Wednesday, July 26, 2017

`The Frills and Furbelows of Things'

“But, unlike us, they were not concerned wholly with the inward and spiritual side of life. They cared for the material surface, too. They were learned in the frills and furbelows of things.”

The voice is unmistakably Max Beerbohm’s. No other author calibrates his irony so finely it can be read by the unsuspecting as testimony under oath. The passage above appears in “The Decline of the Graces” in his essay collection Yet Again (1922). Four pages later I note another line that sets off a time-released laugh: “On the banner that I wave is embroidered a device of prunes and prisms.” Beerbohm borrows the final phrase from an amusing riff spoken by Mrs. General in Little Dorrit (1857):

“Father is rather vulgar, my dear . . . [He] gives a pretty form to the lips. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, are all very good for the lips: especially prunes and prism. You will find it serviceable in the formation of a demeanour, if you sometimes say to yourself in company or on entering a room, `Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism, prunes and prism.’”

Beerbohm’s essay is sparked by his reading of The Young Lady’s Book (1822), which is subtitled A Manuel for Elegant Recreations, Exercises, and Pursuits. From his description it sounds like Regency-era Miss Manners, but what interests me is “furbelows.” From the context I took it to mean filigree, something inessential added to something else, and the OED confirms it:  “A piece of stuff pleated and puckered on a gown or petticoat; a flounce; the pleated border of a petticoat or gown. Now often in pl. as a contemptuous term for showy ornaments or trimming, esp. in a lady’s dress.” (In its charmingly pedantic way, the OED includes a later mutation of “furbelow”: “A name for Laminaria bulbosa, a seaweed with a large wrinkled frond.”)

I have the sort of mind that perceives puns where none exists. “Furbelow,” down to its precise spelling, suggests a bodily region. Rather primly, the OED makes no mention of it, unlike Vol. 1 of A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. Published by the Athlone Press in 1994, its three volumes are the work of Gordon Williams, who defines “furbelow” bluntly: “whore; vulva.” He then relates the slang term to its conventional usage: “The petticoat flounce was popularly worn by prostitutes, and attributive references are common. But it becomes a harlot-term in its own right, and provides a punning extension to the sexual parts (cf. fur).” Williams fills two-thirds of a page with citations, mostly drawn from what he calls in his introduction “the more ephemeral sources of broadside, pamphlet and newsbook.” He cites Edward Ward’s (1667-1731) Adam and Eve stript of their furbelows: or, the fashionable virtues and vices of both sexes expos’d to publick view (1715), a work Williams describes as “raffish.”

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