Eccentricity is necessarily a thing of a date comparatively recent. There was no eccentricity in the old feudal society, or in the society of the Middle Ages. How could one marauding baron be more eccentric than another? Individual character of course displayed itself; and even among swineherds and goatherds there is always some rustic wit. But no one would call either Front de Boeuf or Gurth eccentric. The society of the Middle Ages looks diversified and picturesque to us precisely because it was divided off into strongly-marked sections. We contrast the pilgrim, the warrior, the merchant, the priest; and as the contrast is strong, we are apt to fancy that individual life was also much more rich and varied than now. And indisputably the part which a few pre-eminent men could play then was greater than any part that could be played by individuals now. But the very rigidity with which these picturesque classes were marked off tended to hamper all freedom of individuals in daily life. An apprentice belonging to a guild, whatever other advantages he may have had over a City shopboy of the present day, had certainly not that of being more free from interference in matters of indifference. Probably the most efficient cause in producing the change of society which permits such a freedom to exist was the spirit of inquiry in matters pertaining to religion which sprang up in the sixteenth century. Religion belongs to the individual; and when the cut of the hair and the texture of the coat were made matters of religious opinion, freedom of conscience showed itself in all kinds of extraordinary costume. For two centuries, the ludicrous garb of the Quakers has reminded Englishmen that any one who pleases is at liberty to tread the path to heaven in a coal-scuttle bonnet or a protesting wide-awake. Still, the departure from the ordinary customs of society that took its origin in religious dissent was too solemn and too outrageous to come within the proper meaning of eccentricity; for the eccentric man is one who, on the majority of grounds, is expected to belong, and does belong, to the society, that judges him. He has that society for the centre from which he wanders, and only on some one or more peculiar points diverges and goes off into a path of his own. It is not, therefore, until society becomes settled and easy that eccentricity comes into existence. During the last century, there were numbers of eccentric persons, who are sketched in the romances of the period, and the same kind of eccentricity that marked the last century was continued far into this. Perhaps Beckford was the best model of the old-fashioned eccentric man. English eccentricity never got to a higher pitch than when Beckford squandered his gigantic wealth in building a wall of Babylon round his park in order to prevent his neighbours occasionally following game beyond the bounds that separated his lands from theirs. There was, too, a time within the recollection of all persons in middle life when eccentricity took a more general but still, an outrageous form, and a fashionable insolence prompted adventurers to wring off knockers, make dreadful noises in the street, and elude watchmen by wearing spring-heeled shoes. If we look at the career of any one of the individuals who were then eccentric, we shall probably find more to blame than to praise in it. But looking at the eccentricity as a whole, we cannot fairly deny that it kept up, although in an excessive and outrageous form, the right of individuals to please themselves in their daily life. The world, like a school, would be very dull if it were not for the boys who are naughty without being very naughty; and we can directly trace the comparative freedom of the present day to the random efforts of social innovators.
It is very true that we often hear complaints that society is intolerably stiff, pompous, and timid. But these complaints are really only the sign that the complainants are prepared themselves, if they can but get encouragement, to venture on a little safe eccentricity. If they meant to state as a fact that society is more rigid than formerly, they ought to be asked to make their comparison definite. Much has been said lately about the absurdity of every one having the same sort of dinner; and this is supposed to show that people are more timid than they used to be. Who are the people that are more timid, and with whom are they compared? Novelists always take Bloomsbury as the pet region of social meanness. Thirty years ago, a dinner in Bloomsbury would have been, let us assume, of a more purely family character—that is, roast meat would have been the great thing offered to the guests. Where was the courage in offering roast beef to people who never looked for anything but a sirloin? The Bloomsbury dinner-giver was not a bold man asserting a principle—he was merely exercising an unreflecting and humdrum hospitality. Undoubtedly there has come over society a greater pretension to apparent equality; and if the novelists are right about their facts, side-dishes and bad champagne are now considered primary elements in Bloomsbury dinners. But before the serpent whispered the thought of this alarming grandeur into the ears of Bloomsbury, the inhabitants were not tempted at all. Courage can only be shown when temptation is to be resisted, and no one can deny that there has been great room for the display of social courage since the general movement of society to an artificial equality has spread abroad the love of pretension and show, and fostered the habit of each man aping his betters. But in a healthy society this error has always a tendency to correct itself, for why is it that this pretension exists? It is because, as wealth and education advance, a continually greater number of persons are brought into contact with the classes that have wealth, leisure, and traditionary refinement. But these classes are sure always to be the least stiff and the most eccentric, because they are the most sure of their position. They are too fond of enjoyment, to sacrifice, the real enjoyment of pleasing themselves to the imaginary enjoyment of standing well with society, for, whatever they do, society is only too happy to pardon them. Their example descends, and just as in the first stage of imitation their inferiors cramped and tortured themselves in order to get as near as possible to a generalized aristocratic model, so, in the second stage of imitation, these same persons will copy the freedom that they find in the individuals from an imperfect acquaintance with whom this model was hastily deduced.
