Matthew Whiting Rosa (essay date 1936)
SOURCE: “The Dandiacal Body,” in The Silver-Fork School: Novels of Fashion Preceding Vanity Fair, Columbia University Press, 1936, pp. 15-54.
[In the following essay, Rosa provides a general review of the focus of Silver Fork novels on light amusements of fashionable society—a focus which led to parodies of their superficiality.]
The fashionable novel tells us, in effect, that the world is a place of make-believe and sham, and that nowhere is this so true as among the members of fashionable society. The deliciousness of its comedy increases in the very ratio in which it is faithful to all the outward trappings of that society. In striving for the utmost correspondence between fictional characters and the picture of the aristocracy drawn from Debrett's Peerage, the Court Journal, and the tailor's style book, it must be admitted that the novelists occasionally omitted the saving spark of life and humor, and turned out for our inspection curiously glossed but stuffed shirts. But, though the fashionable writers frequently overshot their mark, and like Shelley's Peter Bell the Third,
… touched the hem of Nature's shift, Felt faint—and never dared uplift The closest, all-concealing tunic …
their aim was a clear and perhaps worthy one. To draw convincing pictures of the upper classes was the first and most important duty. Whether the critic approves or not, his quarrel cannot be so much with what the novelists attempted to do as it is with their occasional failure to achieve the avowed purpose. Mrs. Gore once remarked, “A novel of fashionable life does not pre-suppose a tissue of puerile vulgarity.”1 But The Westminster Review lamented in 1829 that the passion for fashionable novels sprang “much less from a rational desire to acquire a knowledge of human nature, as modified by the accidents of high birth and fortune, than from an anxiety to glean a few airs and graces, to be played off in succession … until the toe of the peasant, once more intruding upon the heel of the courtier, all wits are again upon the rack to invent new distinctions.”2 Whether the higher aim was satire, philosophical reflections on truth and beauty, or insipid rhapsody, depended on the individual writer.
The limited subject matter which the fashionable novelists permitted themselves had a corresponding effect on the richness of their characterization. For the most part, they shut themselves off from the middle and lower classes which form the inexhaustible reservoir of English comic figures, and confined their observations to the least varied group in society. Their plots were not essential enough to demand much care or originality, and like the Restoration dramatists, the novelists availed themselves of a succession of stock characters. Abundant as these were, they were hardly new, for the great majority—braggarts, flirtatious jeunes filles, jealous lovers, foolish lords, and the like—were simply pulled from the showman's box of tricks, dusted off, and set to perform again. Only a few, notably the buck, the dandy, the woman of fashion, the marrying mother, and the social climber really underwent a thorough renovation, and repainted and furbelowed, were made ready to amuse a fresh audience.
From Brummell to D’Orsay, from the buck to the dandy, is a jump of only fifteen or twenty years, but the great changes during that time are manifest even in the circumscribed domain of men's clothes. Brummell's chief achievement in dress had been the introduction of white starched cravats. His valet, in a well-known story, when questioned as to the meaning of a pile of apparently clean but discarded cravats, remarked glibly, “Oh, those are our failures.” Difficult to adjust, and uncomfortable to wear, the cravat had the virtue of cleanliness, while it furnished a fitting accent to the invariable blue coat with brass buttons, the buckskin breeches, and the polished top boots. The whole was very English, clean, simple, and masculine. But after the war, trousers began to come in from Paris. For a time excluded from formal affairs, they were finally accepted in spite of being possibly the ugliest leg-coverings that could be contrived. Ten years of foreign innovation led to the fantastic and effeminate dress of Bulwer and Disraeli. Over the intellectual dandy hovered the scent of perfume, while on his curled locks gleamed “thine incomparable oil, ‘Macassar!’” There were rings on the fingers, and a suspicion of rouge on the cheeks. Waistcoats, which had formerly been subdued by the chaste cravat, became gorgeous vestments frequently spangled by turquoises or seed pearls. The coat was made of velvet or had velvet cuffs. The inimitable Disraeli, strolling along Regent Street complacently accepting the stares of the passers-by upon his blue surtout, his black stockings with red stripes, or astounding the officers at Gibraltar with his morning and his evening canes, would have shocked the fastidious Brummell.
