Thursday, 28 June 2012

Pelham or Adventures of a Gentleman by Bulwer-Lytton

Many of you will no doubt have heard of the Bulwer Lytton contest
which honours writing that most closely achieves that seeming level of vain portentousness. Many, indeed most of you, will never have read anything else by him. If you had , the suspicion that he himself was mocking the otiose windiness of the popular novel would have checked a precipitous judgment. I see that the competition was established by a professor at San Jose University which is a clue. Sometimes, as John Le Carre calls them, the cousins don't get it.
I have been reading Pelham or Adventures of a Gentleman by Bulwer-Lytton which he published at the age of 25. This Pelham is a sprig of the aristocracy steeped in the family tradition of blackguardism and bounderism. Here in this extensive passage in which he marshals his gear before the new season we get the taste of the high seriousness of vanity:

Cum pulchris tunicis sumet nova consilia et spes.—Horace.

And look always that they be shape,
What garment that thou shalt make
Of him that can best do
With all that pertaineth thereto.—Romaunt of the Rose

How well I can remember the feelings with which I entered London, and took possession of the apartments prepared for me at Mivart's. A year had made a vast alteration in my mind; I had ceased to regard pleasure for its own sake, I rather coveted its enjoyments, as the great sources of worldly distinction. I was not the less a coxcomb than heretofore, nor the less a voluptuary, nor the less choice in my perfumes, nor the less fastidious in my horses and my dress; but I viewed these matters in a light wholly different from that in which I had hitherto regarded them. Beneath all the carelessness of my exterior, my mind was close, keen, and inquiring; and under the affectations of foppery, and the levity of a manner almost unique, for the effeminacy of its tone, I veiled an ambition the most extensive in its object, and a resolution the most daring in the accomplishment of its means.

I was still lounging over my breakfast, on the second morning of my arrival, when Mr. N—, the tailor, was announced.

"Good morning, Mr. Pelham; happy to see you returned. Do I disturb you too early? shall I wait on you again?"

"No, Mr. N—, I am ready to receive you; you may renew my measure."

"We are a very good figure, Mr. Pelham; very good figure," replied the Schneider, surveying me from head to foot, while he was preparing his measure; "we want a little assistance though; we must be padded well here; we must have our chest thrown out, and have an additional inch across the shoulders; we must live for effect in this world, Mr. Pelham; a leetle tighter round the waist, eh?"

"Mr. N—," said I, "you will take, first, my exact measure, and, secondly, my exact instructions. Have you done the first?"

"We are done now, Mr. Pelham," replied my man-maker, in a slow, solemn tone.

"You will have the goodness then to put no stuffing of any description in my coat; you will not pinch me an iota tighter across the waist than is natural to that part of my body, and you will please, in your infinite mercy, to leave me as much after the fashion in which God made me, as you possibly can."

"But, Sir, we must be padded; we are much too thin; all the gentlemen in the Life Guards are padded, Sir."

"Mr. N—," answered I, "you will please to speak of us, with a separate, and not a collective pronoun; and you will let me for once have my clothes such as a gentleman, who, I beg of you to understand, is not a Life Guardsman, can wear without being mistaken for a Guy Fawkes on a fifth of November."

Mr. N—looked very discomfited: "We shall not be liked, Sir, when we are made—we sha'n't, I assure you. I will call on Saturday at 11 o'clock. Good morning, Mr. Pelham; we shall never be done justice to, if we do not live for effect; good morning, Mr. Pelham."

Scarcely had Mr. N—retired, before Mr.—, his rival, appeared. The silence and austerity of this importation from Austria, were very refreshing after the orations of Mr. N—.

"Two frock-coats, Mr.—," said I, "one of them brown, velvet collar same colour; the other, dark grey, no stuffing, and finished by Wednesday. Good morning, Mr.—."

"Monsieur B—, un autre tailleur," said Bedos, opening the door after Mr. S.'s departure.

"Admit him," said I. "Now for the most difficult article of dress—the waistcoat."

And here, as I am weary of tailors, let me reflect a little upon that divine art of which they are the professors. Alas, for the instability of all human sciences! A few short months ago, in the first edition of this memorable Work, I laid down rules for costume, the value of which, Fashion begins already to destroy. The thoughts which I shall now embody, shall be out of the reach of that great innovator, and applicable not to one age, but to all. To the sagacious reader, who has already discovered what portions of this work are writ in irony—what in earnest—I fearlessly commit these maxims; beseeching him to believe, with Sterne, that "every thing is big with jest, and has wit in it, and instruction too, if we can but find it out!"

