The recent awards season makes me think about famous eccentrics, what makes them eccentric and why we find them entertaining.
I have a theory. I think many of us secretly wish we could do something a little outrageous once in a while. For instance, I love some of the crazy clothing in the Harry Potter movies but would never dare to wear anything like that except to a costume party. Maybe that’s why we love eccentrics, because they appear to be genuinely having fun living an extraordinary life without concern for appearances.
Some eccentrics ring more true to me than others. I might be wrong, but I think people like Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp are the real deal, genuinely a bit mad, and in a good way. Celebrities like Madonna and Lady Gaga (again I could be wrong) come across as more calculated, though they are entertaining in their way.
Many famous figures from the Regency could be considered eccentrics, from Prinny himself to Beau Brummell and other dandies like Poodle Byng. It’s harder for me to tell whether some of these characters donned their idiosyncrasies to get attention or whether they were as eccentric in private.
I think that many of Brummell’s shocking sayings (“Who’s your fat friend?”) were a calculated risk. However, his friend the Princess Frederica Charlotte, Duchess of York, “Freddie” to her friends, seems more of a genuine eccentric. Her marriage was unhappy and she lived in the country, at Oatlands in Surrey, lavishing affection on her pets, which included cats, dogs, birds and monkeys.
“The Duchess’s life is an odd one; she seldom has a female companion, she is read to all night and falls asleep towards morning, and rises about 3; feeds her dozens of dogs and her flocks of birds, &c., comes down two minutes before dinner, and so round again.” – Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, LL.D. F. R. S., Secretary to the Admiralty, 1818
Eccentrics in romance novels are usually secondary characters, the weird great aunt and the like. I’ve tried to think of major characters who are eccentric and came up with a few. Merlin Lambourn, the heroine from Laura Kinsale’s MIDSUMMER MOON is a brilliant inventor but seriously unworldly. I’d call Charles Harcourt, the hero from Judith Ivory’s BEAST, something of an eccentric as well.
Do you enjoy eccentrics? Which are your favorites, real, historical or fictional?