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English Eccentrics: A Gallery of Weird And Wonderful Men And Women Paperback – 31 Mar 1988
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The former include such individuals as the 'amphibious' lord Rokeby ; the 'not entirely pleasing' Celestina Collins, who shared her bed with thirty fowls; Squire Mytton, who frightened his hiccups away by setting his nightshirt on fire...
I was entertained by the account of Mr Coates, a Shakespearean actor who never quite cut the mustard: 'Mr Coates appeared at The Theatre Royal, Richmond...and again no attempt was made upon his life. indeed, the only lives that were in danger were those of certain unfeeling young gentlemen, who, in the scene where the hero poisons himself, were seized with such immoderate paroxysms of laughter that a doctor who was present became alarmed at their condition, and ordered them to be carried into the open air, where they received medical attention.'
Edith Sitwell's sarcastic tone adds to the narrative: 'Others of Miss Martineau's neighbours were hardly respectable, but like a comfortable Christian woman Miss Martineau said no more about them than would destroy their reputation for respectability and enhance her own.' Initially I found her writing extremely hard to get into, especially on the first page, but soon got accustomed to it.
The last 60 pages or so I found less interesting: a lengthy investigation into people exhuming the (reported) grave of Milton, and removing parts of the body to sell; a description of the Carlyles. Neither seemed really relevant to the theme of the book.
In conclusion then, interesting in parts.
However, I've found that her findings of English people's eccentricities are a little bit obscure: she explained the terms rather psychologically and metaphorically. It may be true that some of the British people are not naturally impatient so that they show emotions easily, whilst the majority of people are often holding back their emotions. There isn't any conclusive evidence that a small number of people lived till the age of 150 or 160 in the medieval period, but her fluency of writing and narrative tones catch reader's attention and may keep him/her reading.
Of course, there is so much material to work with, it is a wonder the book isn't multi-volumed! Originally published in 1933, it retains much of its vitality and levity despite being two generations (at least) behind the times. Sitwell caught the character of the English Eccentric at a time just before the wholesale decline of Empire, and thus the character portrayed here is a 'standard' one.
'Eccentricity exists particularly in the English, and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.'
In the relating of small tales and glimpses of life, Sitwell takes us through a history of language usage and abusage, cultural niceties gone awry, personal proclivities taken to extremes, historical remembrances remembered a bit incorrectly, all the while maintaining a strong British 'we know just what we're doing, thank you, and we're doing it quite correctly' attitude.
We find hermits, both ancient and ornamental (the distinction between the two of course being a relative flash that one would think inimical to the hermit-age); quacks and alchemists, some members of the sporting set (we learn of one who, in an attempt to scare the hiccups out of himself, set fire to his nightshirt--of course he was still in it--and was satisfied despite the burns that his hiccups had been vanquished), various other sorts and sets in the land.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson to be learned from this book would the Of the Benefits of Posthumous Fame. Using Milton as the first example, Sitwell proceeds to demonstrate just how this posthumous fame (for the man who sold Paradise Lost for the meagre sum of £20) can be a great boon to all concerned, particularly those who have the foresight to collect locks of hair or write poetry about rummaging through the bone-remains of the dead poet. Of course, there followed in short order a detailed (yet anonymous) description of why the poet could not have actually handled the bones of the poet, not least of which being that as the grave said 1653, and Milton was not in fact buried until 1674, et cetera; thus begins an active correspondence of attempting to prove or disprove in fashion why Milton was not bodily handled.
This is a thoroughly English treatment; like her eccentrics, Sitwell's style of writing is likewise gloriously eccentric. Much will be missed on the first reading, and again the second; by the third reading (should you be so eccentric as to persevere through to such) you will either be so charmed by the writing that you will carry this book around, quoting passages that need context to be understood (and thus be ordained into a minor order of eccentricity yourself) or, you will give the book away to the most tedious of your friends, hoping that the friend will take the hint.
The choice is yours.
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