Whenever skies look gray to me, and trouble begins to brew, I concentrate on "The British Eccentric," the gift of a friend who no longer wanted it. My friend, who is discerning and sensible, judged the book only so-so. I, on the other hand, find it a constant source of solace and inspiration, and turn to it as to a favorite uncle - albeit one with his brains removed.
Not that everyone described in the book is equally eccentric. For some reason the editors (Harriet Bridgeman and Elizabeth Drury) include sketches of Thomas de Quincey and Algernon Charles Swinburne, who were no crazier than any writer. De Quincey is called eccentric because he was careless with money, and accepted invitations to parties he never attended. On that basis sanity consists of rich people attending parties - a contention that no one who has ever seen such a thing would support.
I suppose Swinburne could be called eccentric. Anyone who could not write a letter without extolling the virtues of flogging would have to be so called. There's a puzzling item in the essay on Swinburne, however, Swinburne was thrown out of the London Arts Club for dining with one Alfred Bailey "in an insane and indecent manner." How one does that isn't said, but the dinner must have been worth watching. At any rate, Swinburne was no nuttier than most of the pre-Raphaelites, and my guess is that massive carrot top of his housed more fears than fantasies.
The same cannot be guessed of Lord Berners. Lord Berners (1883-1950) came into his title and fortune because - he said - three of his uncles fell off a bridge at the same time. He devoted his life to special projects, such as erecting a 140-foot tower in his town of Faringdon, "the great point" of which, he announced was "that it will be entirely useless." Once at a hotel in Greece he suddenly dropped to all fours an started barking at the proprietor, because he'd heard the proprietor was a werewolf. Late in life he faked a suicide.
Lord Berner's most picturesque project was to hold a tea at Farington House to which he invited Bubbles Radclyffe, Robert Heber-Percy, Penelope Chetwode and Penelope Chetwode's horse.
An eccentric of a different color was Jack Mytton, the Evel Knievel of his time, which was understandably short (1796-1834). "So extraordinary a hellraiser was Mytton," writes his biographer, "that to apologize properly for his career would be near impossible."
He started each morning swilling five bottles of port and, on at least two occasions, switched to eau de Cologne. It was estimated he spent a half million pounds on drink in 15 years. An examination of his wardrobe revealed 152 pairs of breeches, 700 pairs of boots and slippers, over 1,000 hats and nearly 3,000 shorts.
What Mytton enjoyed most, though, was risking his life. He became so well known for taking jumps no sane man would try that a phrase was coined at the time to describe anything too rough to attempt - "It would do for Mytton." He was always getting into fights, he deliberately upset a gig he was riding in because his companion said he'd never been in a crash; once he appeared in his ancestral home at Halston dressed in full hunting costume, riding a bear.
His final act was to set himself on fire to cure a case of hiccups. At the point of death Mytton exulted: "Well, the hiccup is gone, by God."
The eccentric's eccentric was Sir Tatton Sykes. As soon as he came into his beautiful estate of Sledmere, his first act was to destroy all the gardens. Flowers he considered "nasty, untidy things," and he would make inspection tours of his village, lopping the heads off posies. He also believed that a person should keep his body temperature constant, and would often wear six overcoats at a time, which he would discard, one by one, as his body temperature rose. Sometimes he would wear two pairs of pants, one of which he would peel off at the appropriate moment. That once made a big hit at York Station.
Are there such people around today? I doubt it. For eccentrics to thrive it takes an age that will acknowledge there's such a thing as eccentric behavior. Elton John owns more eyeglasses than Jack Mytton owned breeches, but we take that fact in stride because it's part of his act. The mark of a true eccentric is that he's never acting. When Lord Berners welcomed Miss Chetwode's horse he was living quite comfortably in his own world.
Or maybe not. The line between eccentricity and madness has always been fuzzy. From one point of view it seems a rich nut is called eccentric and a poor one mad - the difference lying in the wherewithal to work out one's lunacies. It's a lot funnier to read of Sir Tatton's escapades, or even Jack Mytton's, than it is, say to watch the wretched woman who stalks Connecticut Avenue at noon, screaming at herself in Bulgarian.
"That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time," complained John Stuart Mill. That seems to be overstating the case, but he had one, which applies now. The wonderful virtue of eccentrics is that to them all things are possible, whereas to us all things are merely probably. As Lord Berners knew, it takes more imagination to pour tea for a horse than to fly to Mars - which is probably what inspired his epitaph:
Here liea Lord Berners,
One of the learners.
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning.
But praise to the lord.
He never was bored!