How do you feel if someone describes you as eccentric? Do you feel pride or anger, or something else? Eccentric, ex-centric, out from the centre. This is a word that’s pleasing to speak, sibilant –
but is this just an innocent term to denote those not in the mainstream? Does that depend on who’s using it?
Over the years I’ve noticed this word being used in descriptions of some creative women – not usually about their work, but about them as persons, as women. In 2010, for example, the British writer Beryl Bainbridge died at the age of 75. She left for us a whole set of powerful novels, two of which won the Whitbread Awards, and five of which were shortlisted for the Booker prize. Many were made into films. There were obituaries of her in most UK newspapers and other media and I noticed the frequent appearance of this word in them. Here are a few examples:
1. ‘I did not know her well, wish I had known her better. She was, as they say, a one-off, eccentric, courageous, intelligent, well read – Dickens was her god.’ (Susan Hill, The Spectator’s art blog, 2010)
2. For many year’s Bainbridge’s work was edited at Duckworth by Anna Haycraft, better known as the writer Alice Thomas Ellis, whose regular Spectator column often featured her deeply eccentric, chain-smoking, hard-drinking mate, Beryl. ( Paul Levy,2010, the Independent)
3. Beryl Bainbridge, rarely perceived as cuddly even by those who relished her work and eccentric personality, was today celebrated as “a superb granny”, before being buried in suitably grand literary surroundings at Highgate Cemetery, where her neighbours include George Eliot, Karl Marx, the parents of Charles Dickens, and the poet Christina Rossetti. (Maev Kennedy, The Guardian.co.uk, books 2010)
What we can see in these examples is that the word ‘eccentric’ is usually accompanied by other adjectives that give it either a positive or negative slant. In the first extract above Hill combines this descriptor with others that are all unambiguously positive (courageous, intelligent, well read). In the third the adjective is used alone by Kennedy (eccentric personality) but is put alongside a potentially negative description of the writer as not ‘cuddly’. In the second it is directly associated with negative, excessive behaviour (chain-smoking, hard-drinking).
Janet Watts tells us that this labelling of her as eccentric had been going on a long time, and that it was a description that she, herself rejected:
Beryl came to dislike the image she had acquired of eccentricity and wildness around alcohol and men. “Nobody can write books, bring up children and earn money if they are eccentric,” she said firmly. (Janet Watts, 2010, The Guardian)
Here Bainbridge describes herself as the same as the rest of us.
I will now give two more examples of this labeling from writing about Stevie Smith (poet) and Emily Carr (painter and writer). I wonder if they would also have rejected this label that was also applied to them?
Stevie Smith wrote poems and published them alongside her own drawings, which she referred to as ‘doodles’. Kristin Bluemel quotes from Seamus Heaney’s review of Smith’s 1976 ‘Collected Poems’ as saying “I suppose, in the end, the adjective has to be called ‘eccentric‘“. Here it is one feature of Smith’s work that is being negatively labelled, which is interesting, but Bluemel also says that Smith’s behaviour at poetry readings was labelled as eccentric too. Bluemel argues that Smith’s drawings and poems challenged the conventional traditions and assumptions of her time, which were mainly driven by white, male norms. Think T.S Eliott, for example.
As I have discussed in a previous blog the Canadian artist Emily Carr also challenged dominant assumptions through her paintings, and she too has been given the label ‘eccentric’. I first met this in the foreword to a later edition of Klee Wyck, Carr’s initial collection of prose sketches, first published in 1941. The author of this foreword, written in 1951, is Ira Dilworth, who edited all her writing during her lifetime, and was her literary executor. Six years after her death he begins this introduction to her and her work with the following description:
My earliest vivid memories of Emily Carr go back (–) to a time when she was living in Victoria, British Columbia, still largely unnoticed as an artist (-). In those days she was a familiar figure passing down Simcoe Street in front of our house (–), she passed by each morning on her way to the grocer’s or butcher’s. She trundled in front of her an old-fashioned baby carriage in which sat her favourite pet, Woo, a small Javanese monkey dressed in a bright costume of black, red and brown which Emily had made for her. Bounding around her as she went would be six or eight of the great shaggy sheep dogs which she raised for sale. Half an hour later you could see her returning, the baby carriage piled high with parcels, Woo skipping along at the end of a leash, (–). The great sheep dogs still bounced around the quaint figure whom they recognised as their devoted mistress. I thought of her then, as did the children behind the hedge and as did most of her fellow-citizens who thought of her at all, as an eccentric, middle-aged woman who kept an apartment house on Simcoe Street near Beacon Hill Park, who surrounded herself with numbers of pets – birds, chipmunks, white rats and the favourite Woo – and raised English sheep dogs in kennels in her large garden.
