Gosse's Gossip - BEAU NASH




THE LIFE OF RICHARD NASH, ESQ.; late Master of the Ceremonies at Bath. Extracted principally from his Original Papers. The Second Edition. London: J. Newbery. 1762.

Ex-classics edition at http://www.exclassics.com/nash/nashintr.htm

            There are cases, not known to every collector of books, where it is not the first which is the really desirable edition of a work, but the second. One of these rare examples of the exception which proves the rule is the second edition of Goldsmith's Life of Beau Nash. Disappointment awaits him who possesses only the first; it is in the second that the best things originally appeared. The story is rather to be divined than told as history, but we can see pretty plainly how the lines of it must have run. In the early part of 1762, Oliver Goldsmith, at that time still undistinguished, but in the very act of blossoming into fame, received a commission of fourteen guineas to write for Newbery a life of the strange old beau, Mr. Nash, who had died in 1761. On the same day, which was March 5th, he gave a receipt to the publisher for three other publications, written or to be written, so that very probably it was not expected that he should immediately supply all the matter sold. In the summer he seems to have gone down to Bath on a short visit, and to have made friends with the Beau's executor, Mr. George Scott. It has even been said that he cultivated the Mayor and Aldermen of Bath with such success that they presented him with yet another fifteen guineas. But of this, in itself highly improbable, instance of municipal benefaction, the archives of the city yield no proof. At least Mr. Scott gave him access to Nash's papers, and with these he seems to have betaken himself back to London.

            It is a heart-rending delusion and a cruel snare to be paid for your work before you accomplish it. As soon as once your work is finished you ought to be promptly paid; but to receive your lucre one minute before it is due, is to tempt Providence to make a Micawber of you. Goldsmith, of course, without any temptation being needed, was the very ideal Micawber of letters, and the result of paying him beforehand was that he had, simply, to be popped into the mill by force, and the copy ground out of him. It is evident that in the case of the first edition of the Life of Beau Nash, the grinding process was too mercifully applied, and the book when it appeared was short measure. It has no dedication, no "advertisement," and very few notes, while it actually omits many of the best stories. The wise bibliophile, therefore, will eschew it, and will try to get the second edition issued a few weeks later in the same year, which Newbery evidently insisted that Goldsmith should send out to the public in proper order.

            Goldsmith treats Nash with very much the same sort of indulgent and apologetic sympathy with which the late M. Barbey d'Aurevilly treats Brummell. He does not affect to think that the world calls for a full-length statue of such a fantastic hero; but he seems to claim leave to execute a statuette in terracotta for a cabinet of curiosities. From that point of view, as a queer object of vertu, as a specimen of the bric-à-brac of manners, both the one and the other, the King of Beaux and the Emperor of Dandies, are welcome to amateurs of the odd and the entertaining. At the head of Goldsmith's book stands a fine portrait of Nash, engraved by Anthony Walker, one of the best and rarest of early English line-engravers, after an oil-picture by William Hoare, presently to be one of the foundation-members of the Royal Academy, and now and throughout his long life the principal representative of the fine arts at Bath. Nash is here represented in his famous white hat–galero albo, as his epitaph has it; the ensign of his rule at Bath, the more than coronet of his social sway.

            The breast of his handsome coat is copiously trimmed with rich lace, and his old, old eyes, with their wrinkles and their crow's feet, look demurely out from under an incredible wig, an umbrageous, deep-coloured ramilie of early youth. It is a wonderfully hard-featured, serious, fatuous face, and it lives for us under the delicate strokes of Anthony Walker's graver. The great Beau looks as he must have looked when the Duchess of Queensberry dared to appear at the Assembly House on a ball night with a white apron on. It is a pleasant story, and only told properly in our second edition. King Nash had issued an edict forbidding the wearing of aprons. The Duchess dared to disobey. Nash walked up to her and deftly snatched her apron from her, throwing it on to the back benches where the ladies' women sat. What a splendid moment! Imagine the excitement of all that fashionable company–the drawn battle between the Majesty of Etiquette and the Majesty of Beauty! The Beau remarked, with sublime calm, that "none but Abigails appeared in white aprons." The Duchess hesitated, felt that her ground had slipped from under her, gave way with the most admirable tact, and "with great good sense and humour, begged his Majesty's pardon,"

            Aprons were not the only red rags to the bull of ceremony. He was quite as unflinching an enemy to top-boots. He had already banished swords from the assembly-room, because their clash frightened the ladies, and their scabbards tore people's dresses. But boots were not so easily banished. The country squires liked to ride into the city, and, leaving their horses at a stable, walk straight into the dignity of the minuet. Nash, who had a genius for propriety, saw how hateful this was, and determined to put a stop to it. He slew top-boots and aprons at the same time, and with the shaft of Apollo. He indited a poem on the occasion, and a very good example of satire by irony it is. It is short enough to quote entire:



Come, one and all,
  To Hoyden Hall,
For there's th' Assembly to-night.
  None but prude fools
  Mind manners and rules,
We Hoydens do decency slight.