Many of the extravagances that mark a parallel between the 1820's and the 1660's come from their common feeling of social uncertainty. The restoration in 1660 was so recent that aristocracy did not feel sure of itself. In the early nineteenth century the fear of Jacobinism which had distinguished the nineties was dying, but aristocratic privileges were steadily going down before the rising power of the landless rich. One or two trivial instances may illustrate what this meant. Her Majesty's Theater, known as the Italian Opera in the Haymarket, was controlled in 1814 by a committee of patronesses, the Duchesses of Marlborough, Devonshire, and Bedford, Lady Carlisle, and others, without whose express invitation it was impossible to buy a ticket for the stalls and boxes. By 1820 this restriction had ceased, and the opera, open to all, had lost its prestige; unfortunately, in addition to this perhaps venial loss, the quality of its music had suffered. The most famous and most exclusive of Regency clubs was White's. In it, as in Brookes's, Boodle's, and the rest, gambling for high stakes was customary, but after the establishment of Crockford's in 1827, the palm for high play passed to that institution. Many a wealthy member, blackballed elsewhere, made Crockford's his only club.
It was because of changes like this, accelerated by the influx of new families from the mercantile and manufacturing classes, that a few aristocrats were led into absurdities like Exclusivism.3 Their desperate efforts to preserve some of the last vestiges of privilege were made slightly ridiculous by their choice of battlefields—Rotten Row, the ballroom at Almack's, or the clubs of St. James's. The real struggle was being waged far off in Manchester, in Birmingham, or amid the gleam of burning ricks in Kent or Essex.
Thomas Carlyle, grimly composing Sartor Resartus in remote Ecclefechan, bitterly reproached Pelham and the sect of the dandies for their lack of earnestness. With England on the brink of revolution, the mere mention of other clothes than those for the spirit angered him into forgetting the duty of a critic to read carefully the work to be criticized. A second reading of Pelham might have saved him from the rather grudging admission of error which he made years later after having become acquainted with Bulwer. The last fault of which anyone could accuse Pelham was a lack of earnestness. Not only Pelham, but also Vivian Grey are surprisingly earnest when studied by anyone not prepossessed with the notion that a dandy must necessarily be a mental lightweight devoted only to the cultivation of the sillier formalities of social intercourse.
Pelham, to put aside for a moment the more flowery “adventures of a gentleman,” as a young man is elected to Parliament. As preparation for taking his seat, he studies political economy, starting with James Mill and ending with the more popular of Jeremy Bentham's works. Ricardo's remarks upon finance are made to serve as an introduction to private ethics approached by way of public ethics. Unfortunately, before Pelham is admitted to the House, his election is contested, and he finds himself defeated. Familiar with the younger and idler members of Parliament, he makes himself useful to Lord Dawton, leader of the Opposition, by rounding up members, writing pamphlets, and performing confidential duties for which he has been promised the first open seat within the minister's gift. When the Whigs win, however, the minister forgets him in favor of some more powerful and less independent party worker. But Pelham, convinced of the righteousness of his side, refuses to join a new party being organized by his friend, Lord Vincent, because he cannot approve of the new party's principles. He likewise foregoes the power of revenge with which his friendship for Lord Guloseton, the gourmand, provides him. Surely Pelham's devotion to the principles of party and to measures in which he believes ought to have given him some claim to the suffrage of Carlyle. Instead, Carlyle seizes Bulwer's ironical essay on clothes in Pelham and treats it with elaborate seriousness as dandiacal doctrine. He effectively contrasts the Irish poor slaves with the dandies, but he was hardly fair to Pelham or Bulwer.
Vivian Grey's earnestness resembles Pelham's, although Vivian's political aspirations hitch themselves to a spectacular rocket rather than to a genuine and regular star. Instead of joining the Opposition and biding his time, Vivian strives to create and lead an entirely new party. The whole affair is the veriest moonshine, of course, the party's only realistic feature being its prompt collapse. But Vivian is not an idler; no young man who trains his political sense on the neo-Platonists, organizes a party, and kills a man before he is twenty-one, can be said to be really a loafer.
