Le bon ton is a French phrase meaning “the good style” or “good form.” So one could be part of the ton, if one had the style for it, which is why Beau Brummell could be a leader of fashion and society despite not having much of a background. All of which is very ironic for Brummel was born into the “middle class.”
“[George Bryan Brummell] Brummell was born in London, the younger son of William Brummell, a politician, of Donnington Grove in Berkshire. The family was middle class, but the elder Brummell was ambitious for his son to become a gentleman, and young George was raised with that understanding. Brummell was educated at Eton and made his precocious mark on fashion when he not only modernised the white stock, or cravat, that was the mark of the Eton boy, but added a gold buckle to it He progressed to Oxford University, where, by his own example, he made cotton stockings and dingy cravats a thing of the past. He left the university after only a year, at the age of sixteen.” [John, Doran (1857), Miscellaneous Works, Volume I: Habits and Men, Beau Brummell, Great Britain: Richard Bentley, p. 379.]
Brummell would not have had the influence he possessed if he had not been a member of the Prince of Wales’s inner circle and taken up by the Whigs. Though Brummell’s downfall is said to have started from his bad ton of arguing with, and then insulting, the Prince Regent, the timing also coincides with the Whigs’s disenchantment with the Regent and the switching of sides by many on many issues.
“Unfortunately, Brummell‘s wealthy friends had a less than satisfactory influence on him; he began spending and gambling as though his fortune were as ample as theirs. Such liberal outlay began to deplete his capital rapidly, and he found it increasingly difficult to maintain his lifestyle, although his prominent position in society still allowed him to float a line of credit. This changed in July 1813, at a masquerade ball jointly hosted at Watier’s private club by Brummell, Lord Alvanley, Henry Mildmay, and Henry Pierrepoint. The four were considered the prime movers of Watier’s, dubbed ‘the Dandy Club’ by Byron. The Prince Regent greeted Alvanley and Pierrepoint at the event, and then ‘cut’ Brummell and Mildmay by staring at their faces without speaking. This provoked Brummell’s remark, ‘Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?’. The incident marked the final breach in a rift between Brummell and the Regent that had opened in 1811, when the Prince became Regent and began abandoning all his old Whig friends. Ordinarily, the loss of royal favour to a favourite meant social doom, but Brummell ran as much on the approval and friendship of other leaders of fashionable circles. He became the anomaly of a favourite flourishing without a patron, still influencing fashion and courted by a large segment of society.”
While the Prince and the Whigs were aligned, the Whigs castigated Princess Caroline. However, when the Whigs discovered the Prince had gone back on his promise to them, they started supporting Caroline, and the Tories, who had previously supported her, now turned their backs on her. Politics had much more to do with things than we might have realized prior.
Consequently, the ton might be expanded to include the “upper ten thousand,” not just the upper four hundred. And whether they liked it or not, a duke might have been poor ton, while a mere mister might have been le bon ton, as in with the Beau, who had no title.
Most naturally, money spoke loudly among the aristocratic class, but if one had little or no sense of style and good form, he might be shunned. Likewise, a title was important, but if it were dripping in scandal or if the title holders possessed poor manners, Society might well turn its back on the person.
It might then be supposed, based on what we have in tact from the day, such as women’s magazines, the Ton were aristocrats and upper level gentry who attended the London Season and the Little Season. This group worked rather like the A list of celebrities we now follow. To be on the “list,” one must possess certain family connections, be wealthy, own land, and appear untouched by trade or needing to earn a living. Young ladies who were presented to the Court were A list, while those who were not presented, but otherwise met the criteria to be invited to Almack’s were the B list, etc.
Keeping this in mind, “the ton” then becomes more of a descriptor for those with excellent taste in manner and fashion, rather than the whole of the aristocracy in the Regency period. Some believe, and I am among those believers, that it was Georgette Heyer who first called the whole of the aristocracy the ton.
However, none of these examples seem to be what the group called themselves. Most of the comments are not really complimentary. Some would be applicable to the dandy set, the fops, and the careless youth or the late Georgian equivalent to “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Then others were addressed to those referred to as bluestockings, the demi-monde, rakes, etc.
The lovely Candice Hern has a whole list of “slang terms” on her website. For example, do you know what an “ape leader” might be? “An old maid or spinster. An old English adage said that a spinster’s punishment after death, for failing to procreate, would be to lead apes in hell.”
A “cicisbeo” is a married woman’s gallant, usually a platonic admirer.
A “cit” was a contemptuous term for a member of the merchant class, one works or lives in the City of London.
“High in the instep” means the person is arrogant; snobbish; overly proud, and very much aware of social rank.
A “hoyden” is a girl who is boisterous, carefree, or tomboyish in her behavior. Etc.
The point is the ton were quick to label and to call others out in order to hide their own foibles.
I think the members of the upper two or ten thousand were just as likely to use “our sort,” as it would be the ton. When speaking of the middle and lower classes, it was always in terms indicating “those people” should respect their betters. Most assuredly, it was assumed that only the members of the upper class could be considered well bred and possessing good taste.
It seems to me, the ton also held a real connotation for folks involved in the fashionable world, in London, in Society—people who were active and connected and “accomplishing” something of importance to them. It seems to me that there was not as strict a divide as a hundred years before (or even fifty) between the “country bumpkin” type (the country gentry who never went to London, or if they did, drew laughter through not knowing the current dress, etiquette, and dance styles) and the “London fashionables. Perhaps this change was due to improved transportation, and people more inclined to travel to Bath or Brighton or Ramsgate or other watering holes and sea side destinations. However, I firmly believe there was still a distinction. You might prefer your daughter to marry a wealthy country gentleman than a fashionable younger son, but if you did not have a daughter to marry off, you might rather have the latter at your dinner party. And, most certainly, you would far rather your daughter marry a wealthy gentleman with ties and connections and friends at court and among the royals. People advanced and grew richer through connections more than anything else at this time.
Examples from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice …
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.
Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves. What a contrast between him and his friend! Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and every body hoped that he would never come there again. Amongst the most violent against him was Mrs. Bennet, whose dislike of his general behaviour was sharpened into particular resentment by his having slighted one of her daughters.
For those of you interested in this topic…
A quick glance through a few of my reference books revealed there are also publications that use bon ton as a descriptor in their titles. The New Bon Ton Magazine (Telescope of the Times) that was published from 1818-1821.
Playwright David Garrick’s comedy Bon Ton; or High Life Above Stairs was performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on March 18, 1775.
The Cambridge Companion to British Theatre 1730-1830 documents dramatist Hannah Cowley referencing the bon ton society. See The Celebrated Hannah Cowley by Angela Escott.