It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd. That would be a pity. This strange holdall of human curiosities is as eccentric in style and form as its theme, and is not at all restricted to arrogant aristos and dotty men of genius. Quite a number of the eccentrics are not even English. No writer could ever have been more suited to her subject.
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It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.
That would be a pity. This strange holdall of human curiosities is as eccentric in style and form as its theme, and is not at all restricted to arrogant aristos and dotty men of genius. Quite a number of the eccentrics are not even English. No writer could ever have been more suited to her subject.
Edith Sitwell was certainly aristocratic, but born of such unloving parents that from an early age extreme eccentricity became a refuge. Her mother was self-obsessed, a spendthrift and a hysteric. Her father was a miser who cared only for his sons. Far from being indifferent to the opinion of others, she was hypersensitive to criticism of both her poetry and her looks, and lived in terror of revealing her vulnerable and shy nature.
Most of the eccentrics in her book are similarly damaged human goods, retreating into modes of behaviour designed to hold the world at bay. Edith took eccentricity seriously. English Eccentrics is laced with sadness and there is a chill to the wit. The elaborate prose is hung with cobwebs, the structure formless and even repetitive, as the author meanders among the strange and often tragic lives of her characters.
A modern reader might wish for a severe editor to prune the more tangential ruminations, but such an oddity of a book would crumble and collapse without its antique charm. Dame Edith was an eyeful. Edith dressed in black velvet and bought rich upholstery material for her dresses — a favourite was one of earth-coloured brocade embroidered with gold lions and unicorns.
Over time the outfits grew more and more extreme: plush velvets and black satins, exotic silk turbans, heavy gold ornaments and a collection of aquamarine rings the size of ice cubes. Friends wondered how she managed to lift her powder-white porcelain hands from her lap. A lifelong hypochondriac, she opened letters with gloves, fearing infection. She also played the role of the Bohemian poet beyond the point of parody.
All types are represented in the eccentrics she chose for her book. There are scholars — like the learned professor of Greek at Cambridge who settled intellectual debate with a poker, and once carried a young woman around his rooms in his teeth. There are pious pirates — such as the captain who captured a clergyman and demanded only that he conduct religious services for his crew and make rum punch. One of these was a wealthy tanner named Jemmy Hirst. In his youth, he had invested in his own coffin which he used as a drinks cabinet throughout his long life.
One protest against Death is simply to live on and on, like Old Tom Parr, who died in at the purported age of He seems to have passed an uneventful life until the age of 80 when he first married, after which he became something of a rake.
He was obliged at to do public penance for philandering, wrapped in a white sheet at the church door. He remarried at and in due course his wife presented him with a child.
In the eighteenth century a fashion developed among members of the land-owning class to acquire ornamental hermits for their parks. After a visit to a French spa he became addicted to bathing. In time his lordship rarely left his bath. He erected a small hut on the sands at Hythe for easy access to the sea, where he would remain among the waves until he fainted. He died in at the age of 88, wrinkled like a prune from a lifetime of submersion.
Squire Jack Mytton, born in , was addicted to stronger stuff. As a young man he was soon drinking eight bottles of port a day, and graduated over time to almost as many of brandy.
He rode as hard and fast as he drank and took terrible falls from his horses, and all manner of spills in the vehicles they drew. Once, when suffering from hiccups, Mytton decided to frighten himself out of the attack by setting fire to his nightshirt. He was immediately enveloped in flames. This wondrous conveyance was shaped as a scallop shell, painted a deep blue, luxuriously upholstered, and drawn by two superb white horses.
He was in his late thirties when he gave his first performance in England, at Bath, in Romeo and Juliet, a play he modestly suggested he had greatly improved. He appeared before his audience dressed in a spangled cloak of sky-blue silk, crimson pantaloons, and white hat trimmed with feathers and adorned with diamonds, which also sparkled on his knees and shoe buckles.
The audiences at these productions were lively bordering on violent, and behaved as if they were in a bear-baiting pit. Death scenes were particularly popular and the Gifted Amateur was often obliged to perform encores in which he died again and again. She came to believe that her face made her the most hated woman in England. It was not all paranoia, for she had been attacked by a coterie of powerful critics all her life, was forever locked in feuds with fellow artists, and received numerous malicious and abusive letters from the general public.
In old age, Dame Edith grew fat from drink and misery. She died according to the code of her class, not wanting to make a fuss — her own splendid attitude to Death. Christopher Robbins is the author of several acclaimed books including Apples are from Kazakhstan.
The English Eccentrics
Learn how and when to remove this template message Edith Louisa Sitwell was born in Scarborough , North Riding of Yorkshire , the oldest child and only daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet , of Renishaw Hall ; he was an expert on genealogy and landscaping. She claimed a descent through female lines from the Plantagenets. Sitwell had two younger brothers, Osbert — and Sacheverell — , both distinguished authors, well-known literary figures in their own right, and long-term collaborators. Her relationship with her parents was stormy at best, not least because her father made her undertake a "cure" for her supposed spinal deformation, involving locking her into an iron frame. She wrote in her autobiography that her parents had always been strangers to her. Portrait of Edith Sitwell, by Roger Fry , In year-old Sitwell moved to a small, shabby flat in Pembridge Mansions , Bayswater , which she shared with Helen Rootham — , her governess since Sitwell never married, but in she allegedly fell in love with the gay Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew.
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