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Who's a Dandy?
George Walden
Followed by
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).

Gilbert Pham-Thanh
Université de Paris 13

George 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 set out 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 the 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 are deemed essential to the constitution of the dandiacal identity, among which vanity reigns supreme. Hedonism, frivolity, individualism, impertinence (which Walden 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 now—albeit 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 of existing work(s). 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 Delbourg-Delphis's Masculin Singulier: Le Dandysme et son histoire (1985). Thus, the book uses a selective number of classic parameters which are reconfigured within the author's perspective 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 figure 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, Who’s a Dandy? provides the neophyte with a means of bluffing his way through the arcane of our society of the spectacle. Regrettably, the absence of a bibliography—though there is an index—suggests 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 circles 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 facts—including the reflection on mass dandyism—and in spite of the recurrent allusions to drug consumption, the text seems dated, which is rather sad (if predictable), concerning 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 to be 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 people—Barbey himself—could 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 Barbey’s 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, unlike 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 book fails, and the sprinkling of nineteenth-century references never really convinces one that the question has thoroughly been explored. Critical minds may find justification 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 will be 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.

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