Eccentrics


A couple of weeks ago, I posted about my Father’s Day gift dilemma. I solved that impossible-to-buy-for problem by going to Best Buy and getting the DVDs of the first four seasons of Northern Exposure. Now, I confess this was a gift for me as much as for my dad. I adore this show, and have been having enormous fun re-watching favorite episodes. I’ve always thought that if Cicely, Alaska was a real place I would SO move there. A little town off in its own isolated world, far from the traffic snarls and Super Wal Marts. Where the rugged-individualist inhabitants you might suspect to be rednecks are actually quirky intellectuals, prone to waxing philosophical about poetry, astronomy, string theory. Where there are all kinds of funky festivals and a wide variety of kooks, including Ed, who kind of reminds me of my high school boyfriend, though HE was a jazz musician and not an amateur film director/shaman. There was still the leather jacket and that weird, vague affability. I would like to run a funky little bookstore, eat breakfast at the Brick, talk over Kant and Nietzche with Chris In The Morning. Sure, I really hate the cold, but it never seems to really get chilly there, except to Joel in his absurdly large parka…

My point, sort of, is this–eccentrics. I talked about them a bit on my own blog yesterday. People who are unusual, erratic, unpredictable, who march to the beat of their own drummer and all that. We sometimes encounter them in Regency romances. You know–the Old Broad, who wears giant purple turbans and says crazy things in the middle of Almacks. The bluestocking heroine who doesn’t want to marry because it would interfere with being an historian/a sculptor/raising Shar-Pei puppies. Or the heroine’s father who neglects his family to perform experiments with ball lightening in the garden, leaving the heroine to take care of all her brothers and sisters by herself. I love those characters.

I decided to do this post on Famous Eccentrics of the Regency. But then I realized that it might be easier to do a list of the Few Non-Eccentrics! There are just too many colorful characters in this period. I’m sure there must have been something in that watery Almacks lemonade we’re always reading about. Just a few:

–Prinny, of course. And wife number two, Princess Caroline. And almost all his friends. And several of his brothers. And most of his sisters. Oh, and his mistresses, too.
–Architect Sir John Soane. Anyone who has been to his museum can see right away this was a class-A hoarder. At least he hoarded some good stuff, like Hogarths and Roman bronzes from Pompeii. Unlike my own crazy aunt, who just hoardes cats, plastic grocery sacks, and old bottles of nail polish, but who inexplicably gave away most of her great designer clothes from the 1950s and ’60s. Ahhhh, relatives. But that’s another post. 🙂
–Caro Lamb. There was probably no one like her for causing amusing and scandalous public scenes at parties. Stalking and tantrums and bonfires, oh my!
–Oh, and that leads to Byron, of course. And Shelley. Crackpots for the ages.
–Sir John Lade, who was for a time in charge of Prinny’s riding stables. He liked to dress and talk like a groom, and was married to a woman named “Letty,” who started out as a servant in a brothel. Later she became mistress to a highwayman known as “16 String Jack,” until he landed at the gallows. Then the Duke of York. Not much of a judge of women, that one.
–Beau Brummel. The original metrosexual and scourge of improperly starched cravats.
–And one of my favorites, WJC Scott-Bentinck, Duke of Portland. He lived from 1800-79, so just barely fits in “our” period, but for sheer mental loopiness he just can’t be beat. I first read about him Bill Bryson’s hilarious Notes From a Small Island (Bryson, another fun eccentric I’m sure, has several other equally riotous books. If you haven’t read him, get to the bookstore right now and buy A Walk in the Woods or Neither Here Nor There! Go, go!!!). WJC took his ancestral pile, Welbeck Abbey, and built a 15-mile series of tunnels and passageways underneath, mainly so he could avoid all human contact. As Bryson puts it, “When the Duke died, his heirs found all of the aboveground rooms devoid of furnishings except for one chamber in the middle of which sat the Duke’s commode. The main hall was mysteriously floorless. Most of the rooms were painted pink. The one upstairs room in which the Duke resided was packed to the ceiling with hundreds of green boxes, each of which contained a single dark brown wig. This was, in short, a man worth getting to know.” (pg. 167)

And that’s just the tip of the nutty iceberg…

So, I say hurrah for eccentrics! They make our dullish world a little more colorful, interesting, and fun. Who are some of your favorite crazies in books and in life?

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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Megan Frampton
16 years ago

Okay, two perhaps eccentric examples:

On Pokemon (yes, it’s summer vacation!), one of the trainers is a gourmet cook, but usually gets involved in Pokemon battles before he can make pizza pancake surprise. It’s one of his quirks, plus his penchant for falling in instant love with every female he meets.

And on Entourage, Johnny Drama is also a gourmet cook, and once briefly considered getting calf implants–shades of calf-padding from our period, certainly.

Kalen Hughes
16 years ago

Ah, the loons.

My all time favorite historical eccentric HAS to be John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690 – 5 July 1749). He built fountains that he could cause to squirt people, and put distorted mirrors all over his house so that his guests would arrive at dinner with their clothes and wigs askew. Supposedly he even put itching powder in his wife’s bed.

He’s pre-Regency, but someday someone very like him will show up in one of books . . .

I think the only eccentric I know personally is an old friend who always looks like he’s stepped out of a THIN MAN movie: Perfect vintage suit, fedora, wingtips, etc. He’s a playwright in San Francisco, and just an all around brilliant man. His apartment is all vintage too (and further displays his Edward Gorey fetish).

Megan Frampton
16 years ago

Oh, wait, you said books or life. Can I claim jet lag? How about that expert swordsman, the transvestite, who was prior to the Regency, but beat anybody who challenged him, even when he was older? I’ve lost the files where I had his name, darn it.

