the myth of the butterfly dandy

Alfred d’Orsay is commonly known as the butterfly dandy. How this term came about might be explained by the following excerpt of „The World of London“ series in the Blackwood Edinburgh Magazine from 1843.



The cumulative or aggregative property of wealth and power, and in a less degree of knowledge also, make up in time a consolidation of these elements in the hands of particular classes, which, for our present purposes, we choose to term an aristocracy of birth, wealth, knowledge, or power, as the case may be. The word aristocracy, distinctive of these particular classes, we use in a conventional sense only, and beg leave to protest, in limine, against any other acceptation of the term. We use the word, because it is popularly comprehensive; the [Greek: hoi aristoi], distinguished from the [Greek: hoi polloi]: „good men,“ as is the value of goodness in the city; „the great,“ as they are understood by penners of fashionable novels; „talented,“ or „a genius,“ as we say in the coteries; but not a word, mark you, of the abstract value of these signs–their positive significations; good may be bad, great mean, talented or a genius, ignorant or a puppy. We have nothing to do with that; these are thy terms, our Public; thou art responsible for the use made of them. Thou it is who tellest us that the sun rises and sets, (which it does not,) and talkest of the good and great, without knowing whether they are great and good, or no. Our business is to borrow your recognized improprieties of speech, only so far as they will assist us in making ourselves understood.

When Archimedes, or some other gentleman, said that he could unfix the earth had he a point of resistance for his lever, he illustrated, by a hypothesis of physics, the law of the generation of aristocracies. Aristocracies begin by having a leg to stand on, or by getting a finger in the pie. The multitude, on the contrary, never have any thing, because they never had any thing, they want the point d’oppui, the springing-ground whence to jump above their condition, where, transformed by the gilded rays of wealth or power, discarding their several skins or sloughs, they sport and flutter, like lesser insects, in the sunny beams of aristocratic life.

Indeed, we have often thought that the transformation of the insect tribes was intended, by a wise Omnipotence, as an illustration (for our own benefit) of the rise and progress of the mere aristocracy of fashionable life.

The first condition of existence of these diminutive creatures, is the egg, or embryo state; this the anxious parent attaches firmly to some leaf or bough, capable of affording sufficient sustenance to the future grub, who, in due course, eats his way through the vegetable kingdom upon which he is quartered, for no merit or exertion of his own; and where his career is only to be noted by the ravages of his insatiable jaws. After a brief period of lethargy or pupa state, this good-for-nothing creature flutters forth, powdered, painted, perfumed, scorning the dirt from which he sprung, and leading a life of uselessness and vanity, until death, in the shape of an autumnal shower, prostrates himself and his finery in the dust.

How beautiful and how complete is the analogy between the insect and his brother butterfly of fashionable life! While yet an embryo, a worm, he grubs his way through a good estate, and not a little ready money. Then, after a long sojourn in the pupa or puppy state–longer far
than that of any other maggot–he emerges a perfect butterfly, vain, empty, fluttering, and conceited, idling, flirting, flaunting, philandering, until the summer of his ton is past, when he dies, or is arrested, and expiates a life of puerile vanity in Purgatory or the Queen’s Bench.

Source: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Vol. 53 (327). January 1843.


Melanie Grundmann

Dr. Melanie Grundmann ist Kulturwissenschaftlerin und beschäftigt sich in Büchern, bloggend und in Vorträgen mit dem Phänomen des Dandys. Zuletzt erschien das von ihr herausgegebene "Dandy-Kochbuch. Originalrezepte für Männer mit Stil" bei Rogner & Bernhardt.

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