‘Eccentricity’, wrote Edith Sitwell, ‘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.’ Ah, those were the days. And just in case this unfashionable declaration of tribal perfection fails to establish Dame Edith’s unabashed élitism, she adds: ‘Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. 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.’
The non-English and the dull, and those of us who lack noble blood or whose genius is yet to be acknowledged, might feel inclined to give Miss Sitwell’s book English Eccentrics (1933) a miss. 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. When his daughter had gained an international reputation as a poet he still maintained that ‘Edith made a great mistake in not going in for lawn tennis.’
In defence, Dame Edith developed a regal and intimidating presence, touchy and grand, but behind the formidable pose was an unloved child with an inferiority complex. 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 ec
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