From one gendered insult to another: this week we’re looking at literary fops, or gentlemen that are – in some way or another – a bit too concerned with manners of dress, elegance and fashion.
Our featured image (by the wonderful C. E. Brock) comes from John Galt’s 1821 novel The Annals of the Parish (shortly to be added to our corpus), and depicts the singular dancing master of Irville:
One Mr. Macskipnish, of Highland parentage, who had been a valet-de-chambre with a major in the campaigns, and taken a prisoner with him by the French, he having come home in a cartel, took up a dancing-school at Irville, the which art he had learnt in the genteelest fashion, in the mode of Paris, at the French court.
Galt doesn’t specifically use the term “fop” to describe Mr. Macskipnish, but we’ve included his portrait on the basis that his pretensions and his habit of name-dropping seem to fit the theme:
The very bairns on the loan, instead of their wonted play, gaed linking and louping in the steps of Mr. Macskipnish, who was, to be sure, a great curiosity, with long spindle legs, his breast shot out like a duck’s, and his head powdered and frizzled up like a tappit-hen. He was, indeed, the proudest peacock that could be seen, and he had a ring on his finger, and when he came to drink his tea at the Breadland, he brought no hat on his head, but a droll cockit thing under his arm, which, he said, was after the manner of the courtiers at the petty suppers of one Madam Pompadour, who was at that time the concubine of the French king.
Not all of our fops are as carefully described as Galt’s dancing master. In Charlotte Riddell’s 1865 novel George Geith of Fen Court – commonly considered the first business novel – we encounter another fop, this time in the person of a fearsome-sounding bank manager:
At the Merchant’s and Tradesman’s all was plate-glass, frescoes, mouldings, handsome flooring, elaborate ceilings. Behind counters, the highly-polished mahogany whereof shone like a mirror, were ranged rows of clerks, who made themselves as generally disagreeable as it was in the power of bank clerks to do; and in remoter regions, separated by glazed partitions from the vulgar herd, was the sanctum of the manager, a gentleman who united the conciliating manners of a bear with the appearance of a fop.
Unlike Galt Riddell has elected to let the reader fill in this particular fop’s physical appearance to their own satisfaction. Still, I’d imagine some of our readers may notice a resemblance to former employers, in this description…
Sheridan Le Fanu’s The House by the Church-Yard (1863) provides us with further examples of the term “fop”, this time used as a straight-up insult rather than a description of a character. In chapter 82 of the novel, the mysterious Mr. Dangerfield and the imperious Miss Rebecca Chattesworth are involved in a delicate conversation about matters of the heart. The gentleman is hoping at least to navigate these dangerous waters with his dignity intact, but unfortunately the lady’s pet parrot has other ideas:
Mr. Dangerfield said—
‘I’m happy in having found you, Madam; for whatever be my disappointments else, to Miss Rebecca Chattesworth at least I owe a debt of gratitude, which, despairing to repay it, I can only acknowledge; and leaving unacknowledged, I should have departed from Ireland most unhappily.’
‘What a fop! what a fop,’ said the parrot.
‘You rate my poor wishes too highly, Mr. Dangerfield. I over-estimated, myself, my influence with the young lady; but why speak of your departure, Sir, so soon? A little time may yet work a change.’
‘You lie, you dog! you lie, you lie, you lie,’ said the parrot.
‘Madam,’ said he with a shake of his head, ”tis hoping against hope. Time will add to my wrinkles without softening her aversion. I utterly despair. While there remained one spark of hope I should never have dreamed of leaving Chapelizod.’
Here there was a considerable pause, during which the parrot occasionally repeated, ‘You lie, you lie—you dog—you lie.’
‘Of course, Sir, if the chance be not worth waiting for, you do well to be gone wherever your business or your pleasures, Sir, invite you,’ said Aunt Becky, a little loftily.
‘What a fop!’ said the parrot. ‘You lie, you dog!’
Also present in the room during this exchange are several dogs and a misbehaving monkey, who adds his own contribution to the strained atmosphere by teasing the pooches and running around on the furniture. This does not endear him to the guest.
Mr. Dangerfield would have given the brute a slap in the face, but that he knew how that would affect Miss Rebecca Chattesworth.
But what, exactly, defines a fop’s appearance? Well, I think Middlemarch‘s Dr. Tertius Lydgate might have the final word on the matter:
What led her particularly to desire horse-exercise was a visit from Captain Lydgate, the baronet’s third son, who, I am sorry to say, was detested by our Tertius of that name as a vapid fop “parting his hair from brow to nape in a despicable fashion” (not followed by Tertius himself), and showing an ignorant security that he knew the proper thing to say on every topic.
A fop, then, is a gentleman who pays more attention to his appearance than you do.