We are assured that he has it, repeatedly, but somehow it never quite gets off the page. Now Waugh is some kind of writerly genius, and Sebastian is based on the real thing, but in this exercise, the author is coming up against a writing challenge even harder than describing sex without sounding absurd. Charm, like certain jokes, is evanescent.
As with Sebastian, so with Alfred. That he had charm and by the bucket-load is widely attested, and his CV ticks all the boxes for any romance writer’s dashing leading man. His father, a general for Bonaparte,* was considered the best looking man in the army and a dab hand at warfare. While the general was off expanding and defending the empire, Alfred was raised by his maternal grandmother, another good looking and elegant wit, Anne Franchi, aka Madame Craufurd, mistress of Duke of Wurtemberg among others. (Of her it is written “there is considerable mystery about this good lady’s career”. But I digress.)
Young Alfred reached adolescence just as the wars had ended, and Paris had become a paradise of fine living. He himself could ride gracefully, fence, draw, converse, dress – a French Beau Brummell, in fact, and if that profile above looks familiar, well, not without reason. Rea Irvin used him as the model for Eustace Tilley. His military career, such as it was, consisted of parade ground pirouetting and spiffing uniforms. No surprise that he had a way with the ladies.
He fell in with the family of the Earl of Blessington, with whom he traveled to Italy on a grand tour. The emotional connection was so intense that in 1827 he had married the Earl’s fifteen year old daughter by a previous marriage.
A sort of reverse Humbert Humbert affair, as it happened. The one he really wanted, and who wanted him, was the Countess of Blessington (it is whispered that there was a little something with the Earl as well, but absent better evidence, we may be skeptical). Granted that upper class mores are a little less stiff than ours of the bourgeoisie, but even so, that kind of arrangement really does take a whole mess of presence. In any event, when the count died in 1829, Alfred was right on hand to comfort the bereaved widow in a truly Gallic fashion.
It seems that Lady Blessington was disenchanted with the then current taste for musk in perfume. Alfred knew nothing of these matters, but if ever there was a job for a dandy, this was it. He schooled himself on the art of perfume making and came up with a little floral number he liked to call “L’Eau de Bouquet” (now marketed as L’Etiquette Bleu.) It apparently did the trick for his lady girlfriend.
Alfred may have gotten the girl, but he failed to make hay out of his hobby. Later relatives were more enterprising. The story goes that other D’Orsays chanced on the formula some fifty years after Alfred’s death and, aristocracy being back in favor as a marketing tool, called the new enterprise Parfums D’Orsay.
Too late for Alfred to benefit, and regrettably, we must report that the fellow did not come to a good end. He and the countess had set up a popular salon for the Smart Set at Gore House. Writers (Dickens was an admirer), artists, politicians, toffs and people of charm were welcome.
The Salon was not a cheap enterprise, and eventually debts, the scourge of the High Living/Low Income class crept up on the pair. D’Orsay’s wife – remember her? – not surprisingly, sued for divorce in 1838 and was obliged to pay him off to the staggering sum of a hundred thousand pounds.
It wasn’t enough. Within ten years he was bankrupt and he had squirreled back to Paris, Lady Blessington not far behind, she having sold off all her worldly goods. She died soon thereafter. He grieved. He was to have gotten a make-work job as director of Beaux-Arts but did not live long enough to set up his desk. Louis Napoleon was among the mourners.
Today the couple lie beneath a decidedly cramped looking pyramidal tomb at Chambourcy.
It’s rather – charming.
For more on D’Orsay, try:
W. Teignmouth Shore, D’Orsay: Or, The Complete Dandy