Although Mrs. Gore's Cecil did not appear until 1841, years after Carlyle's attack, it is interesting to see how carefully she has assimilated the spirit of the Regency buck to her coxcomb. Far more than the intellectual dandy, the idle though magnificent buck deserved the reproaches of sober citizens. In his heyday, however, no prophet arose to denounce him, and on a comparatively diligent successor fell the burden of reproof. Pelham and Vivian represent their time perfectly because they are contemporaries of their young authors; Mrs. Gore has made alive once more in Cecil's customary indifference to serious matters, the careless life of men like Brummell.
Curiously enough, a distinction in real life between the buck of 1810 and the intellectual dandy of 1830 has not been made clear by the novelists. The bucks were inarticulate, and like the peacock, confined their self-expression to gorgeous plumage. To the dandies was added the gift of song. Even a partial list of the Carleton House clique contains a fair proportion of names which are in some way familiar—Brummell, the Duke of Argyle, the Marquis of Hertford, Lords Alvanley and Worcester, Sir Lumley Skeffington, Sir Henry Pierrepoint, Sir Henry Mildmay, Charles Standish, Captain Gronow, and Don Mackinnon. Of this group, Hertford is the best known because he appears as Lord Monmouth in Coningsby and as Lord Steyne in Vanity Fair. Mackinnon owes what little fame is his to his association with Byron. Sir Lumley Skeffington wrote plays long since forgotten, but only Captain Gronow, by his entertaining memoirs, may be said to have perpetuated his name by writing. The men who once filled the bow window at White's have achieved a certain immortality, not because they were writers, but because they were the material of which literature was made. Novelists and biographers saw in the dandies a source for endless stories, but the dandies, Byron observed, “disliked literary people and persecuted and mystified Mme de Stael, Lewis, Horace Twiss, and the like, damnably.”4
Any list of dandies would be composed almost entirely of literary men—William Harrison Ainsworth, Bulwer, Campbell, Dickens, P. G. Patmore,5 and Thackeray, to name a few. “Ainsworth was frequently mistaken for D’Orsay … ‘the glass of fashion and the mould of form—really a complete Adonis,’ as poor Haydon put it.”6 Even Count D’Orsay, the King of the Bucks, wrote a little. That the literary dandies so seldom put themselves into books shows that they did not consider a writer, purely as a writer, of very high social standing. Byron expressed the view neatly in Beppo:
One hates an author that’s all author, fellows In foolscap uniform turned up with ink, One don’t know what to say to them, or think, Unless to puff them with a pair of bellows; Of coxcombry's worst coxcombs e’en the pick Are preferable to these shreds of paper, These unquench’d snuffings of the midnight taper.
Bulwer, indeed, compared the boorish attitude of the English unfavorably with the graciousness of the French, and Carlyle considered the German man of letters better situated than the English.
The intellectual dandy, however, had to be endowed with two attributes of the literary man, a knowledge of books and an inclination to study. Fortunately for the novelists, to give an air of learning to ostensible social butterflies was comparatively simple, for the cult of the amateur had been long established in England. One remembers Congreve's request of Voltaire and Voltaire's blunt reply, “Do you think that I would have come this far to meet a mere gentleman?” Henry Luttrell, author of the pleasant poem Advice to Julia and the novel Crockford House, was lamented even by the worldly Rogers for giving nearly his whole time to persons of mere fashion. Byron, who dashed off poems between tea and dinner, or while dressing, and for a long time refused to accept money from Murray, boyishly played the same game. Pelham, therefore, like Luttrell and Byron, would be deeply mortified to admit publicly the hours he spends reading; his learning must appear as a natural growth, but we are told that never a day passes during which he does not devote six hours to his books. Lord Vincent, whose conversation is made up of stores rifled from all the classics, has a similar horror of appearing pedantically learned. Vivian Grey, after the years are over in which he studied twelve hours a day, must blossom like another natural wit whose store needs no replenishing from reading.