Come, Trollops and Slatterns,
  Cocked hats and white aprons,
This best our modesty suits;
  For why should not we
  In dress be as free
As Hogs-Norton squires in boots?

            Why, indeed? But the Hogs-Norton squires, as is their wont, were not so easily pierced to the heart as the noble slatterns. Nash turned Aristophanes, and depicted on a little stage a play in which Mr. Punch, under very disgraceful circumstances, excused himself for wearing boots by quoting the practice of the pump-room beaux. This seems to have gone to the conscience of Hogs-Norton at last; but what really gave the death-blow to top-boots, as a part of evening dress, was the incident of Nash's going up to a gentleman, who had made his appearance in the ball-room in this unpardonable costume, and remarking, "bowing in an arch manner," that he appeared to have "forgotten his horse."

            It had not been without labour and a long struggle that Nash had risen to this position of unquestioned authority at Bath. His majestic rule was the result of more than half a century of painstaking. He had been born far back in the seventeenth century, so far back that, incredible as it sounds, a love adventure of his early youth had supplied Vanbrugh, in 1695, with an episode for his comedy of Aesop. But after trying many forms of life, and weary of his own affluence, he came to Bath just at the moment when the fortunes of that ancient centre of social pleasure were at their lowest ebb. Queen Anne had been obliged to divert herself, in 1703, with a fiddle and a hautboy, and with country dances on the bowling-green. The lodgings were dingy and expensive, the pump-house had no director, the nobility had haughtily withdrawn from such vulgar entertainments as the city now alone afforded. The famous and choleric physician, Dr. Radcliffe, in revenge for some slight he had endured, had threatened to "throw a toad into King Bladud's Well," by writing a pamphlet against the medicinal efficacy of the waters.

            The moment was critical; the greatness of Bath, which had been slowly declining since the days of Elizabeth, was threatened with extinction when Nash came to it, wealthy, idle, patient, with a genius for organisation, and in half a century he made it what he left it when he died in his eighty-ninth year, the most elegant and attractive of the smaller social resorts of Europe. Such a man, let us be certain, was not wholly ridiculous. There must have been something more in him than in a mere idol of the dandies, like Brummell, or a mere irresistible buck and lady-killer, like Lauzun. In these latter men the force is wholly destructive; they are animated by a feline vanity, a tiger-spirit of egotism. Against the story of Nash and the Duchess of Queensberry, so wholesome and humane, we put that frightful anecdote that Saint-Simon tells of Lauzun's getting the hand of another duchess under his high heel, and pirouetting on it to make the heel dig deeper into the flesh. In all the repertory of Nash's extravagances there is not one story of this kind, not one that reveals a wicked force. He was fatuous, but beneficent; silly, but neither cruel nor corrupt.

            Goldsmith, in this second edition at least, has taken more pains with his life of Nash than he ever took again in a biography. His Parnell, his Bolingbroke, his Voltaire, are not worthy of his name and fame; not all the industry of annotators can ever make them more than they were at first–potboilers, turned out with no care or enthusiasm, and unconscientiously prepared. But this subtle figure of a Master of Ceremonial; this queer old presentment of a pump-room king, crowned with a white hat, waiting all day long in his best at the bow-window of the Smyrna Coffee-House to get a bow from that other, and alas! better accredited royalty, the Prince of Wales; this picture, of an old beau, with his toy-shop of gold snuff-boxes, his agate-rings, his senseless obelisk, his rattle of faded jokes and blunted stories–all this had something very attractive to Goldsmith both in its humour and its pathos; and he has left us, in his Life of Nash, a study which is far too little known, but which deserves to rank among the best-read productions of that infinitely sympathetic pen, which has bequeathed to posterity Mr. Tibbs and Moses Primrose and Tony Lumpkin.


Prev Next