The existence of the British eccentric as a thing, has long been documented. In 1866, John Timbs wrote a two-volume tome entitled English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, which showcased oddball Brits living in the 1700s and 1800s, ranging from aristocrats and members of parliament to witches, dwarfs, and a whole section on artists.
Later, George Santayana, an essayist, wrote about “the British character” in his Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, published in 1922. He had this to say: “England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies, and humors.”
In 1933, English writer Edith Sitwell’s book, The English Eccentrics, added to the documentation of British eccentrics. In the vein of “it takes one to know one,” Edith and her parents, I believe, would qualify as certifiable British eccentrics. Edith’s relationship with her parents was stormy. Her father had a sign over the entrance of their home stating, “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 the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.” (Edith, herself, was strong willed, so we can imagine the fights that ensued in that household.)
Part of Edith’s eccentricity was simply her physical appearance: She was six feet tall and had Marfan Syndrome, which can cause various disfigurements of the body. Not a shy one, Edith was fond of dressing flamboyantly, in long gowns and gold turbans, with multiple rings on her fingers. Little wonder she became fascinated enough about British eccentrics to write a book about them.
But what, exactly, is meant by “British eccentric”? Does every kook with deviant or pathological behavior deserve the label? No. The term is reserved for those showing odd or quirky behaviors, deviating from “normal” for sure, but who can still function properly in society. Eccentrics are generally highly intelligent and creative, and their thinking “outside the box” is what sets them apart and brands them “eccentric.” These are not the mentally incapacitated standing on the street corner talking to themselves. As one psychologist noted: People with mental illness suffer from their behavior, while eccentrics are quite happy.
On the other hand, I have little doubt that some who were labeled “eccentric” in the Victorian era or earlier, would nowadays be given a diagnosis from the DSM-IV—particularly those with obsessive hobbies. Today they would be labeled “obsessive compulsive.” Also, many eccentrics from the past who dressed “oddly,” might today come out as merely “transgender” or “gay.”
Many British eccentrics from bygone days were old, aristocratic males. Oddballs who were obsessed with some unusual hobby and had the time and money to support the hobby. Anyone who has studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Psychology 101 can easily understand this. We must have the basics of life—food, water, shelter, etc.—before we can afford to “self actualize” by engaging in creative pastimes to meet our full, human potential. Ragtag street urchins of the Victorian era didn’t have time to “self actualize," thus, none have been documented as "British eccentrics."
Examples of British eccentrics abound. From the Victorian era, consider The Very Rev. Dr. William Buckland (1784-1856). This Englishman, a wealthy, learned man, kept a menagerie of animals in his house. At one dinner party, his hyena ate a guinea pig before the dinner guests, causing quite a stir. Buckland also ate wild animals, so some of his menagerie was doomed. He prided himself on having eaten his way through much of the animal kingdom.
British eccentrics may do any of the following:
- Dress oddly
- Demonstrate unusual lifestyles or personal habits
- Hold obsessions with hobbies
- Show interest in unusual animals
- Be reclusive
- Feel different from others
- Hold non-conforming ideas
It should be noted that to qualify as an eccentric, one’s oddities must be intrinsic to his or her personality--not fake oddities adopted to get attention or with the motivation of becoming an eccentric. That would be a “poseur.”
What gave birth to the British eccentric? Edith Sitwell said, “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.”
I believe the primary reason for the existence of the “British eccentric”—and the reason why the phenomenon of the eccentric isn’t found in other countries—is because Britain, for whatever reason, has long accepted, encouraged, and treasured the eccentric. Many cultures across the world condemn those who do not fit in; Britain has a tradition of revering such people. Perhaps, initially, the acceptance of eccentrics derived from the fact that the eccentrics were upper class. Thereafter, after the term “British eccentric” was coined, the language shaped the reality…the “British eccentric” became a thing because a term existed for it.
I’ve heard many in Britain lament that the British eccentric no longer exists, that their society has become complacent and conforming. But I believe that British eccentricity will never die, simply because the term “British eccentric” exists. Here is an example of what I mean….
For modern-day British eccentric, I nominate the beautiful, award-winning, actress Helena Bonham Carter, known for her disheveled appearance. (I don’t know the source of this quote, but someone described her as “a bag of laundry beneath a bird’s nest.") Her hair is messy and her clothes are peculiar. She says Marie Antoinette has influenced her style. Also, Carter married America’s Tim Burton. Yes, that Tim Burton...the Edward Scissorhands Tim Burton. Surely, no odder coupling exists. Burton, dark and macabre, is America’s finest example of an eccentric—but because the term “American eccentric,” doesn’t exist, at least not in a bona fide manner, Burton is merely called “different” or “strange.” Carter, meanwhile, is a “British eccentric.”
I also nominate singer/musician Paloma Faith as a modern-day eccentric. She’s a wonderful combination of shy and outgoing, quirky, and extraordinarily creative. (Watch her interviewed in the video below.) Recently, I also watched a video about British writer Julia Wood, who calls herself an English eccentric. (She, too, may be watched in a video below.)
WHO DO YOU NOMINATE AS A MODERN-DAY "BRITISH ECCENTRIC"?
WRITER, BRITISH ECCENTRIC JULIA WOOD