The best known novel of author Catherine Gore, who writes often as ‘Mrs. Gore’, is Cecil, or The Adventures of a Coxcomb, which purports to be the autobiography of a companion of Lord Byron. Cecil Danby, who later becomes Lord Ormington, is himself a Regency dandy and a Byronic figure. As the novel’s self-centered but perceptive first person narrator, he sheds a witty and revealing light on the Regency period, and, most significantly, its Victorian reception.
This novel, written in 1845, is set in the Regency era in England, which was considered to be 1811 to 1820. Mrs. Gore is a witty writer, and a keen observer of the times and society. The story, while rather melodramatic, is so embedded in wonderful ‘quote bait’, that I just couldn’t put it down.
Cecil is a coxcomb, a fob, a dandy, incredibly good looking, extremely well dressed, well-mannered, and charming as all get out. Everyone loves his society. Being the younger son, he will not inherit the Earldom of his father — that will go to his older brother, John, whom he considers a namby-pamby, dull, boring, in short, just awful. He also has a sister of whom he has nothing good to say, but what he does say is just so awfully sarcastic that the reader cannot help but smile. Therefore, since he will inherit money but no title nor the estate, he is left with nothing to do, and is encouraged to find employment that suits his talents to while away his hours. He is set up with a job in the government at Downing Street.
His something-of-a-friend from University, of a much lower status than his, tries to keep pace with Cecil, or as he is known familiarly, Cis. Cecil gives us a picture of their differences:
He might be honest – I must be hourourable. Generosity might become him; from me, nothing short of magnanimity would suffice.
He is a friend of a friend of his mother. a woman totally self-involved, of whom he says:
Lady Harriet was a person remarked for what the great world call high-breeding. My notion of high-breeding is the manner that raises others to your level, without at any moment allowing you to descend to theirs, — the essential characteristic of high birth. But Lady Harriet, instead of placing other people at their ease only contrived to show how much she was at ease herself, often at the cost of comfort to her associates.
His opinion of politics:
As a matter of taste, politics delighted me not, not politicians neither. At a dinnerparty, they are crammed down one’s throat by one’s neighbours, as fish sauces are forced upon one by the butler.
Much to his surprise, and that of everyone else, his quiet, retiring brother appears in the House of Lords as the Honourable Member for Rigmarole, and makes an astounding passionate speech on something, and so because the cause célèbre of the day. Cecil’s father who definitely does not like his second son, is certainly proud of his heir, and Cecil takes to some heavy duty socializing.
The narrative is told by Cecil in his mid years, as he is writing his memoirs. We learn of his affection for a young lady of Portugal who is not of suitable birth, and whom his family contrives to send back to her home country. When he finally makes it there on the heels of delivering important government papers to that country, he goes to visit her, to find she has died of a broken heart. He then wants to dies himself, so joins the army in order to fight in the Iberian Peninsular war, where he assumes he will be killed.
After passing three years in the war without dying, he goes home to England to find his family more disposed to him than before. He takes up life again as a coxcomb, and enjoys himself with his family and his 3 year old nephew. One day, while riding with the boy, the horse was startled, the boy fell off and died, and Cecil was once again on the outs with the family. He goes to Europe to try to recover from his sorrow, and in Bavaria, seeing a beautiful young woman in the house across from his lodgings, contrives to be invited to their home for a meal. The lovely woman, wife of Herr Bau-Berg und Weg Inspector, reveals herself to be a rather disgusting gormand, and with manners coarse and unlettered, and his hopes of a love affair are dashed when he discovers her true nature.
Wilhelmina’s piano was execrable, to an ear accustomed to the full-bodied tones of Broadwood and Kirkman; and she had not skirmished up and down the keys five minutes, before my nerves were demi-semi-quavered and chromaticized into a state of anguish. I felt as if I had swallowed a glass of vitriol.
Not so the Herr Bau-Berg und Weg Inspector! Exalted to the seventh heaven by this astounding rattling of keys and chaotic confusion of sharps, flats, and naturals, he saw fit not to beat, but to stampe time to the music till the flooring seemed giving way under the horrible iteration of his blows. The measured tramp of the commendatores ghost in Don Giovanni, is not half so appalling.
Escaping as soon as he could, he then goes to Italy with his friend Byron (yeah, the famous Lord Byron) where in Venice he rescues a beautiful gypsy girl from her abusive father, only to find she had drowned in one of the canals.
It is getting so that being a friend of Cecil’s is a rather dangerous business.
After a soujourn in Paris, he returns to England, where we are treated to some lovely ranting about the abysmal state of British cookery, especially in comparison with the French.
The story trundles on and on, the version I read being the two volumes of the work offeren in one digital edition.
Keep in mind that this novel is a fine example of the Silver Fork school of romance novels. These were a 19th-century genre of English literature that depicted the lives of the upper class. They dominated the English literature market from the mid-1820s to the mid-1840s. They were often indiscreet, and on occasion “keys” would circulate that identified the real people on which the principal characters were based. They laid emphasis on the relations of the sexes and on marital relationships.
It really was a fun read, and the commentary on the life and times was just priceless.