Eccentricity: Byron, Sitwell & Wilde

I asked Facebook friends for topics to blog about, not that I have any particular shortage. Several agreed that it was time we had a treatise on that great British characteristic, eccentricity.  I say that, though I’m quite sure every nationality has its share of bizarre personalities.  Think of Spain and there is Dali, for example.  Our own, by virtue of geography and language, may be more familiar.

So what is eccentricity?  Starting with the dictionary and omitting irrelevant definitions:

ec·cen·tric  (k-sntrk, k-)
adj.
1. Departing from a recognized, conventional, or established norm or pattern. See Synonyms at strange.
n.
1. One that deviates markedly from an established norm, especially a person of odd or unconventional behavior.
 

This of course covers a multitude of sins, for weird and whacky behaviour deviating from the norm may manifest itself in many ways, which might suppose each and every one of us being capable of eccentricity on irregular occasions, even if we don’t do it to the extreme or all the time.

So true eccentrics are the people for whom quirkiness is the norm and what constitutes and idiosyncrasy for others appear totally rational to the person concerned. In fact, it is what truly characterises their natural state of being, makes them blissfully happy, and sometimes causes them surprise when others raise eyebrows.  Equally, you might say that it is a form of attention-seeking, so the curiosity of others is a form of reward that fuels the increasingly strange behaviour.  Often it seems to be a product of unusual childhood, thus demonstrating the veracity of both Freud and Pavlov that learned behaviour from the start will condition adult mindsets.

Two other factors: sources repeatedly suggest eccentricity coincides with genius on a disproportionately high ratio, possibly indicating that genius thinks in a very different way; there is also the theory that eccentricity results from emotional imbalances, which probably condemns us all!

The behaviour may consist of anything, though typical examples could include style of dress, speech, domestic arrangements, habits, pastimes and much, much more.  The only real way to examine eccentricity is to see how some eccentrics choose to lead their lives.  One list of great eccentrics mentions Oscar Wilde, thus:

“Oscar Wilde is undoubtedly the most famous member of this list – and for good reason. During a time of moral conservatism, Wilde managed to survive his youth decked out in flamboyant clothing exuding eccentricity, because of his stunning wit – the true cause of his celebrity. While studying at Oxford University, Oscar would walk through the streets with a lobster on a leash. His room was decorated with bright blue china, sunflowers, and peacock feathers. He was the direct opposite of what Victorian England expected a man to be and he flaunted it for all he was worth. Unfortunately an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas brought an end to a brilliant career when Wilde was jailed for sodomy.”

In this case, true eccentricity seems to have mingled with talent, egocentricity and flamboyance, though I’d argue that different tastes alone don’t constitute eccentricity.  Take this example though:

“Sir George Sitwell didn’t have just one odd quality, but a host of them. This is a man who got so annoyed with insects and wasps living in his household that he invented a firearm for hunting them. Sitwell had upwards of seven libraries, attempted to pay his son’s tuition with produce, having the animals on his farm stenciled in blue and white to make them more pleasing to the eye, and a host of other things. George Sitwell is most famous for his audacious way of talking with people. A quote, widely cited from George’s house in England reads: “I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”

It may be that Sir George’s behaviour and demeanour did constitute eccentricity, but from that description alone it does not translate as a more than quirkiness, and the aversion to disagreement puts him on a par with most politicians!  However, this is more interesting, suggesting some eccentrics border on the insane and delusional.  Take for example Lord Byron, poet, 1788-1824 famously “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” in the words of Lady Caroline Lamb:

The Genius:

Widely considered second only to Shakespeare in English poetry, Lord Byron published his first poetic work at 14, an age when our most profound thought was that girls might possibly be more awesome than video games. Renowned for his wit and versatility, Byron’s Don Juan remains one of the few poems most of us can name when trying to seduce drunk English majors.

The Insanity:

It began when Byron arrived at Cambridge, where he was ordered to send his dog back home as keeping one was against school rules. Desperate for a pet, Byron scoured college policies for an animal not expressly forbidden. He found no reference to bears.

The bear stayed with Byron in his dorm room. Being a responsible pet owner, Byron took it on regular leashed walks through the university, terrifying fellow students and lecturers. When asked by administration what purpose the bear served on campus, the poet tried in vain to get his beast a fellowship.

And where most people mellow out after they leave school, Byron decided to take his crazy to a whole new level. We’ll let this quote from one of his friends tell the story:

“Lord B’s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all of these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it… I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective, and that in a material point. I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian Crane”

That’s from Percy Shelley (a fellow poet and husband of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley). If you’re not seeing the problem with turning your house into Noah’s Ark, then you’re not imagining the sheer amount of shit these animals produce.

Later on in life, Byron’s tendencies for playing zoo keeper switched to tendencies for playing war admiral. He constructed two small stone forts on the edge of his lake and launched a fleet of toy ships, which he would spend whole days directing while crouched in his fort. At Byron’s insistence his servant, Joe Murray, would lie prone on a small boat in the lake and “command the ships” which we’re guessing consisted of pushing them around and making cannon noises with his mouth.

We do also have to allow for tales about some historical figures being embroidered with the retelling to sound even more extreme, but there seems little doubt that Byron was one of life’s true eccentrics, bordering on personality disorder.

So how should we treat eccentrics? Celebrate them as national treasures, maybe encourage them to be even more bizarre? Ignore them and hope they go away? Or just enjoy the extra bit of colour they add to our lives?

Here’s a challenge: tell me about any eccentrics you know!!

PS.  The eccentricity of British life from a bygone era (the 60s) is captured beautifully in the photographs of the late Tony Ray-Jones.  See here.

PPS. See also this fine list of British eccentrics.

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