Who's a Dandy?
On Dandyism and George Bryan Brummell
Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly
(Translated by George Walden)
London: Gibson Square Books Ltd, 2002.
£12.99, 180 pages, ISBN 1-903933-18-8 (hardback).
Université de Paris 13
Walden is a former diplomat with experience as an M.P. for Buckingham.
He left politics to devote himself to journalism and writing, mostly on cultural,
artistic and literary topics. The purpose of this book is twofold: firstly,
he wanted to make a "small classic" (19) available to
English readers, since the only translation on the market dated
back to 1897, and was flawed owing
to the somewhat slipshod contribution of American Douglas Ainslie, who simply
skipped all difficult or obscure passages. Secondly, he offered a short essay
(60 pages) of his own, whose title, Who's a Dandy?, creates a horizon
of expectation as to who can rightfully claim to be a dandy.
Clearly, Walden was much impressed by his reading of Du Dandysme et de George
Bryan Brummell, the book Barbey d'Aurevilly published in 1845. Keen to
share his enthusiasm with an English audience not conversant with French, he
to translate "the most penetrating and original study of dandyism ever written" (15).
What is most striking is the attempt to render in English what Barbey referred
to as "an archaeological fragment" (174), which was itself a tentative
translation of Englishness into French, by a Frenchman who acknowledged that "everything
that is individual is volatile" (117), including the personality of the
character he was trying to revive in his text, not to mention the fact that he
prided himself on his own specific ways and is reputed for "his bravura
and epigrammatic style" (23). Walden's translation of this "bauble" (171),
to quote Barbey, was thus a challenge in its own rights. As for his own essay,
what was apparently devised as a preface developed into a full-blown 60-page
text on the key notion of dandyism, which Barbey put at the centre of his work
on Regency dandy George Bryan Brummell.
Who's a Dandy? comprises fourteen parts, and one notices that the opening
lines echo in the last ones as reference is made to Brummell's downfall, just
before a coda is added to end up on an optimistic note that salutes the exceptional
stature of the "prince of fashion and autocratic ruler of the Age of Elegance" (15),
much in the aggrandising way Barbey opted for himself. Walden is obviously more
of a eulogist than a sociologist or an ethnologist, as the use of "startlingly" or "astonishingly" (16)
demonstrates early in the book.
The author pictures Brummell as an ageing exile in Calais who still retains
enough of his past grandeur to dazzle the younger Barbey, although "the disintegrating
Englishman had only intermittent control of his bowels" (12). Then he
embarks on an exploration of the dandy's heyday, telling how the Buck confronted
Prince of Wales, stressing again and again how much his personality still resonates
today. Who's a Dandy? offers a kaleidoscopic view, bringing together
Brummell's heritage, Barbey's perspective and Walden's touch. Several characteristics
deemed essential to the constitution of the dandiacal identity, among which
vanity reigns supreme. Hedonism, frivolity, individualism, impertinence (which
may be confusing with insolence), a leaning for attitudes and "a posture
of ironic detachment from the world" (35) are looked upon as seminal features
of the would-be dandy.
Walden is probably at his most innovative when he tries to define
what modern dandyism might be, strongly relying on Andy Warhol's
influence on the world
of (mass) culture. He finally comes up with the tantalising conclusion that "we
can all be dandies nowalbeit of the reduplicated, Warholian variety" (56).
The analysis of two outstanding dandiacal figures and their modern heirs
is convincing enough, though it is in fact to be considered as a synthesis
Indeed, the paradigm of dandyism is extensively exploited as Walden supports
his text with classic studies which are rearranged in a new form. This partly
explains why he refers to and quotes Balzac (17), Baudelaire (19), Carlyle,
Huysmans, Mallarmé, Proust and Byron (16), and pays tribute to Marylène
Singulier: Le Dandysme et son histoire (1985). Thus, the book uses a
selective number of classic parameters which are reconfigured within the
in order to list public figures of the culture industry who qualify as dandies:
actor-fashion-designer John Malkovich, chat show host Jonathan Ross, pop
star Jarvis Cocker, stylist John Galliano and finally Andy Warhol, the totemic
for modern dandyism, according to Walden. Such icons illuminate a text where
allusions, references and intuitions provide a general introduction to dandyism.
