ONCE AGAIN WEDNESDAY: The Witty Lord Alvanley

There were so many un-witty imitators of dandyism in the days of the Prince Regent that the appearance of Lord Alvanley with his delicate manner and exquisite style always caused a quiet sensation. To Lord Alvanley was awarded the reputation of being able to say as smart a thing as even Richard Brinsley Sheridan could rap out, whose repartee on all occasions was equal to any need. Captain Gronow alleges that Lord Alvanley had the talk of the day completely under his control, and was the arbiter of the school for scandal in all the St. James’s district. A bon mot attributed to him gave rise to the belief that Solomon caused the downfall and disappearance of Beau Brummell; for on some friends of the prince of dandies observing that if he had remained in London something might have been done for him by his old associates, Alvanley replied, “he has done quite right to be off; it was Solomon’s judgment.” The real point of this remark is that one of Brummell’s chief creditors was a gentleman of the Jewish persuasion whose name by chance happened to be Solomon.

The success of Lord Alvanley’s casual observations, which were evidently delivered as though he were not conscious of what the effect would be, was due to their cynical aptitude. For example, Sir Lumley Skeffington, who had been a considerable lion in his day and whose spectacle “The Sleeping Beauty” attracted much attention when it was produced at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, excited Alvanley’s wit. Sir Lumley, after having met with many misadventures and a “seclusion in the Bench,” hoped that by gay attire and a general jauntiness he would be able to get back into fashionable life once more. But his old friends were not very kindly disposed towards him once his stint in debtor’s prison had been completed. Observing this, Alvanley, being asked on one occasion who that smart looking individual was, answered, “it is a second edition of the ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ bound in calf; richly gilt and illustrated by many cuts.”

Alvanley used to say that Brummell was the only dandelion that flourished year after year in the hot-bed of the fashionable world: he had taken root. Lions were generally annual, but Brummell was perennial, and he quoted a letter from Walter Scott : ” If you are celebrated for writing verses, or for slicing cucumbers, for being two feet taller, or two feet less, than any other biped, for acting plays when you should be whipped at school, or for attending schools and institutions when you should be preparing for your grave, your notoriety becomes a talisman, an “open sesame,” which gives way to everything till you are voted a bore, and discarded for a new plaything.”

Lord Alvanley had one very great advantage over all the wits of the Regency. He had travelled in France and Russia and had the command of languages. He was equally at home in French society and Russian as he was at the Court of the King of England. We have it on record that he was one of the best examples of a man who combined a genial wit with the utmost good-nature. The slight lisp became irresistible and added zest to his piquant sayings. He was what we should term in these days a jolly man, because as he grew old he also grew rotund. And he excelled in all manly exercises, was an ardent rider to hounds, and was plucky to the core. He has been described as having the happy face of one of the happy friars, whose portraits are always a joy to look upon. He had, of course, his peculiarities, and one of them was that he would have an apricot tart on the sideboard the whole year round, no matter if apricots were not in season, and he always invited eight people to dinner, when, as can be understood, they feasted of the best. Yet this good-humoured epicure was once in a risky affair.

It happened that Lord Alvanley made some strong allusions to O’Connell in the House of Lords, which resulted in a duel on Wimbledon Common. Morgan O’Connell said he would take his father’s place, and did so. Alvanley’s second was Colonel George Dawson Damer, while Colonel Hodges acted for Morgan O’Connell. It appears that several shots were fired without effect, and the seconds then interfered and put a stop to any further hostilities. On their way home in a hackney coach, Alvanley said, “What a clumsy fellow O’Connell must be, to miss such a fat fellow as I am. He ought to practise at a haystack to get his hand in.” When the carriage drove up to Alvanley’s door, he gave the coachman a sovereign. The man was profuse in his thanks, and said: “It’s a great deal for only having taken your lordship to Wimbledon.” “No, my good man,” said Alvanley, ” I give it to you, not for taking me, but for bringing me back.”

One of the greatest charms of Alvanley’s manner was its easy naturalness. He was an excellent classical scholar, a good speaker, and whatever he undertook to do he succeeded in. He preserved his wit and good-humour to the last; notwithstanding the gout, from which he suffered. He died “quite agreeably,” as he said to friends at his bedside, in 1849.

Originally published April 2010

Leave a Reply