Emily Carr was a great painter, certainly one of the greatest women painters of any time. It has been said that for originality, versatility, driving creative power and strong individual achievement she has few equals among modern artists.
Notice here that Dilworth starts with a description of her as odd, peculiar, excessive and only after this does he turn to her work and its value. In this description, as in the negative description of Bainbridge above is the highlighting of excess. In Dilworth’s portrait Carr is accompanied by too many animals, of too many species. Bainbridge is described as consuming too many cigarettes and alcohol. Out of long, complicated and sometimes difficult lives for all these creative women these ‘different’ behaviours are selected as notable, and as excessive, rather than the aspects of it that we all share, as Bainbridge pointed out.
The association of Carr with the word eccentric is not confined to past times. In 2001 to 2002 an exhibition of her work in her hometown of Victoria at The Royal British Columbian museum was titled ‘Emily Carr: Eccentric Artist, Author, Genius.’ Nancy Pagh reports that the museum used a banner on its building to advertise the exhibition with ‘Emily Carr: Eccentric’ emblazoned on it, overshadowing the smaller text ‘Artist, Author, Genius’. This marketing parallels Dilworth’s representation of Carr as firstly odd, and only secondly, as ‘great painter’.
The website of the Vancouver Art gallery has an introductory biographical sketch of Carr which starts with the following sentence: ‘Emily Carr’s life story has all the qualities of an excellent biography — tragedy, inspiration, triumph, resolve, eccentricity’ (http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/EmilyCarr/en/about/index.php). This gallery now owns almost two hundred of Carr’s art works, so it is an important site for the legacy of her work and access to digital archives of her paintings. In this first paragraph it is made clear that there are many different versions of Carr, by herself and those writing about her. There is no attempt to offer a definitive one, but the label of eccentricity is repeated twice more, ‘the eccentric, animal-loving recluse’ and ‘her eccentricities’.
I turned to Miranda Gill’s work on the concept of eccentricity to try and get to grips with what is going on in this labelling. She explored its genealogy – how it was used in the past – particularly in relation to its shifting meanings in nineteenth century Paris. Through her analysis of French popular culture and medical texts of that time Gill says that the term eccentricity is used by those who think of themselves as normal in order to label those they see as departing from current conventions. Like in my examples above, Gill has found that it was used ambivalently, to carry both positive and negative associations of what is seen as unconventionality. She shows how it was used negatively to mark behaviour as bizarre, transgressive, mad, or associated positively with innovation and creativity. Interestingly, she argues that females labelled as eccentric were more likely to be more negatively evaluated, especially in the Victorian period with its strict social codes for women. My examples show that this negative labelling continues.
As we can see from the extract from his foreword above, Dilworth goes on to praise Carr’s work and label her as a ‘great painter’.
This is a perspective on artists that Gill includes in her genealogy of eccentricity, coming from the Romantic view of the artist as wild, solitary, exceptional. Like the term eccentric it marks off the person as different, apart from the rest of society, but with praise rather than fear or ridicule. Gill calls this a counter representation of eccentricity. She attributes it to liberal theory in Victorian England, citing J.S. Mill as an important source, in his championing of the freedom of the individual to act. She quotes Mills positive views on eccentricity, linking it to the concept of genius:
Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage which it contained.
A well known example of this perspective comes from Virginia Woolf in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ where she is challenging the patriarchal social worlds of the early twentieth century. Woolf also uses the category of genius as part of her advocacy for female artists:
‘Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Bronte or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence.’