To place too much emphasis on the earnest qualities of the dandies, however, is to commit the same error as Carlyle. After all, the dandies were young men about town, not cloistered monks, and the sins of young men are perhaps even more revealing than their virtues. It must be admitted that the vices of the 1800's, although basically the same as those of the 1820's, gambling, drinking, and whoring, were not nearly so scarlet as they had been under good King Charles. The effort of the intellectual dandy was to pass through all the dangerous and fascinating pleasures of life unscathed, and just a little aloof. Dash and brilliance are reserved for the salon, the ball, or the dinner. Roistering in the streets, “tipping the Charlies,” has become at this time somewhat collegiate, thanks to Brummell, “who induced the ingenuous youth of Britain to prove their valor otherwise than by threshing superannuated watchmen.”7 But Pelham engages in one escapade of the sort with a group of young bloods who get drunk,8 engage in a fight with Cyprians (the Restoration bawds have become Cyprians), go down in defeat before a superior force of watchmen, and much reduced in numbers, start out in search of some recommended young women. Pelham leaves at this juncture and wakes up in the morning with a headache. The realism is Byronic:
Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, Sermons and soda-water the day after.
Although the dandies may have drunk and roistered less than their fathers, they gambled more. The difference between the fairly restricted gambling among men of the same social class at White's, Boodle's, or Brooks's, and the type of gambling at Crockford's has been cited to show the greater spread of the habit by 1830. Perhaps never before or since has the gambling mania so gripped England. Captain Gronow, writing about 1860, says that many a family still felt the poverty brought on by their unwise progenitors. The fashionable novels, far from seeking to palliate the craze, may be said to have tried to stop it. While few actually denounce gambling, it is noticeable that Pelham and Vivian seldom gamble and then only out of idle curiosity. Lister's Arlington contains a gambling scene of great power and repulsiveness. In Disraeli's The Young Duke, there is described a twenty-four hour session that almost makes a beggar of the young Croesus and purges him of all gambling desires henceforth. The habitual gamblers in Pelham are mostly blacklegs, thieves, or murderers. The moral effect thus produced is direct enough, but gambling was conducted on such an incredible scale then that in the absence of exact figures one cannot be quite sure of the actual restraint practiced by the dandies. Pemberton Milnes, the father of Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, once seriously denied that he was a gambler, claiming as proof the fact that he had only twice lost over a thousand pounds at a sitting.9
The gambler in the fashionable novels is likely to be a sportsman as well. Racing, hunting, and fishing were the chief recreations of the English gentleman then as now, but the dandies despised sports just because of their universality. Turned loose among a group of horsemen, fishermen, and hunters, Vivian and Pelham are more at a loss than they would care to admit. Vivian, for the sake of political ends, endures the jargon of the field, but Pelham, dragged off to a race, soon loses interest and wanders off in search of his eccentric companion. The young Duke follows the common course, and acquires a tremendously costly stable, only to see his horses defeated in races at great cost to his pocket-book and his egotism.
Because of the grave danger of being considered effeminate in avoiding common male pursuits, the dandies found it necessary to excel in other arts. What can a man do who eschews the chase, gambling, and racing, and who associates with women from preference, but prove his manliness in other and less generally practiced arts? Pelham boxes, fences, and is skillful with the shortstick. Vivian Grey fences, and is so adept with the pistol that he kills a man in a duel. But dandies at play, like dandies at study, never display themselves in public. Only Cecil, who admittedly lacks Pelham's and Vivian's claims to intellectuality, dares ride, fence, and hunt openly.
Young bloods or bucks like Rawdon Crawley devoted much of their energies to such athletic pursuits as boxing and four-in-hand driving. When we meet Rawdon in Vanity Fair he has already fought “three bloody duels.” The difference, of course, between Pelham and Rawdon is that Rawdon's physical prowess, or, if you will, brutality, is frankly his only strength. To Pelham or Vivian manual dexterity is definitely of secondary importance, while with other dandies athleticism like Rawdon's represents only a temporary stage of development.
In the 1820's the rise of Tom-and-Jerryism under the sponsorship of the renowned Pierce Egan was a phenomenon the dandies took care to resist. That a generation of young barbarians found the cult of the athletically rowdy even more attractive than their fathers had was sufficient reason why the intellectually gifted youth of the late 1820's should reject it. So, outwardly at least, the companions of Rawdon Crawley and Corinthian Tom moved far asunder from those of Pelham. Only in surreptitious drill did Pelham and Vivian reveal how strongly they were marked by the quaint vulgarities of Pierce Egan.