1. Do not require your dress so much to fit, as to adorn you. Nature is not to be copied, but to be exalted by art. Apelles blamed Protogenes for being too natural.

2. Never in your dress altogether desert that taste which is general. The world considers eccentricity in great things, genius; in small things, folly.

3. Always remember that you dress to fascinate others, not yourself.

4. Keep your mind free from all violent affections at the hour of the toilet. A philosophical serenity is perfectly necessary to success. Helvetius says justly, that our errors arise from our passions.

5. Remember that none but those whose courage is unquestionable, can venture to be effeminate. It was only in the field that the Lacedemonians were accustomed to use perfumes and curl their hair.

6. Never let the finery of chains and rings seem your own choice; that which naturally belongs to women should appear only worn for their sake. We dignify foppery, when we invest it with a sentiment.

7. To win the affection of your mistress, appear negligent in your costume—to preserve it, assiduous: the first is a sign of the passion of love; the second, of its respect.

8. A man must be a profound calculator to be a consummate dresser. One must not dress the same, whether one goes to a minister or a mistress; an avaricious uncle, or an ostentatious cousin: there is no diplomacy more subtle than that of dress.

9. Is the great man whom you would conciliate a coxcomb?—go to him in a waistcoat like his own. "Imitation," says the author of Lacon, "is the sincerest flattery."

10. The handsome may be shewy in dress, the plain should study to be unexceptionable; just as in great men we look for something to admire—in ordinary men we ask for nothing to forgive.

11. There is a study of dress for the aged, as well as for the young. Inattention is no less indecorous in one than in the other; we may distinguish the taste appropriate to each, by the reflection that youth is made to be loved—age, to be respected.

12. A fool may dress gaudily, but a fool cannot dress well—for to dress well requires judgment; and Rochefaucault says with truth, "On est quelquefois un sot avec de l'esprit, mais on ne lest jamais avec du jugement."

13. There may be more pathos in the fall of a collar, or the curl of a lock, than the shallow think for. Should we be so apt as we are now to compassionate the misfortunes, and to forgive the insincerity of Charles I., if his pictures had pourtrayed him in a bob wig and a pigtail? Vandyke was a greater sophist than Hume.

14. The most graceful principle of dress is neatness—the most vulgar is preciseness.

15. Dress contains the two codes of morality—private and public. Attention is the duty we owe to others—cleanliness that which we owe to ourselves.

16. Dress so that it may never be said of you "What a well dressed man!"—but, "What a gentlemanlike man!"

17. Avoid many colours; and seek, by some one prevalent and quiet tint, to sober down the others. Apelles used only four colours, and always subdued those which were more florid, by a darkening varnish.

18. Nothing is superficial to a deep observer! It is in trifles that the mind betrays itself. "In what part of that letter," said a king to the wisest of living diplomatists, "did you discover irresolution?"—"In its ns and gs!" was the answer.

19. A very benevolent man will never shock the feelings of others, by an excess either of inattention or display; you may doubt, therefore, the philanthropy both of a sloven and a fop.

20. There is an indifference to please in a stocking down at heel—but there may be a malevolence in a diamond ring.

21. Inventions in dressing should resemble Addison's definition of fine writing, and consists of "refinements which are natural, without being obvious."

22. He who esteems trifles for themselves, is a trifler—he who esteems them for the conclusions to be drawn from them, or the advantage to which they can be put, is a philosopher.

The quotation from Horace you will find in full in The Anatomy of Melancholy as one of the remedies against Melancholy. From the vault of my schoolboy Latin comes in vile cerements: With beautiful clothes, I will take new resolve and hope.

Besides, fatuous parenthesis is mocked in a letter Henry Pelham receives from his mother:
My Dear Henry (began the letter,)

Find an extensive collection of the works of Bulwer-Lytton on Gutenberg Project and Internet Archive. Find indeed that you are micturating against the wind.

From the preface to the 1840 edn. of Paul Clifford:
A second and a lighter object in the novel of "Paul Clifford" (and hence the introduction of a semi-burlesque or travesty in the earlier chapters) was to show that there is nothing essentially different between vulgar vice and fashionable vice, and that the slang of the one circle is but an easy paraphrase of the cant of the other.

I rest my case.

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