Here she represents creative people as possessing a special ability that is unconnected with their social contexts. This view of the artist as exceptional is underpinned by the modernist view of the individual self as fixed, solid, immutable to the social worlds around her. Hill describes Bainbridge as a ‘one-off ’, Watts, in the Guardian obituary quotes the New York Times description of her writing as ‘the dark dynamic of her siren voice’. Dilworth, near the end of his foreward calls Carr ‘a great genius‘. This Romantic perspective persists. Through it these women are described as having strong, creative voices, but is their power ‘roped off’, held in by accompanying descriptions of them as bizarre, abnormal women?
This view of the individual has now been displaced in the academy by the postmodern view of self as fluid, discursive, relational. The artist as a unique, lone individual is decentered through studies that trace the intricate relations of art social practices. Howard Becker’s ‘Art Worlds’ in 1982, for example, details the collective action that makes up art practices, and describes ‘the complexity of the cooperative networks through which art happens’. Art and creativity are now understood to be deeply social processes, through which art objects – music, paintings, books, poems, dance – are produced, and established conventions reproduced and transformed.
However, these descriptions show that the ambivalent category of eccentricity lives on, and that the idea of the artist as exceptional and distanced from us ‘normal folks’ is still in use.
Maybe this counter meaning is why some people are proud to label themselves as eccentric? . In 1995 David Weeks and Jamie James published a study of over one thousand people who chose to participate in the study because they were happy to call themselves eccentric. Their study also to brought together the concepts of eccentricity with creativity, as the authors declare that ‘creativity is at the heart of eccentricity’, but Weeks and James do not take a critical perspective on how this term can be used to try and reinforce specific social norms.
Gill points out that the meanings of the term eccentric are always context-dependent, as they shift alongside the social norms they are part of. This semantic shift is clearly illustrated by the highlighting and negative labelling of different behaviours and work in these three examples. Smith’s drawings are dismissed by Phillip Larkin as ‘frivolous‘, according to Bluemel, as well as eccentric by Heaney. Carr’s love of animals is shown as excessive, as is Bainbridge’s smoking and drinking by Levy. In his description of Bainbridge we can clearly see the gender work. Would a male writer of the same generation and cultural background as Bainbridge be marked as abnormal for ‘ chain-smoking, hard-drinking‘? I think not.
It is one thing to describe yourself as eccentric, as the particpants in Weeks and James’ study have, but quite another thing to be given this label by others. Bainbridge tried to reject it, but up it popped, in both its associations, in writings about her after her death. It seems to me that the negative meaning of this term is still being used to mark strong, creative women as different and outside current norms of femininity. They are presented as a category of difficulty.
I wonder if you have come across this use of the term eccentric and can add more examples here– or perhaps counter examples that disrupt this kind of labelling? I feel we still need to work hard to widen the social pool of role models available to the next generations – to celebrate different kinds of women (and men too!), different kinds of creativity and ways of living – not be content with them being labelled as deviant.
Becker, Howard, (1982) Art Worlds. University of California Press
Bluemel, Kirstin (1998) The dangers of eccentricity: Stevie Smith’s doodles and poetry. Mosaic, 31.3
Carr, Emily. (1941) Klee Wyck Toronto, Irwin Publishing
Gill, Miranda (2009) Eccentricity and the cultural imagination in nineteenth century Paris. Oxford University Press.
Hill, Susan (2010) The Spectator’s Art Blog; http://www.spectator.co.uk/arts-and-culture/touching-from-a-distance/6124993/beryl-bainbridge.thtml 6/7/2010 (accessed 15/7/10)
Kennedy, Maev (2010) ) http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/12/beryl-bainbridge-buried-highgate-cemetery, accessed 15/7/10
Levy, Paul (2010) obituary in the Independent, 3/7/10
Pagh, Nancy (2002) Seriously Emily, a review essay, BC Studies, no. 133, Spring
Watts, Janet (2010) Obituaries: Dame Beryl Bainbridge. The Guardian newspaper, 3/7/2010.
Weeks, David and James, Jamie (1995) Eccentrics: A study of sanity and strangeness. Villiard.
Woolf, Virginia (1975) A Room of one’s own. Penguin Books