelabra, candles, flowers everywhere, nothing was wanting.” He would announce the arrival of his guests, spectral figures from his past, chief among whom was usually the Prince of Wales. Then he would wait, and he would wait. And what was he waiting for? He was waiting, Barbey writes, for an England that no longer existed.