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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 781-797
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Eccentricity as Englishness in David Copperfield
Julia F. Saville
In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. 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 it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.
—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859) 1
Today, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the association of eccentricity with Englishness might seem an age-old commonplace—a form of comic global cliché perpetuated by rollicking songs such as Noël Coward's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." The English, we are led to believe, take pride in being wacky or harmlessly bloody-minded, going "out in the midday sun" when others more sensible choose to stay indoors. 2 But in this paper I want to argue that the association of eccentricity with Englishness is a relatively recent phenomenon and that its provenance lies in the rise of nationalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although in retrospect it seems valid to apply the term "eccentric" to numerous pre-Victorian literary texts—Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760-67) comes immediately to mind—I argue [End Page 781] here that the coupling of eccentricity with Englishness is only cultivated consciously in the early-to-mid-Victorian period (1830s to 1860s), through figures such as Charles Dickens and Mill. What is more, as the epigraph above will confirm, eccentricity is not treated flippantly at this time. On the contrary, it has a range of ideological possibility and moral substance much richer than it has today.
The earliest usages of "eccentricity" recorded in the OED refer to the field of astronomy, to planetary orbits with decentered axes, or to a lack of concentricity in the celestial sphere. Occasionally, with an archaic spelling, "excentric" is used figuratively to refer to odd human behavior. Only in the late eighteenth century do figurative usages begin to predominate. Frequently, the astronomical nuances linger in the coupling of the term "eccentric" with the idea of an excursion away from the beaten track of humdrum living. Eccentricity thus becomes an assertion of individual liberty that will not capitulate to containment but instead celebrates excess, an implication particularly evident in the titles of works about eccentrics. 3
Recent explorations of English history and culture suggest that the notion of character played an intriguing role at a time when the national identity of Englishness was being forged. Character was frequently the articulating term that integrated the distinctiveness of the individual with the coherence of the nation. John Lucas and Linda Colley have both argued that liberty was one of the predominant cultural claims on which an Enlightenment sense of Englishness was founded in the early years of the eighteenth century. 4 Since character stood as a manifestation of individual freedom within a nation that prided itself on the liberty of its citizens, to be a character in the sense of feeling free to assert one's individuality was simultaneously to participate in defining the national character as free. Gerald Newman also notices this dual function, arguing that the distinguishing feature of the English claimed by myth makers of national identity in the mid-eighteenth century was sincerity. Through his sincerity a middle-class man of character could distinguish himself from rivals such as the aristocracy or, at an international level, the French. Like liberty, sincerity of character was the term through which individual and communal obligations could be negotiated. 5
This dual imperative to balance the kind of difference that defines the individual as a character or discrete unit with the need for a degree of...