Kalen Hughes
16 years ago

Transvestite swordsman!?! This I gotta know more about!

I also love the story of Dr. “James” Berry, the woman who went to medical school at the University of Edinburgh (pretending to be a guy, of course). “He” graduated in 1812 and joined the army. Lots of folks clamed to have known her secret after she died, but she got away with it her whole life.

http://www.thesesalive.ac.uk/ta_exemplary_theses.shtml
http://www.geocities.com/hotsprings/2615/medhist/barry.html

Todd
16 years ago

The transvestite swordsman you are thinking of–there really can’t be more than one–is the Chevalier d’Eon, a Frenchman who dressed as a woman for most of his life and was, nevertheless, one of the greatest swordsmen of his time–mid-to-late eighteenth century, a bit pre-Regency but not by too much. He once fought a series of demonstration bouts in London with another of the greatest swordsmen, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who was a French mulatto violinist and composer (and swordsman) who organized a mulatto cavalry regiment called “the American hussars” on behalf of the French revolutionary government.

Anyway, the Chevalier d’Eon is one of those relative few whose name has become a noun: “Eonist: a person who dresses as and in all ways assumes the role of a person of the opposite sex.”

During d’Eon’s lifetime there was considerable dispute about whether he was a man or a woman. At one point he wished to resume wearing men’s clothing in order to fight a duel with a man who had insulted him; the man’s relatives, not wishing him to be perforated, prevailed on the king to make a proclamation requiring d’Eon to wear women’s clothing.

After d’Eon’s death his body was examined and it was determined that he was, at least anatomically, male. But he has been taken as a symbol in modern days by transgendered people, though it is unclear to what extent he considered himself to be a woman.

Todd-who-thinks-those-Chevaliers-were-a-wacky-bunch

Manda
16 years ago

For years I’ve been a fan of Jo Beverly’s Daffodil Dandy, Kevin Renfrew, who appeared her regency trads. He wore all yellow all the time.

And speaking of Jo Beverly, didn’t she have a character based on D’Eon in DEVILISH, the Rothgar book in her Malloren series?

Janet Mullany
16 years ago

People actually like these?

…the Old Broad, who wears giant purple turbans and says crazy things in the middle of Almacks. The bluestocking heroine who doesn’t want to marry because it would interfere with being an historian/a sculptor/raising Shar-Pei puppies. Or the heroine’s father who neglects his family to perform experiments with ball lightening in the garden, leaving the heroine to take care of all her brothers and sisters by herself.

If I find one or more of these cliches in a book I send it sailing to the wall–splat.

As for the real-life eccentrics, no wonder the French had a revolution.

Janet

Diane Perkins
16 years ago

I don’t know about eccentrics, but I’m intrigued by Lord Castlereigh. He did so much in his life, but wound up commiting suicide. Why?

Amanda McCabe
16 years ago

How did I ever miss a tranvestite swordsman???

And what happened to my pic??? It was there when I did the post! I hate blogger sometimes. (Oh, no, I shouldn’t say that, it might hear me!). Anyway, the pic was of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, because Jack Sparrow is nothing if not the perfect eccentric. 🙂

Cara King
16 years ago

We’re being deprived of a picture of Jack Sparrow??? Oh, now, that’s cruel. Bad blogger!

Cara

Amanda McCabe
16 years ago

Oh, and another favorite show of mine, Deadwood, is also populated by crazies. Psychotic, but very entertaining, crazies. 🙂

Pam Rosenthal
16 years ago

Crossing over the line past eccentricity, I guess, but since you mentioned the French Revolution, Janet, I’ll add some of the Marquis de Sade’s lighter exploits:

As a young man, he organized his family into a theatrical troupe, hired some dozen additional professional actors, curtain-pullers and wigmakers and shuttled the whole ill-assorted crew every few days over some of Provence’s roughest terrain in order to present 19 plays in two venues to local gentry who mostly stayed away.

While, post-revolution, he had a brief, highly successful career as a revolutionary apparatchik. Signing up as an “active citizen” of his Paris neighborhood, “Citizen Louis Sade” (he’d always wanted to be named for the kings of France) joined committees, took neighborhood watch duty and helped rebaptize streets with names like “Rue du Peuple Souverain.” For a penniless ex-aristocrat who privately believed in constitutional monarchy and deplored capital punishment, this was clearly a survival tactic; what’s notable, though, was how good he was at it. He became official scribe of his district; his reports, clearly written tongue-in-cheek and adorned with phrases like “the great republican family we have just founded,” were circulated as models of patriotic rhetoric.

He’s an interesting guy even if you leave aside what he was best known for.

Todd
16 years ago

Janet wrote:

As for the real-life eccentrics, no wonder the French had a revolution.

I will just point out that d’Eon, who felt ostracized and unable to be his true self in France, spent the later years of his life, until his death, in England. Where eccentrics felt more at home, I suppose.

Todd-who-felt-quite-at-home-in-England

Elena Greene
16 years ago

Mandacoll, Jo Beverley had the actual Chevalier d’Eon appear in that book. Very interesting treatment of him/her.

Re eccentrics, I love ’em, think the world is a better, more interesting and tolerant place with a bit of oddity, real or fictional.

The thing I don’t care for is when an eccentric is a stereotype. I was going to say that the dotty scientific father was one variation I couldn’t deal with anymore, but remembered that Loretta Chase had one in MISS WONDERFUL and I didn’t object. She made him a unique character.

If you think about it, a stereotyped eccentric is a contradiction in terms. And those do annoy me.

Elena