There are few names as evocative as Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly – I feel 12% more sophisticated just typing it out. One of those names like Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam which seem to exist in their own perfumed cloud of posh, too archaic, too evanescent for an industrialised world.
The bearer of said name was a French writer born in 1808, best known for a collection of short stories under the title Les Diaboliques. But for our purposes he is most interesting as the author of Du dandysme et de George Brummell, published in English as The Anatomy of Dandyism. Appearing in 1844, this slim volume was the first serious appraisal of the cult of the dandy which grew around George “Beau” Brummell in Regency England. Like jazz, like Samuel Beckett, like Tina Arena, dandyism had to go to France to be taken seriously.
For Brummell and his associates, dressing well required hours in front of the mirror to arrive at an ensemble of suiting and grooming so perfect that it eluded notice. But Barbey d’Aurevilly knew that dandyism wasn’t just “the art of deportment, costume, and fortunate and audacious dictatorship of the toilet and exterior elegance. It is certainly that, but it is much more.” And if it were possible to codify the dandies’ self-presentation as a “look” (and caricatures of the time prove that it was) then that “look” had been and gone.
In any case, for Barbey d’Aurevilly, “mimicry is not resemblance. One can catch an air or a pose, as one can steal the shape of a dress-coat; but the comedy is wearisome, the mask is painful…” The French dandy was, by all accounts, quite the head-turner, and the effort he went to in constructing his look was much in evidence. Tall for the era, he stepped out in rouge and lipstick, with rings on his fingers, dye in his hair and lace at his cuffs. The whole arrangement owed little to the cool reserve of les rosbifs; as Barbey d’Aurevilly noted, “I have been as dandy as one can be in France,” further commenting that “the country of Richelieu will never produce a Brummell”.
The dandy was one of the responses of a society shaken out of its accustomed certainties by the French Revolution, an assertion that superiority could be achieved by self-will rather than merely bestowed by birth. Baudelaire would later speak of the “aristocratic superiority” of the dandy’s soul, of “a new kind of aristocracy”. But Barbey d’Aurevilly, as his name suggests, also belonged to the old kind of aristocracy, the kind that comes with arms and servants. Minor aristocracy, and newly minted, but still…
It was just one of the paradoxes he would embrace throughout his life. An 1881 portrait by Émile Lévy (above) shows Barbey d’Aurevilly still hanging on to his fussy trimmings, as out of fashion as his withering hauteur and the faux-regal backdrop. As he grew older he became increasingly reactionary, discarding the atheism of his youth and embracing Catholicism. His own writings continued to favour the spiritual and the supernatural and he had no time for the earthy, earthly earnestness then in literary vogue, dismissing author Émile Zola, for instance, as a “mud-stained Hercules who wallows in the Augean dung and adds his little bit to it.”
This disdain for naturalism and the memory of his dandiacal past influenced the Decadents, particularly J.K. Huysmans. The hero of Huysmans’ classic novel, À rebours, comments that “the works of Barbey d’Aurevilly were the only ones whose ideas and style offered the gaminess he so loved to savour in the Latin and decadent, monastic writers of past ages.” Barbey himself reviewed the novel, repeating the observation he made of Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal that “after such a book it only remains for the author to choose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the Cross” (Huysmans, like Barbey, chose the latter).
Ever the individualist, Barbey d’Aurevilly issued a death bed order that no-one should attend his funeral and died on this day in 1889.