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Beau Brummell and the Snub that Backfired

A ball held in London’s Argyle rooms, as depicted by Isaac Cruikshank in 1825

This month marks the anniversary of one of the most famous snubs in history, or at least in Regency history. For it was in July of 1813 that Beau Brummell snubbed the Prince Regent at London’s Argyle rooms. And that snub, for whatever momentary satisfaction it may have given Brummell, marked the beginning of the end of his career as the undisputed arbiter of men’s fashion and manners in Regency England.

Here’s how it happened:

Beau Brummell, engraving from a miniature by John Cook

Brummell and a trio of his aristocratic chums (Lord Alvanley, Sir Henry Mildmay, and Henry Pierrepoint) decided to host a masquerade ball to celebrate the money they had won gambling at Watier’s Club.

The four dandies reluctantly invited the Prince Regent to their party, primarily because His Royal Highness was determined to attend despite the fact that he had recently quarreled with Brummell.

When he arrived at the ball, Prinny greeted Brummell’s friends but ignored the Beau.

Brummell retaliated by inquiring in a high-pitched voice that penetrated the room’s din: “Alvanley, who is your fat friend?”

Now, the Prince Regent was extremely sensitive about his ever-increasing girth, so he was mortified and infuriated by Brummell’s remark, so much so that he never spoke to the Beau again.

And even though the Prince Regent was enormously unpopular with his subjects, and Brummel’s social standing remained undiminished after the snub (at least for a time), the net effect of the Beau’s unkind remark was that he forever lost his royal patron.

Highly unflattering 1819 caricature of the Prince Regent by George Cruikshank

The damage didn’t seem too bad at first. Despite being shunned by the Regent, for the next few years Brummell remained popular among the ton. Even without Prinny’s favor, he still had many upper class friends and was able to keep his position as the acknowledged leader of fashion.

But Brummell was addicted to gambling, and it was not long before his debts got the better of him. It became increasingly difficult for him to find anyone who would extend him a line of credit, and he piled up thousands of pounds in debts he could not repay.

So the Beau was forced into exile, fleeing to France in 1816 to avoid arrest. He never returned to England, much less to his former glory as the unrivaled authority on what constituted sartorial elegance in Regency London.

Once a king of London’s high society, Brummell died in Caen in 1840 after a stint in debtor’s prison. He ended his days in dire poverty, ravaged mentally and physically by syphilis, dirty and unkempt – a state that was a far cry from his former fastidiousness.

To the end of his life, the Beau hoped the rift between himself and his former patron would heal, especially after the Prince was crowned King George IV in 1821. Unfortunately, a reconciliation never took place.

Whether retaining the future king as a lifelong friend rather than making him an enemy in 1813 would have altered Brummell’s sad fate is impossible to know, but easy to conjecture.

So there you have it – the snub that triggered the downfall of a social lion. This story is a good reminder that a witty  remark can sometimes ricochet, hurting the one who hurled it.

That was certainly true for Beau Brummell.

Statue honoring Brummel in London’s Jermyn St. by Irena Sedlecka, erected in 2002

 

Sources for this post include:

  • The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency, by J.B. Priestley, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, NY 1969
  • Beau Brummell, by Hubert Cole, Mason/Charter, New York, 1977

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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