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The English Eccentrics Paperback – October 1, 2005
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Such understated whimsy within these pages! Such a singular philosophy bound these disparate lives! Read, for example, of the rich Miss Beswick, whose sole concern was that, having passed on, she might not realize it, and that her death "might prove to be only an illusion, a dreamless sleep." And so she left a large sum of money to a certain doctor and his family, "on condition that the doctor should pay her a visit every morning, after what appeared to uninstructed persons, to be her death, in order that he might be assured of the reality of this." Dame Edith dryly notes, "When the Doctor died, the mummified Miss Beswick, that candidate for immortality, was removed to the Lying-in Hospital."
It's Edith Sitwell's droll, ornate prose, moreso even than the picturesque eccentrics, that make this a book to savor, to read bits of aloud, in the small hours of the night.
And now the hurled invective: Shame! Shame that this book is out of print! What poverty-stricken, unpoetic times are these?
Of course, there is so much material to work with, it is a wonder the book isn't multi-volumed! Originally published in 1933, it retains much of its vitality and levity despite being two generations (at least) behind the times. Sitwell caught the character of the English Eccentric at a time just before the wholesale decline of Empire, and thus the character portrayed here is a 'standard' one.
'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.'
In the relating of small tales and glimpses of life, Sitwell takes us through a history of language usage and abusage, cultural niceties gone awry, personal proclivities taken to extremes, historical remembrances remembered a bit incorrectly, all the while maintaining a strong British 'we know just what we're doing, thank you, and we're doing it quite correctly' attitude.
We find hermits, both ancient and ornamental (the distinction between the two of course being a relative flash that one would think inimical to the hermit-age); quacks and alchemists, some members of the sporting set (we learn of one who, in an attempt to scare the hiccups out of himself, set fire to his nightshirt--of course he was still in it--and was satisfied despite the burns that his hiccups had been vanquished), various other sorts and sets in the land.Read more ›
I had known her mainly for her poetry - if ever you wonder how anyone could make poetry out of the London Blitz, look at Dylan Thomas' famous "A Refusal to Mourn..." but then read Dame Edith's "Still falls the rain." Every bit as incantatory and dramatic. We lost a powerful voice with her passing - and Osbert and Sacheverell had their own spheres of powerful wordwork also.
I think the only way to give the real flavour of "The English Eccentrics" is by a few samples. What about Dr. Van Butchell, who could not bear the thought of parting from his deceased wife, and had her enbalmed and "laid reverently in a case with a glass lid, and curtain, and was introduced to visitors as 'My dear departed.' " He set up formal visiting hours for those whom he permitted to view the departed, by appointment. However...
"Eventually, Mr. Van Butchell took unto himself another, and a more wakeful wife, and the perpetual presence of the first Mrs. Van Butchell became a source of dissension, and of household strife, so that she was banished from the presence of her husband, and dust was only dust.Read more ›