2019/09/04

Book Notes: English Eccentrics (Edith Sitwell)

I'm able to form an opinion on most authors. Edith Sitwell, poet, eccentric, and fashionista, is an exception. I'm torn between rage and admiration. English Eccentrics is like a train wreck. I can't look away.

Most historians cite sources. Edith Sitwell sometimes remembers to do so.
Most authors (past the 18th century) balk at lifting whole pages from other sources. Edith Sitwell plunders. If I hadn't just finished Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds I probably wouldn't have spotted it. No quotation marks even. Just passages lifted wholesale.
Most people, before writing a book on famous English Eccentrics, would consider if any members of their family should be included. Edith Sitwell's entire immediate family could be included. She didn't include any of them.
Most historians would at least hesitate before inventing romantic details to add to their stories. Edith Sitwell, not so much.
Most biographers document their subjects chronologically.
Most chroniclers don't assume their readers have met the people in their tales personally and can fill in details as needed from intimate acquaintance.
Most authors don't include long poetical-metaphorical interludes.
But Edith Sitwell is a poet, and I believe poets can apply for a special license.

And yet, at the same time, she put together and indexed (by her own eccentric standards) a vast miscellany of interesting fragments, personal details, and digests of longer works. She summarized a library of knowledge and (in most cases), provided enough breadcrumbs for a diligent modern reader to stumble towards a more trustworthy source. She claimed she wrote prose only for money, and reading English Eccentrics I can certainly believe it.


1d50  Eccentric Notes
1 The Prince Regent was overcome by the splendour of the whiskers and of the uniform...
2 ...for she would never drink tea excepting from a favourite teacup, not sit down excepting in a favourite chair.
3 Who but he, for instance, could have survived the Black Vomit, in the Plague of Malaga.
4 ...insist on delivering, in a horizontal position, interminable lectures on whatever subject was at the time occupying his attention.
5 He went shooting on the back of a bull of ample proportions and uncertain temper, whilst for pointers, he made use of the services of a crowd of vivacious and sagacious pigs, all of whom answered to their names, and did their duty irreproachably.
6 He had a hundred and fifty-two pairs of trousers and breeches, and the same number of coats and waistcoats.
7 "The Strong Fives, the Marthambles, the Moon-Pall, the Hockogrockle."
8 "...his braine was like a Hasty-Pudding, where there was Memorie, Judgement, and Phancy all stirred together."
9 ...and his mother, with commendable firmness, married him to a heiress.
10 The Squire was constantly riding at dangerous fences, falling off his horse when drunk, driving his tandem at frantic speed, and paying no more attention to crossroads and corners than he did to creditors.
11 But there were moments when his memory failed him; and he would forget to eat dinner, though he never forgot a quotation.
12 "He had considerable inventive genius, especially in the actual formation of supposed extinct animals, generally of a most horrid form and appearance, buy a skillful union of separate portions of reptiles."
13 ...that she burst into a loud howling, the bassoon-like notes of which persisted throughout the work.
14 He would swagger about the enclosure in his glossy shining waistcoat made of drakes' feathers.
15 "the Glimm'ning of the Gizzard, the Quavering of the Kidneys, the Wambling Trot, etc."
16 He was equally addicted to matrimony, though he was as much a wanderer in this sphere of activity as in any other...
17 "It is said that his Lordship keeps six French friseurs, who have nothing else to do than dress his hair."
18 "The most curious part of his dress, which he has brought from Paris, is an iron wig; you literally would not know it from hair. I believe it is on this account that the Royal Society has chosen him of their body." 
19 ...and leave the Professor sitting at the table, emitting no sign of life except the perpetual eruption of smoke.
20 "I forgot to tell you she is his daughter. Upon being told that he could not make her a nun upon the account of her religion, he said that would be no obstacle and that they were all alike to him."
21 "...he replied that he came into the world without a shirt, and he was determined to go out in the same manner."
22 When he found a circumstance difficult to explain to his advantage, he was in the habit of exuding clouds of ink, like an octopus, in which he could disguise the facts at will and capture his audience.
23 He was one of those unfortunate people who cannot move one step in life without being injured by one person, insulted by another, so that he was forced to engage in perpetual warfare in order to preserve his dignity.
24 No drama given in aid of Charity was complete without him, even though his presence alone meant that the drama must come to an untimely end, or, in any case, that disaster must ensue.
25 Amiable and charitable, there was but one person he disliked, and that was the Pope.
26 New diseases were found, which, though they were not apparent, must be cured.
27 "A friend told me that he once put down his hat, and never could find it again, such was the confusion of boxes, packages, and parcels that lay about the chamber."
28 "Her extreme plainness, a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids, the nasal tone of her voice, all repelled."
29 It was impossible to mention any adventure in his presence without that gentleman turning royal purple and explaining, at great length, how he had endured the same trials, not once, but twice.
30 ..."amused himself by giving poison to dogs and cats and seeing them expire by slower or quicker torments".
31 After she had become totally blind at the age of sixteen, she could distinguish colours by the touch of her fingers.
32 He added gloomily that "her fits and obsessions seem to be greater, for she screeches in a most hellish tone."
33 He never slept in a bed nbut on the floor, wrapped in a cloak, and with a block of beech-wood for a pillow.
34 "The meeting was to take place on the summit of the volcano, Mount Etna, and that if either of the combatants fell, the crater was to become their tomb."
35 ...a long record of high ideals, the maddest tricks and escapades, and of hair-raising adventure.
36 ...had, in spite of her ugliness, a monolithic, mysteirous, primeval grandeur of countenance...
37 These suits and hats wree all addressed, with proper respect, by names bestowed upon them by their owner.
38 Of these two strongly opposed races of the Dead, the first was deeply affected by the moon.
39 ...became famous for his amphibious habits, and for possessing benevolence and a beard.
40 "Wonders are now to be seen by the help of the Sun and his new-invented Solar microscope."
41 He died at the age of thirty-eight, worn out by too much foolishness, too much wretchedness, and too much brandy.
42 Once he galloped at full speed over a rabbit-warren, to find out if his horse would fall. He found out. 
43 His voice seemed pitched in two different keys, the effect of which was to make on seem a distant echo of the other.
44 It was not only that he did not mind accidents, he positively liked them.
45 ...the poker was never brought into play on these occasions, for the Professor relied on verbal effects alone.
46 The audience could not, would not, and did not endure his interpretations of the classics.
47 Dinner was waiting, and all went well until the Squire, who was dressed in full hunting costume, applied his spurs to the bear.
48 In spite of certain sinister rumours which I will mention later, his diet consisted mainly of beef tea...
49 He wrote a book... the boredom of which was commented upon by that virtuoso of in that quality, Sir Walter Scott.
50 Alas, the bath was not a success, and many of the owls died.

And finally, a charming quote on the Reverend Doctor Ralph Kettle, for any readers heading back to classes this week.

But he would take his hour-glass to lectures, and would threaten "the Boyes... that if they did not doe their exercise better he would bring an Hower-glasse two howers long."

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