Education, also, has a tendency to produce a healthy eccentricity. It is something which every one who possesses, it feels to be peculiarly his own, and which will remain with him however his outward appearance and daily habits may change. All eccentricity requires a certain courage, and the path to this courage is made smooth in proportion as each man, having something on which he can rely, perceives that to be courageous will cost him less. There is also a new feature in modern education that is especially suited to instil social courage. Every one travels, and in travelling sees the costumes and manners, observes the characteristic traits, and hears the opinions and beliefs, of nation after nation. The traveller finds that the human race gets on pretty well, even when it has not adopted the particular pattern on which he has tried so patiently, to cut himself; and he gains at least the germ of revolutionary ideas, even if he does not care or dare to bring them to maturity. He is prepared to abandon the greatest triumph of Western conventionalism, the hat, after having been familiar with the turban and the fez, and he cannot entertain any scruples about a beard after having seen the snowy splendours that have lent dignity and grace to the Eastern patriarchs who have fed, instructed, and cheated him. Women, too, travel; and as women are the great upholders of all conventionalism, and are haunted with an innate inclination to crouch before the censure of Mrs. Grundy, it affects society widely and largely that lady travellers should gain a notion of the infinite varieties of Mrs. Grundy which the world contains. Encouraged by the absence of the type with which she has been familiar, a lady abroad ventures on licenses which she would fear at home as the remote beginnings of a possible social ostracism. At present, however, the eccentricity of ladies, being new and unrecognised, is in its outrageous stage. Unprotected females, stalk over, Norway in thick boots, or provoke declarations in Sicilian churches. Lively girls go on grand flirting raids to Bengal; and a lady is even said to have one up Mount Blanc and proceeded to a ball on the evening of her descent. But soon this eccentricity will boil down. The outrageous type will fade away, and women will remain with more liberty, and a greater disposition to let the men of whom they take charge follow their own devices.
Nor, in speaking of the agencies which tend to give independence to society, ought we to forget tobacco. Nothing has counteracted so potently the stiff and starched respectability of English decorous life as the growing use of tobacco. Every one smokes now—even Archbishops. The University Don has almost been brought out of a fossilized into a post-Adamite state under the influence of a habit which is a link between him and the youngest undergraduate. There is no such thing as colouring a pipe solemnly, and with an air of moral superiority. A smoker cannot frighten his species by any mock dignity. And not only does smoking break through the decorum of heavy respectability, but it is the best antidote to the cold, proud shyness of the nation. If two strangers meet, and merely look at each other, they may part with a mutual dislike which has really risen only from the reserve which neither has been able to get rid of. A very little smoke makes them pleasant, and induces each to come out and show himself as he is. Pharisaism is the exact opposite of eccentricity; and as it is impossible a Pharisee should present himself with a cigar in his mouth, the custom which, so far as it extends, prevents Pharisaism from appearing in public, gives a greater and greater opening for eccentricity. As if tobacco, the fusion of ranks, the education of men, and the pretty audacity of women on their outings, together with many other causes, are combining to enable persons of moderate courage to do more as they like, it ought to be said, on the other hand, that the growing liberty is kept more and more strictly within the limits that prevent its spreading into a license annoying to others. In its old form, eccentricity was often vexatious and intrusive. It did good at so great a cost that the play was often not worth the candle. But modern eccentricity is much more courteous and guarded, and, while conducing greatly to social happiness, is seldom the source of any positive annoyance.
Saturday Review, March 5, 1859.