THE RISE AND FALL OF A REGENCY DANDY: The Life and Times of Scrope Berdmore Davies by T. A. J. Burnett

THE RISE AND FALL OF A REGENCY DANDY: The Life and Times of Scrope Berdmore Davies

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In 1976 a trunk turned up at Barclay's Bank, in London, that had been deposited there in 1820 by Byron's rakehell friend, Scrope Davies (1782-1852), on his flight to the Continent in ruin. From the contents of the trunk--which included Eton bills, bank books, and other ephemera, as well as letters and part of a Childe Harold ms.--Burnett, a Keeper at the British Museum, has pieced together an image of Scrope Davies as the archetype of a Regency dandy, and ""the invisible muse of Don Juan."" Still. he comes somewhat short of a book: there are many, many pages of what can only be called Byron marginalia. The historical reconstruction, as it pertains to Davies himself, is fascinating. On the reasonable presumption that it was Eton that turned the provincial parson's son into a high-living gamester, he recounts the brutishness of the boys' daily lives and adduces evidence (from the bills, and elsewhere) of how they relieved it: the nightly games of chance, the easy credit for clothing or drink, ""the army of fags"" (biddable lower classmen), the dress-up ceremonies and amateur theatricals. To establish Davies as one of Byron's two closest intimates from their meeting at Cambridge (c. 1807) onward--a more congenial drinking-buddy, perhaps, than the weightier Hobhouse--he quotes from many exchanges of letters, which also attest to Byron's appreciation of Davies' ""vivacity"" and wit. Identifying ""dandyism"" as a rival aristocracy of men who lived ""by sheer nerve, by unconquerable self-assurance,"" he then summons up the dandy's existence--emulated by Byron, and commemorated ""in his greatest poem""--as manifest, most especially, in professional gambling. In this section, however, there also begin the lengthy discussions of Davies' involvement in Byron's affairs (first, as regards a particular, now-disproven loan) that will be of interest chiefly to Byron devotees. And that is also true, as we draw close to the break-up of the Byron circle (he himself died in 1824), of Davies vis-à-vis Augusta Leigh and Annabella Byron. (Another long segment explains how Davies came to have that Childe Harold fragment.) Of some material interest, though, is the friends' debate over the suppression of Don Juan, as well as what Burnett himself makes of Davies' peripheral involvement (with the comer, Hobhouse) in Radical Reform politics. Much of this will properly be incorporated in Byron scholarship; some casts light on Regency manners and mores. For now, it will most please those who are also fired by the idea of what can be made of a few chance scraps of paper.

Pub Date: April 2nd, 1982
Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown