A Splendid Attitude to Death

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‘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 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. She saw it not as a flamboyant display of personality or idiosyncrasy of mind but rather as an instinctive rebellion against the quotidian coupled with an inability to adapt to the world’s norms: ‘Some rigid, and even splendid attitude to Death, some exaggeration of the attitudes common to Life’.

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.

The author’s own eccentricity was first of all visual. Dame Edith was an eyeful. Picasso described her face as ‘a real collector’s piece’, while her figure was said to resemble ‘a crane on a platform, ornithological or mechanical’. Cecil Beaton wrote that she was ‘a tall, graceful scarecrow, with the white hands of a medieval saint’. Virginia Woolf found her ‘lonely, ghostlike and angular . . . all is very tapering and pointed, the nose running on like a mole’. There was no getting around the nose: Lytton Strachey described it as longer than an anteater’s. Dame Edith herself said, ‘I have always found it has got in the way.’

And then there were the clothes. 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.

There were other aspects to Sitwell’s eccentricity. A lifelong hypochondriac, she opened letters with gloves, fearing infection. She also played the role of the Bohemian poet beyond the point of parody. In the stage performance Façade (1922) she declaimed a series of abstract poems through a megaphone protruding from a huge head painted on a curtain that concealed both the author and a seven-piece jazz band. As a saxophone wailed a modernistic syncopation by William Walton, the cut-glass tones of Dame Edith’s voice could be heard reciting ‘Lily O’Grady, /Silly and shady’.

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. And then there are those displaying the ‘splendid attitude to Death’.

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. When he died aged 90, Jemmy’s corpse finally replaced the bottles of liquor, and eight widows were paid half a crown each to act as pall-bearers (the will called for old maids, but a sufficiency could not be found).

One protest against Death is simply to live on and on, like Old Tom Parr, who died in 1635 at the purported age of 152. 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 105 to do public penance for philandering, wrapped in a white sheet at the church door. He remarried at 120 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. ‘Nothing, it was felt, could give such delight to the eye, as the spectacle of an aged person with a long grey beard, and a goatish rough robe, doddering among the disadvantages and pleasures of Nature.’ The most celebrated hermit of all, Lord Rokeby – born in 1712 – was not only ornamental but also amphibious. 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 1800 at the age of 88, wrinkled like a prune from a lifetime of submersion.

Squire Jack Mytton, born in 1796, was addicted to stronger stuff. Left rich but fatherless when he was 2, he was said by the age of 10 to be ‘A Pickle of the first order’. 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. When a passenger unwisely remarked that he had never been upset in a gig, the squire turned on him in outrage: ‘What, never upset in a gig?’ And promptly overturned the gig they were riding in to give his friend the experience.

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. After the servants had put him out, the singed squire reeled triumphantly into bed, exclaiming, ‘The hiccup is gone, by God!’

My own favourite among Sitwell’s eccentrics is the celebrated Amateur of the Drama, Robert Coates – variously known as Curricle, Diamond or Romeo Coates. He became famous in his day as a theatrical phenomenon – the world’s worst actor. The name ‘Curricle’ was given to him on account of the magnificent chariot in which he drove around London. This wondrous conveyance was shaped as a scallop shell, painted a deep blue, luxuriously upholstered, and drawn by two superb white horses. The owner’s heraldic device, a life-size cockerel with outspread wings, was attached to the front bearing the motto, ‘While I live, I’ll crow.’

Born in Antigua in 1772, Coates came from a wealthy family that owned slave plantations. 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. As Sitwell writes, ‘In his hands tragedy lost all her gloom.’ Indeed in Richmond, Romeo’s death scene caused a group of young men to laugh so hard they had to be carried into the open air to receive medical attention.

When Coates’ fame reached its zenith more than a thousand people were turned away from the box office at the Haymarket Theatre, in London’s West End, and fans besieged the stage door in their hundreds. The audiences at these productions were lively bordering on violent, and behaved as if they were in a bear-baiting pit. There was constant whistling, shouting and catcalls, as well as full-throated barnyard sounds of ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ in homage to the actor’s crest. Death scenes were particularly popular and the Gifted Amateur was often obliged to perform encores in which he died again and again.

Although Dame Edith has great sympathy for most of her eccentrics, she has nothing but contempt for the misers: ‘Unpleasant forms of vegetation, so sapless, so untouched by the sun’. Like ‘Lady Lewson’ of Clerkenwell, who never washed for fear of disease and smeared herself with hog’s lard against the cold rather than light a fire. ‘This strange unique trumpery, at the age of 87, cut two new teeth, which were a source of pride to her.’ Many of the misers lived to a great age, possibly because they could not distinguish between life and death. ‘Skeletons they were since youth; skeletons they remained.’

In time Dame Edith’s own eccentricity overwhelmed her reputation as a poet, and fear of being treated as a circus act even made her cancel a lecture tour to America. ‘They’ll want me to deliver my lecture like a trick cyclist, cycling round and round the platform balanced on my nose with my feet in the air.’ Her lifelong inferiority complex combined with ever-increasing megalomania led inevitably to paranoia. 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. Virginia Woolf described her as resembling an ivory elephant: ‘Majestic, monumental. . . an old empress’. She began to identify with Elizabeth I, and grew convinced that she was the queen’s reincarnation, although the figure she most resembled was that of a remote and virginal abbess. She died according to the code of her class, not wanting to make a fuss – her own splendid attitude to Death. Her last words were, ‘I’m afraid I’m being an awful nuisance.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 25 © Christopher Robbins 2010


About the contributor

Christopher Robbins is currently working on a book featuring his travels over the years with a trio of contemporary Russian eccentrics.

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