The Life of Beau Nash by Oliver Goldsmith

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The Life Of Beau Nash

by

Oliver Goldsmith

Foreword by Edmund Gosse

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-a-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 ramillie 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,"

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