Fair and forty goes far in a day

U 16.1550-1: the cause of many liaisons between still attractive married women getting on for fair and forty and younger men

Bloom’s use of “fair and forty” to describe “attractive married women” who are just beyond their prime illustrates yet again Joyce’s ear for phrases which have evaded detailed classification and evaluation by scholars.

Dent identifies “fair and forty” as an expression worthy of comment.1 But he calls attention, exclusively, to the older alliterative saying “fat, fair, and forty”, which he dates from 1795 (in John O’Keeffe’s Irish Mimic). He cites another use of this fuller form from Charles Lever’s Confessions of Harry Lorrequer (a source which also provides the first occurrence of the phrase “dear dirty Dublin” in the 1830s). His information builds on Eric Partridge’s entry for the parallel expression “fair, fat, and forty”, impressionistically dates to “the raffish 1820s” in his Dictionary of Catch Phrases.2 But Dent is unable to provide evidence for the shorter style “fair and forty”.

By quoting O’Keeffe and Lever Dent seems to imply a possible Irish origin for “fat, fair, and forty”. But although its use in Irish English is noteworthy, it is by no means exclusive to this variety. The first documented occurrence of “fair, fat, and forty” may be found in The Card, published anonymously in 1755 by the notorious John Kidgell, then in his final years as a Church of England clergyman:3

Why faith, Friend, says the Drawer, the Lady’s not amiss, plump and handsome enough, o’my Fancy, I believe, Honesty, she’s fair, fat and forty, as a Man may say. But a God a buxom Dame, I’ll warrant her.

But subsequent to this, the expression was associated very widely in the popular mind with King George IV (reigned 1820-30, but Regent, as Prince of Wales, from 1811 during his father’s “madness”), who had conducted an affair and then in 1785 secretly married Maria Fitzherbert. Although Mrs Fitzherbert was only thirty at the time, King George was said to have popularised the phrase “fat, fair, and forty” in connection with her.

The cartoonists of the day made much of George’s relationships, and in early 1786 a satirical caricature mocking Mrs Fitzherbert was published, entitled “The Royal Toast: Fat, Fair, and Forty” (see copy from the British Museum collection).4 (Later writers also ascribed the expression to earlier Georges.5)

The expression became popular. In April 1786 the Morning Herald for 25 April alluded to the satirical cartoon:

Though the contour of Miss Farren is not exactly correspondent in some particulars with the royal toast, viz. "Fat, fair, and forty"; Green-room report speaks highly of her performance of the Widow Bewitch’d, and that the audience will certainly find her a bewitching widow.

In 1807 Cervantes Hogg’s The Rising Sun: A Serio-comic Satiric Romance used the alternative form in parodying a song from Sheridan’s School for Scandal:6

Here’s to the maiden of blushing fifteen,

To the bold one who’s ready to court ye;

Here’s to the flaunting, extravagant quean –

To her who is fair, fat, and forty.

The shortened form fair and forty

Whilst fat, fair, and forty and its variant fair, fat, and forty, continued in use throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, a new form was taking shape which could be used in more polite contexts. By simply removing the fat, it was possible to describe a type to which many a Victorian lady just past her prime might realistically be considered to aspire. The earliest reference found to date comes from a court report in the Leeds Mercury of 7 June, 1828:

On Saturday, in the Court of Common Pleas, Mrs. Hudson, a lady "fair and forty", proprietor of Warne’s Hotel, in Conduit-street, London, obtained a verdict for £1000 damages, against Mr. Dore, a large coach proprietor, for breach of promise of marriage.

Later purveyors of the phrase include the Freeman’s Journal (1857):7

As to the age of the plaintiff she was "fair and forty", and the defendant between fifty and sixty years old. The plaintiff and the defendant were strangers to each other until September last. -

The popular magazine Judy offers the expression in a more salubrious environment in a short playlet “The Way We Live Now”, though as is often the case there is a suggestion that the lady is attempting to pass for somewhat younger than forty:8

Hon. Mrs. Crême de la Crême (charming widow of "fair and forty", but with every intention of changing her name on first "eligible" opportunity, to gentleman on her left). – By the way, Sir Charles, can you tell me who our hostess was, or what the male Robinson is?

Myra’s Journal (1894) introduces their series of articles on the “British Matron”:9

We shall endeavour to give each month some sketches of morning and evening dresses, tea-gowns, etc., for ladies who are "fair and forty", or more.

The phrase, though fading from use in the early twentieth century, still remains to accompany Joyce’s youth.

A musical accompaniment

Although the expression may have been familiar to Joyce from his reading and conversation, there is also a possibility that he was acquainted with it musically. There was a “traditional” Irish hornpipe entitled “Fair and Forty”, published in the early years of the twentieth century but apparently known well before this. The tune was first published in Captain Francis O’Neill’s Music of Ireland (1903), p. 274. The following version comes from O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland (Chicago: Lyon and Healy, 1907), p. 145:


Joyce added “getting on for fair and forty" to the proofs of Ulysses in December 1921. In doing so he was employing an expression that was familiar to his contemporaries, but which also enjoyed a second life in traditional Irish music. It arose as a shortening (and more polite version) of “fat, fair, and forty” (in which “fair” has the meaning “attractive”, “fair of face”), widely associated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century with King George IV and his mistress Mrs Fitzherbert.

John Simpson


1 Robert William Dent, Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Tool (1994), p. 245.

2 Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1992), p. 85.

3 [John Kidgell], The Card (1755), vol. 1 p. 202.

4 “The royal toast. Fat, fair, and forty”: BM Satires 6927, in Frederic George Stephens and Mary Dorothy George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum (London, BMP, 1870), 11 vols.

5 See, for example, A sketch of the life and character of the late Dr. Monsey, physician to the Royal Hospital at Chelsea (1789), p. 32; North American (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) (1847), 24 May.

6 Cervantes Hogg was the pseudonym of Eaton Stannard Barrett. Sheridan’s original (1772) reads:

Here's to the maiden of blushing fifteen,

Now to the widow of fifty;

Here's to the flaunting extravagant queen,

And then to the housewife that's thrifty.

7 Freeman’s Journal (1857), 18 June p. 4.

8 Judy 8 September (1886), p. 110.

9 Myra’s Journal (1894), 1 September p. 19.

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