Ultimately, perhaps, the tone of a society depends on the relationship between the sexes. Because some of the squeamishness which Thackeray deplored in the sixty-fourth chapter of Vanity Fair had already appeared in the twenties and thirties, an absolute comparison of social intercourse in this period with that in earlier periods like the Restoration is difficult to make. On the whole, the Regency seems to have been slightly more moral but a good deal sillier. Bulwer, in England and the English, attributed, a bit unfairly one would think, this silliness to women. The average man and nonintellectual dandy, he says, despised “Blues”; and women, forced to associate with the lighter males, tended to become like them. The original deficiency would seem to have existed in the obtuse male, but some of Bulwer's experiences with women had been unfortunate. Disraeli was far more gallant and grateful.
Silliness is not, however, a failing of the older women who act as mentors in the novels. Many a fashionable novel is, like Vanity Fair, a novel without a hero; few lack a mature woman of the world. The novelists, apparently believing that worldliness should be imbibed at its source, were forever advising young men to seek feminine companionship for the cultivation of manners. The mother of Don Juan was
… a walking calculation, Miss Edgeworth's novels stepping from their covers, Or Mrs. Trimmer's books on education, Or “Coeleb's Wife” set out in quest of lovers, Morality's prim personification …
But women like Lady Frances Pelham, Lady Ormington, the mother of Cecil, Lady Harriett in Cecil, and Mrs. Dallington Vere in The Young Duke believe in education for this world, not for the next. All are married or widowed; two are mothers, and only one is under thirty. Poor Juan, freed from his mother's solicitude, flew direct to the charming Julia, but the emergent dandies were more cautious amorists. Before making serious overtures of marriage, they sought counsel from the experienced.
Disraeli's Mrs. Dallington Vere and Mrs. Gore's Lady Harriett are ideal examples of the fashionable lady. The former was “a most successful woman, lucky in everything, lucky even in her husband; for he died. He did not only die; he left his whole fortune to his wife.”10 Lady Harriett is also a wealthy widow—how often in the fashionable novels does that condition appear as the summit of earthly bliss—selected by the dandies as their muse. It is to her that Cecil confides his social direction after leaving Oxford. Her attitude towards him is the coquettish mixture of maternal affection and occasional flirtation typical of these dandy chaperons. She is too old seriously to consider Cecil as her lover, but she is not so old that the desire to add him to her satellites is gone. Her forte, like that of Lady Frances Pelham, is good advice, but a certain amount of propriety prevents it from being quite so candid. She coaches Cecil in the social amenities, the proper houses to visit, the kind of clothes to wear, and introduces him to her own circle. She firmly suppresses his awkward collegiate flattery, and endeavors to make him a perfect gentleman after the Brummell pattern.
In drawing these people the novelists were often using actual persons. The dandy chaperon was no mere literary convention, but possibly the most real of the characters described in the novels. The novelist could hardly help knowing one, but in the rare event that he did not, he was plentifully supplied with sources by the gossip of the day. The seven patronesses of Almack's were always available in their individual or corporate form. Lady Melbourne, to whose engagingly cynical judgment Byron submitted his endless difficulties with Caroline Lamb, Augusta Leigh, Lady Oxford, Lady Frances Webster, and his wife, undoubtedly offered the novelists their most striking model, but no one succeeded in putting her on paper successfully, nor in producing a scene equal to the one in which she and Lady Bessborough begged Byron to relinquish Caroline. Both Lady Blessington and Lady Holland fancied themselves in the rôle of Egeria, although to writers who did not know them a far greater appeal lay in their damaged reputations.
Lady Blessington, of course, was not the only society woman with literary connections. Lady Charlotte Bury wrote dozens of novels, but survives today chiefly because of her diary describing her services as Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Caroline. Mrs. Caroline Norton was the grand-daughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and a novelist and poet in her own right. Lady Morgan was a society woman of a sort, and has even been suggested as the original of Becky Sharp. From Lady Morgan the list of prominent women declines into more purely literary figures like Emmeline Wortley, “her person more beautiful than her poetry,”11 and L. E. Landon, whose melancholy tomb at Capetown furnishes a silent commentary on her tearful verse.
Besides the dandy and the woman of fashion there are only two other figures who are of enough interest in the fashionable novel to demand special mention. The first of these is the mother who lives a vicarious existence in the lives of her marriageable sons and daughters.
