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The Ballad of Beau Brocade

June 3, 2009

Pimpernel recently unturned a ballad about an 18th century Highwayman by the name of Beau Brocade. The ballad is called “The Ballad of Beau Brocade” which seems an apt and well enough title for this accomplished work by Mr. Henry Austin Dobson.

Dobson lived and wrote at the end of the 19th century, some time after the events of which he writes, but appears to have been fascinated with the 18th century (and who could blame him):

In 1883 Dobson published Old-World Idylls, which contained some of his most characteristic work. By this time his taste was gradually settling on the period with which it has since become almost exclusively associated; and the spirit of the 18th century was revived in “The Ballad of Beau Brocade” and in “The Story of Rosina”, as nowhere else in modern English poetry. In “Beau Brocade”, the pictorial quality of his work is at its very best.

from Wikipedia

The best thing about this Ballad is that it’s available free online at Open Library, so now you can go and read an actual scan of the Ballad in the original book Olde World Idylls. This book contains other poems about the 18th century (including a rather fine work about a sedan chair) complete with illustrations by Hugh Thomson. (More on Hugh Thomson over at Jane Austen’s World here.)

Baroness Orczy (of whom Pimpernel is extremely fond) wrote a novel about Beau Brocade in 1907, in which her Beau is a kind of Robin Hood type highwayman who robs from the rich and helps the poor and needy. (The full etext of this novel can be read over at Blakeney Manor.) Orczy followed it up with the play of the same name in 1908, and it was adapted as a silent film in 1916.

Beau Brocade seems to have his nickname in Dobson’s poem for his outfit:

“By the light of the moon she could see him drest

In his famous gold-sprigged tambour vest

And under his silver grey surtout

The laced historical coat of blue…”

Laced meaning decked with silver or gold lace one supposes. Orczy’s Beau Brocade is also a bit of a dandy in his dress with his “fine brown coat… with its ample, silk-lined, full skirts, and rich, cut-steel buttons; there was the long, richly-embroidered waistcoat; the lace cuffs at the wrists, and the handsome sword-belt…”

Was Beau Brocade a real historical figure? Pimpernel can’t find any other information on the web  that doesn’t relate to these fictional sources already mentioned. Apart from, that is, in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, published in 1748, where a character mentions Beau Brocade:

“Thou art in mourning now, as well as I: but if ever
thy ridiculous turn lead thee again to be Beau Brocade, I will bedizen
thee, as the girls say, on my return, to my own fancy, and according to
thy own natural appearance.”

If he did exist, and Pimpernel hopes he did, he may have been the very first dandy highwayman!

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