Even better known to us is George Bryan Brummel, commonly called “Beau Brummel,” who by his friendship with George IV.—then Prince Regent—was an oracle at court on everything that related to dress and etiquette and the proper mode of living. His memory has been kept alive most of all by Richard Mansfield’s famous impersonation of him. The play is based upon the actual facts; for after Brummel had lost the royal favor he died an insane pauper in the French town of Caen. He, too, had a distinguished biographer, since Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Pelham is really the narrative of Brummel’s curious career.
Long after Brummel, Lord Banelagh led the gilded youth of London, and it was at this time that the notorious Lola Montez made her first appearance in the British capital.
These three men—Nash, Brummel, and Ranelagh—had the advantage of being Englishmen, and, therefore, of not incurring the old-time English suspicion of foreigners. A much higher type of social arbiter was a Frenchman who for twenty years during the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign gave law to the great world of fashion, besides exercising a definite influence upon English art and literature.
This was Count Albert Guillaume d’Orsay, the son of one of Napoleon’s generals, and descended by a morganatic marriage from the King of Wurttemburg. The old general, his father, was a man of high courage, impressive appearance, and keen intellect, all of which qualities he transmitted to his son. The young Count d’Orsay, when he came of age, found the Napoleonic era ended and France governed by Louis XVIII. The king gave Count d’Orsay a commission in the army in a regiment stationed at Valence in the southeastern part of France. He had already visited England and learned the English language, and he had made some distinguished friends there, among whom were Lord Byron and Thomas Moore.
On his return to France he began his garrison life at Valence, where he showed some of the finer qualities of his character. It is not merely that he was handsome and accomplished and that he had the gift of winning the affections of those about him. Unlike Nash and Brummel, he was a gentleman in every sense, and his courtesy was of the highest kind. At the balls given by his regiment, although he was more courted than any other officer, he always sought out the plainest girls and showed them the most flattering attentions. No “wallflowers” were left neglected when D’Orsay was present.
It is strange how completely human beings are in the hands of fate. Here was a young French officer quartered in a provincial town in the valley of the Rhone. Who would have supposed that he was destined to become not only a Londoner, but a favorite at the British court, a model of fashion, a dictator of etiquette, widely known for his accomplishments, the patron of literary men and of distinguished artists? But all these things were to come to pass by a mere accident of fortune.