Paddling in the Gravy
- The Imaginary Autocrat: Beau Nash and the Invention of Bath by John Eglin
Profile, 292 pp, £20.00, May 2005, ISBN 1 86197 302 0
When John Wesley visited Bath in 1739 to inveigh against the follies that flourished at hot springs, he was challenged by a fleshy, domineering figure in a white beaver hat, who demanded to know by what authority he was preaching. Wesley’s retort (or so he claimed) was ‘Pray, sir, are you a justice of the peace, or the mayor of this city? By what authority do you ask me these things?’ Richard (‘Beau’) Nash was at a loss for a ready reply. The ‘King of Bath’, as he liked to be known, was the gamester son of a Swansea bottlemaker, a heavyweight playboy whose abundant assurance, or chutzpah, had qualified him to act as arbiter of elegance at a rowdy Bethesda not yet marked out for international fame. He had no more right to invoke the conventicle against illegal preaching than he had to call out the military. How this myth-surrounded adventurer came to play the fashionable despot, and in effect to impose his own tax-supported empire, or ‘Company’, on the Corporation of Bath, is the puzzle explored by John Eglin in The Imaginary Autocrat. It is a task that was first attempted by Oliver Goldsmith in a ‘quickie’ life put together immediately after Nash’s death.
Vol. 27 No. 15 · 4 August 2005
I was disappointed not to see any mention of Tobias Smollett in E.S. Turner’s tour of 18th-century spa towns (LRB, 21 July). In Smollett’s epistolary last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), Matthew Bramble and his entourage provide a vivid example of ‘the English … loss of faith in their spas’. Bramble, a hypochondriac of the first order, describes Bath as a ‘rendezvous of the diseased’ in a letter to his doctor at home: ‘We know not what sores may be running into the water while we are bathing, and what sort of matter we may thus imbibe; the king’s-evil, the scurvy, the cancer, and the pox; and, no doubt, the heat will render the virus the more volatile and penetrating.’ He wasn’t wrong about this; jacuzzis are notorious breeding grounds for nasty bugs. Scarborough, with its newfangled bathing huts, which Turner mentions, suits Bramble better; at least until Humphry Clinker, his big-hearted, simple-minded servant thinks he’s not waving but drowning, and rushes into the sea to drag him out by his ear.
Vol. 27 No. 17 · 1 September 2005
E.S. Turner’s mention of the apocryphal encounter between John Wesley and ‘Beau’ Nash in Bath in 1739 reminded me of another later meeting in which Nash was supposedly bested (LRB, 21 July). Walking towards Wesley along a narrow pavement, Nash is said to have proclaimed, ‘I never make way for a fool.’ Stepping aside, Wesley replied: ‘Don’t you? I always do.’