'Towards the end of an autumn afternoon an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers pushed open the swing-door leading into the vestibule of a certain famous library...'
So begins The Tractate Middoth, a ghost story by M.R. James (of which a TV adaptation is promised this Christmas). 'Piccadilly weepers', eh? I vaguely knew they were some kind of face whiskers, but what I didn't know was that they are the same style as the (slightly) better known Dundrearies, extravagant sidewhiskers that were strangely popular among Victorian gents.
Why Dundrearies? They were named for Lord Dundreary, a stage character who sported them in the popular play Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor. Dundreary was the very epitome of the brainless but good-natured English aristo (a kind of precursor of the great Bertie Wooster). Originally conceived as a minor character, Dundreary grew to monstrous proportions thanks to the actor Edward Askew Sothern, who gradually expanded the role with a profusion of ad-libs and stage business until Lord Dundreary became the main attraction of the play. Dundreary's mangling of English proverbs - often conflating two, as in 'Birds of a feather gather no moss' - started a brief but intense fashion for such 'Dundrearyisams', which were thought howlingly funny at the time.
The most famous performance of Our American Cousin was of course at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, on April 14, 1865 - in the course of which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. His killer John Wilkes Booth timed his shot for a moment when the uproarious laughter of the audience would mask the sound. Booth fired after this sure-fire comic gem, which always (as it were) slayed them: 'Don't know the manners of good society, eh?' [says Asa Trenchard to Mrs Mountchessington] 'Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out - you sockdologising old man-trap!' Cue gales of helpless laughter.
Such was the fame of Lord Dundreary that Charles Kingsley wrote a speech for him - on the Great Hippocampus Question - as a parody of the kind of debates then raging around evolutionary theory. You can actually see and hear this speech (somewhat unsettlingly) on YouTube. The reader does a great job but doesn't sound much like an English aristo. Quite mad.