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From Phyllida's Desk

The Macho Dandy--Not an Oxymoron

There was an interesting juxtaposition of events for me recently, the kind of thing that feels like the heavens opening up to send an earth-shaking message that will Change Everything. Then you mull it over for three days and it’s not such a revelation. But I’m going to post it anyway because it’s all I’ve got for material, and the message, such as it is, bears repeating. Besides, my new computer arrived earlier this week, and what better way to inaugurate it than by talking about my favorite subjects?

The more spectacular event was actor/scholar Ian Kelly’s presentation on Beau Brummell for the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA).
Most of us Janeites are pretty knowledgeable about George (Beau) Brummell and his time, the late 18th and early 19th century. Mr. Kelly managed to dig up all kinds of facts and theories that were new to us, most intriguingly the idea that the reason the Victorians were so censorious toward their predecessors was not mere prudery for its own sake but a reaction to the syphilis that was the result of the Regency’s notorious promiscuity, and that decimated just about every family in all levels of society. Brummell himself probably died of it, and his erratic behavior in the years before his death, including gambling away his considerable fortune, may have been the result of the disease’s tertiary stage.

But the “message” that was so meaningful to me was about dandyism. As Kelly explained, the word “dandy” was not a coy synonym for “gay” in the Regency (although it became one later on); the attention to style and athleticism in clothing and physical self-presentation was considered a very masculine pursuit. The look that we’re familiar with, the tight, light-colored pantaloons (preferably without the constrictions and distortions of underwear) and the cutaway coat with no covering skirts in front, along with the high collar and elaborately-tied cravat, was a way to reveal a man’s “assets” that were, ideally, muscular and toned through manly exercise like boxing and riding. There were even “calf inserts,” fillers that spindly-legged men could wear under their pantaloons to appear more robust. One aristocratic Victorian, a young woman during the Regency, regretted the change to darker, looser trousers. In the old days, she said, “you always knew what a man was thinking.”

(Kelly mentioned in passing, and I’m taking the opportunity here to add my voice in emphatic agreement, that the portrayal of Mr. Darcy, unbuttoned and unshaven, riding through the rain in a paroxysm of Romantic passion, in the most recent film version of Pride and Prejudice, was the exact opposite of how this character would have looked and behaved.)

In other words, careful grooming (Brummell made a point of bathing every day), combined with a buttoned, finished and elegant style of dress, was seen as a masculine, even macho look. Slovenliness was simply loutish. Another amusing fact: at some point, perhaps in the early 20th century, pictures of Lord Byron in his dandy phase, with the high collar and cravat, were painted over to show an open collar, more in tune with how that era preferred to see a Romantic Poet.

The second “event” was Mark Simpson’s blog post on America’s ongoing “crises of masculinity,”
and the cult of Machismo, illustrated with several clips of Village People songs.

Simpson, who calls himself the “ ‘Daddy’ of the Metrosexual … & Spawner of Sporno,” used to be the “Skinhead Oscar Wilde,” a title I rather miss, although I can understand how he might want to move on. I fell in love with his blog (and him) back in 2006, when he ridiculed the idea that male bisexuality doesn’t exist, saying, “most of the evidence, historical, anthropological and sexological, suggests that if anything, male ‘bisexuality’ – it’s a terrible word, almost as bad as ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’, but it will have to do for now – is much more common than the female variety. After all, entire civilizations such as Ancient (and according to many accounts, Modern) Greece have been based on it. Not to mention public schools, the Royal Navy and Hollywood.”

Simpson prefaced these remarks with the charming admission, “Maybe it’s because some of my best shags are bisexual men, but I’m beginning to get a bit teed off with this drive to make male bisexuality disappear.”

This is my kind of gay guy. (I wrote Simpson a mash note a while ago, comparing the effect of his blogs on me to the scene of Scarlett singing happily the morning after Rhett has carried her upstairs the night before, but I’m trying to restrain myself from now on. While Simpson was a gentleman about the whole thing—I would expect no less—not all his readers appreciate reading a woman’s passionate effusions on being ravished, thoroughly and lastingly, by a gay man’s writing.)

Anyway, Simpson’s main point in this recent post is that macho doesn’t equal heterosexual, any more than dandy equaled gay in the Regency. And while there may not be anything earth-shattering in this statement, it’s something we still need to hear occasionally, even me.

As my readers know, I like writing bisexual heroes who are traditionally masculine in affect and presentation. This can sometimes be seen as “heteronormative.” Which it may be—I haven’t read enough Queer Theory to argue it either way. But it’s most definitely not meant to be prescriptive or judgmental. I’m writing fiction, not a textbook or a primer or a social contract. It’s simply what appeals to me on a very personal level. I don’t think traditionally masculine bisexual men are “better” (or “worse”) than other kinds of bi men—they’re just what I most like to fantasize about being with. And none of this should be taken to mean that I dislike men who: wear eyeliner; are sexual bottoms; perform cabaret; or act camp. It’s all good, just so long as everybody’s clear on one thing: the more a sexy guy comes on to other sexy guys in my presence, the more he’s going to turn me on. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

During Kelly’s presentation, he put up four pictures of people Beau Brummell had affairs with. Three were women and the fourth was…Lord Byron. Another serendipitous bisexual moment, brought to us without smirking or gasping or other silliness.

Kelly's talk was based on his book, which a knowledgeable friend told me was better, more detailed, in the UK version (quel surprise). The English subtitle is, appropriately, “The Ultimate Dandy,” while the American’s is the more pedestrian “The Ultimate Man of Fashion.” Seems the publisher was afraid all of us American louts would assume dandy equals gay…
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