Tennyson's “Proputty, proputty, proputty—that's what I ’ears ’em say” is fashionable marriage in capsule form. As late as Vanity Fair there is little or no change from the emphasis on making a good match seen in the works of Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Mrs. Stanhope in Belinda, it will be remembered, has such a reputation for intrepid marriage brokerage that eligible young men flee her as they would the devil. The novels, of course, have their share of love matches, but one in which a parent is actively involved is almost sure to be one in which the young man is approved because of membership at Melton or Crockford's. The number of mothers who are familiar with the genealogy, fortune, and prospects of every personable male in London is astounding. The skill required for the successful maneuvering of a squad of sons or daughters is much greater than that required by a mere general. The off season is an interval between campaigns which must be studied and prepared for as carefully as a campaign in Flanders.
The title of Lady Charlotte Bury's novel, The Maneuvering Mother, shows how directly the type was sometimes treated. Lady Wetherall succeeds in making good matches for all of her five daughters except the youngest, who insists on marrying for love. The moral is found when the four matches turn out unsuccessfully while the love match flourishes. The story told of Jane, Duchess of Gordon, lacks such a neat moral, but raises the intriguing mother to unbelievable heights of resourcefulness. She also had five daughters and boundless ambitions for their future. She married three of them to Dukes, one to a Marquis, while one, Louisa, was loved by Lord Brome, the son of Lord Cornwallis. Everything was being settled when Cornwallis suddenly broke off the match. The Duchess, understanding his action to be due to supposed madness in her husband's family, told him, “I know your reason for disapproving of your son's marriage with my daughter; now, I will tell you one thing plainly—there is not a drop of the Gordon blood in Louisa's body.”12 Whether Lord Cornwallis was convinced or just frightened by this terrible woman is not known. At any rate, the marriage took place.
The determined gleam in a mother's eye is used in a perverse way by T. H. Lister in Arlington. Sir Gerald Denbigh, wishing, for personal reasons, to break up a match between Arlington and Lady Rochdale, intimates to her parents that they are being criticized as too eager to forward the affair. Their dislike of being thought capable of such actions postpones the marriage ten years.
The other minor character of interest is the social climber. The wealthy man who wishes to enter the social class above him is not a new type, for Massinger, Fletcher, and Shirley present some, but in the early nineteenth-century period he took on greater importance. More recently, the figure had been best treated by Miss Burney and Miss Edgeworth. The Regency was oversupplied with actual people who thus achieved fame or notoriety. Perhaps the most famous was Mrs. Coutts who was said to have devoted her immense fortune to purchasing the Duke of St. Albans. In her lifetime she was fair sport for every satirist. Captain Gronow tells of a less celebrated Mrs. Beaumont, who, coming into a large fortune, although she herself was of low origin, resolved to invite none but persons of rank to her salon. Poor Gronow once asked her if he could invite a friend of his who was a captain in his own regiment. Mrs. Beaumont's reply was, “I want no more captains at my balls; you should consider yourself lucky in getting an invitation.” He left, Gronow continues, “and, reflecting on the injustice I had done Mrs. Beaumont in presuming to appear at her assemblies, I never again perpetrated the offence.”13
People and circumstances similar to these throng the pages of the fashionable novels. Reginald Cressingham in The Man Of Fortune by Mrs. Gore, comes unexpectedly into an income of £55,000 a year, most of which he dissipates in endeavoring to buy his way into society. His only success is admittance to Crockford's. Harris in Cecil is a young man of neither wealth nor position who determines to force his way into society by means of a studied insolence which his toadying instinct knows is best calculated to succeed in the atmosphere of English snobbery. Theoretically the climbers fail, but despite the notorious conservatism of the aristocracy, many parvenus succeeded. Though, like Becky Sharp, they were often unsuccessful in the end, their sheer numbers compelled that protective measure on the part of the aristocrats called Exclusivism.
Interesting and valuable as fashionable novels may be for their portraits of individual types, they are primarily social documents concerning a distinct class. The novels deal with a compact and homogeneous social group in which there is considerable class solidarity and class consciousness. More strongly than any other contemporary body in England or elsewhere, the English leisure class felt the urge to do the same things, to think the same thoughts, to act in...
(The entire section is 12547 words.)