May 192013

Many devotees of the work of Georgette Heyer may have first encountered the word "cicisbeo" in the pages of one of her novels. But how, precisely, did these gentlemen fit into the life of the lady they regularly escorted? In the article she shares with us today, author of Notorious Match, Angelyn Schmid, explains the origins of the term and the role which such a gentleman played in the life of a Regency lady. Do you have a place for a cicisbeo in an upcoming novel?

*         *        *

When Hero "Kitten" Wantage enters the ballroom at Almack’s on the arm of Lord George Wrotham, a man who is decidedly not her husband, Miss Milborne finds this circumstance positively lowering.

You see, George was her beau. Yet he was on the arm of a married woman.

Cover of 1960s paperback edition of Friday's Child by Georgette Heyer

Love that 60’s cover!

The dreadful suspicion that the passion her admirers declared themselves to feel for her was nothing more than an evanescent emotion, soon recovered from, could not be stifled, and made Miss Milborne wretched indeed. She waited for George to come across the room to her side, which he would surely do as soon as another man relieved him of the charge of Hero. Hero was led on to the floor by Marmaduke Fakenham to dance the waltz; George strolled away to exchange greetings with a group of his friends. Miss Milborne, too mortified to remember that she had refused to receive him when he had called to pay her a morning visit, could only suppose that his passion for her had burnt itself out…

"I observe," said Mrs. Milborne on the way home, "that our little friend (Hero) has lost no time in acquiring a cicisbeo! Well! I wish her joy of young Wrotham! He seemed to me to be quite epris in that direction…. "

      — Friday’s Child, Georgette Heyer

What is a cicisbeo?

They are sometimes called cavalier servente. That is, a gallant servant.

Painting of Prince Rupert in 17th Century Gentleman's Dress

The Archetype of a Cavalier

Hmmm. I quite like the boots. Are they expensive?

The first usage of the term cicisbeo was found in some correspondence from the British ambassador’s wife during her travels. In 1749, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote to Lady Pomfret (which is also the term for a species of fish) of an unknown lady and her escort, an abbot from Genoa. He was both witty and learned "in a very ugly form." Not quite the compliment one initially expects but there is much worse to come:

"I hear (he is) declared her cicisbeo in all forms, poor man! He must be in the same situation with Mr. Southcote, when my Lady Townshend figured him in the body of old Cleveland, like Van Trump, lost in an ocean neither side nor bottom!"

Good heavens. I daresay her ladyship of Pomfret was confounded by the ambiguous nature of this correspondence. I know I was.

After some study, I divined the following meaning:   cicisbeo is the male attendant of a female who stands in the place of her husband. The man of the cloth was considered more than just the unknown lady’s acquaintance. And Southcote was apparently Lady Townshend’s man while in public, hence the term "in the body" of her living husband, the second duke of Cleveland.

Leaving aside further speculation on that particular emphasis on body, we can also deduce that this occupation was rather frustrating. For the man.

Indeed, what can be more pointless or exhausting than being lost in a body of water that has no bottom or end?

I find it ironic that the romantic poet Byron should hate the notion of the cicisbeo. Yet apparently he had experience in the matter. He was cicisbeo to an Italian contessa.

This is an excerpt on the matter from his poem Beppo.

Besides, within the Alps, to every woman, ( Although, God knows, it is a grievous sin, )

‘Tis, I may say, permitted to have two men; I can’t tell who first brought the custom in,

But "Cavalier Serventes" are quite common, And no one notices nor cares a pin;

And we may call this ( not to say the worst ) A second marriage which corrupts the first.

Two men at once. The very idea! Dashed bad ton, you may be sure.

© 2011 – 2013 Angelyn Schmid
Originally posted at Angelyn’s Blog
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

  7 Responses to “Regency Cicisbeo by Angelyn Schmid”

  1. Were these cicisbeo lovers or were they homosexuals, or just guy friends do you think?

    • Angelyn may have a different take on this, but my research into cicisbeos was that they were often young men, looking to get a bit of social polish by escorting a socially prominent woman about town. Very often, these women’s husbands were either too busy or quite disinterested in society to exert themselves on their wives’ behalf and were delighted to let these young men take up the slack. Though few cicisbeos were the beneficiaries of any sexual favors, they received something much more valuable to them, the chance to circulate in society, meeting other important people, under the auspices of a woman who could help them navigate the reefs and shoals of society.

      Such men were very common in countries like Italy, where their position and responsibilities were well understood. The shoe was quite on the other foot in England, where only those who had traveled to Europe really understood the concept. Most of the English looked askance at such men, thinking of them as man-milliners and the like. My take is that one reason for that attitude in England is that most Englishmen did not have the same level of respect for socially-skilled women and therefore could not understand that they had anything to offer these young men beyond their bodies.

      I hope that helps to clarify the world of the cicisbeo.



      • I thought Byron was the live-in lover of the Italian contessa. He lived on one floor while she and her husband occupied another. Or maybe I’m thinking of some other Italian babe.

        • No, Byron was most definitely the lover of an Italian contessa. But don’t forget, he was an Englishman, who apparently did not understand the concept of a cicisbeo. He was too self-centered to be anyone’s “gallant servant.” In Byron’s case, he was probably only interested in her sexual favors, not in escorting her to social gatherings to pick up some social polish, since he had a fairly low opinion of society in general.


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