The opening essay is aimed at the general public, and includes valuable information
concerning a fashionable notion, in a very alert style that shows personal
commitment and witty detachment at the same time. The academic who is not
versed in this
somewhat underrated field of the history of manners can also find an incentive
to prolong the study of dandyism along the line of cultural studies. Rather
than a thorough study, Whos a Dandy? provides the neophyte with
a means of bluffing his way through the arcane of our society of the spectacle.
the absence of a bibliographythough there is an indexsuggests
that further study into dandyism is not on the agenda, as if whatever need
be said already was in the book.
Although we may of course pass over the misspelling of dandiacal ("dandaical" 53)
as irrelevant, yet the puzzling presence of the two adjectives "dandiacal" (53)
and "dandyist" (152) seems to hint at a difference or at least a distinction
that is never articulated. In addition, with his unsupported claim that Barbey's "paradox
is occasionally transmuted into profundity" (24), the author gives the unpalatable
impression that he is simply airing high-flown opinions. Finally, the title is
deceptive and the answer (we can all be dandies) seems facile, self-dismissive
and not so original, since the iconoclastic proposition could already be found
in early nineteenth-century works such as William Hazlitt's "Essay on Fashion" and
Benjamin Disraeli's novel Popanilla. But of course, times change and
Brummell's hate of "the rabble" (30) may not sell so well nowadays.
The conclusion then indicates a rejection of the historic dandies' teaching,
which may explain
why Brummell's downfall symbolically opens and closes the essay. Walden's essay
lacks inspiration, which confines him within the strict limits of a clever
and elegant report by a fashionable figure who has access to the fashionable
of cool exclusive spheres. But perhaps we should read Who's a Dandy? as
a prank from a dandy.
Because the approach mainly relies on well-established factsincluding the
reflection on mass dandyismand in spite of the recurrent allusions to
drug consumption, the text seems dated, which is rather sad (if predictable),
a book on fashion. Hardly any mention is made of the latest studies of gender,
gay and men's studies, and the note that Brummell was neither camp nor gay
(44) does not really make up for the loss.
Walden is far more convincing as a translator, and his desire to update the
English bibliography on dandyism must be saluted, all the more so since Du Dandysme
et de George Bryan Brummell is at the same time an insightful study of
the most famous dandy of all times and the self-portrait of one who claimed
a dandy in his own way. The opening "Translator's Note" (64) is an
honest programme that Walden scrupulously follows. By prioritising "the
idea rather than the words" (65), he convincingly manages some tricky spots
such as "réduit à la seule force de ce qui le distingua, il
s'éleva au rang d'une chose: il fut le Dandysme même", which
is translated "Thrown back on the single force that marked him out from
others he raised himself to its highest rank: he was Dandyism incarnate" (77).
As for Barbey's original study, it is a brilliant disquisition on dandyism
and Brummell, as well as a valuable document on how peopleBarbey himselfcould
feel under the spell of dandies. Most facts gathered on Brummell do come from
Captain Jesse, the Beau's acknowledged biographer, but the bulk of
the anecdotes left out shows that Barbeys text is ruled by a careful plan to
seek not display but sublimation, making such ethereal statements as "[dandies]
are as eternal as caprice" (148). The French writer reaches the heart
of dandyism, paying it respectful homage and avoiding scientific observation,
those who come after him and leave poetry out. In that sense, Barbey shows
a kinship with Baudelaire.
What proves exceptional is the freshness of the work, so that reviving it
hardly seems academic work, although it is in essence. Walden's difficulty
lies in his
attempt to add a companion piece that would be both a powerful statement
and the result of deeply-felt reflection. It is in this respect that the
and the sprinkling of nineteenth-century references never really convinces
one that the question has thoroughly been explored. Critical minds may find
for their overall impression that dandyism amounts to a colossal waste of
time, money and energy.
While the connoisseur cannot help thinking that Barbey deserves better treatment,
those who are dandyism aficionados will undoubtedly enjoy having the same
words, images and analyses repeated over and over again. The public at large
presented with a colourful introduction to the world of dandyism. As suggested
in the blurb, hot people may even make this book a badge of coolness.