The obituaries marking the death of the 88-year-old Duchess of Alba, or Maria del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, to give her full name, are a reminder of just how dull the modern aristocracy can sometimes seem in comparison to what went before.
The Spanish Duchess was a wonderful and outspoken woman, who, thanks to her 44 noble titles and 150 hereditary titles, was perhaps the poshest person who ever lived.
She was also blissfully free of self-restraint. Amidst reports of strife in her marriage in 1988, she told reporters, “We are happy, as happy as before. And, if you must know, we fuck every night.”
With the recent death of “Debo” Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire, who once boasted that she bought all her clothes at agricultural fairs—and whose sister Decca memorably described her spending “silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen’s face when it is laying an egg”—one can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia for the lost era of the great English eccentric (the Duchess of Alba is an honorary member).
It is a loss noted keenly by the writer William Sitwell, whose great aunt Edith Sitwell wrote the definitive book on the subject, The English Eccentrics.
“It was one of the few books she wrote that was translated around the world,” says Sitwell, “There has always been a market for reading about English eccentrics. But eccentricity has to be natural and unforced—people who try to be eccentric end up just being pillocks.”
Edith was quite eccentric herself. She wore extraordinary clothes (she was described by one family member as “looking like an altar on the move”) frequently favoring turbans and flamboyant hats.
Noel Coward recorded an occasion when Edith went out for a walk and, after she did not come back for many hours, a search party was sent out. Edith was found “lost among the cabbages” in the kitchen garden; her hat was so enormous that she could not see where she was going (but she wouldn’t take it off).
Edith was also a great experimenter. She wrote a lengthy poem entitled Façade which was set to music by William Walton which she performed from behind a curtain with a face drawn on it at a Chelsea theatre.
But Edith was rather tame compared to George Sitwell, her father.
“He wrote intense musings on deeply obscure subjects,” says William Sitwell in a phone conversation with the Daily Beast, “These included the modern modification of lead jewelry from middle ages, the history of the peacock in western gardens and the history of the fork. He found his cows boring to look at so he had watercolors painted on them. He invented a revolver for killing wasps. He refused to dine with people, because he did not like being agitated during meal times. He believed it interfered with his gastric juices and stopped him sleeping at night.”
(William also takes his food seriously, and is the author of A History of Food in 100 Recipes.)
Undoubtedly, the enormous inherited fortunes of the aristocracy facilitated a certain eccentricity. “George wrote a letter to his son Osbert in the trenches,” recalls Sitwell, “in which he castigated him for his selfishness and greed and overbearing generosity, which he said would ruin the family, and then concluded the letter by saying, ‘By the way, I just bought a castle in Italy which sleeps 900 and we will be able to make our own olive oil and Champagne.’
“These days we all have to be a bit more sensible,” says Sitwell. “Money’s tight, and if you want to stop some Russian oligarch swiping your gaff [buying your home from under you] you can’t be bonkers. You’ll just end up on one of those terrible TV shows.”
David Jenkins, a senior editor at Tatler, the British society magazine, says, “There’s no-one quite like the Yellow Earl of Lonsdale, but there are still some eccentrics out there. We still have Lord Bath and his wifelets, the Earl of Haddington at Mellerstain Castle who keeps a constant look out for UFOs and Lord Patrick Conyngham, who likes to recite poetry underwater.”
But Jenkins concedes that eccentricity is not what it once was.
“The aristocracy don’t have that unfettered power anymore, the trustees won’t allow it.”
The art dealer Detmar Blow, who is often described as an eccentric (as was his late wife Isabella, the fashion muse and champion) detests the word eccentric.
“I think we are all individuals, but it’s easier for lazy people to say, ‘Oh, you are so eccentric.’
“My father would ride down to the village in his suit of armor. He wasn’t eccentric, he just liked dressing up. It was a bit of fun. Sometimes I wear my silk pyjamas when I am going for a walk in the mornings, does that make me eccentric? I don’t see how. I work. I have a mortgage.
“Isabella [who committed suicide in 2007, aged 48] thought it was silly that people called her eccentric. She wore the clothes she did as a form of performance, but everything Issie did was for a purpose, to show off the potential of what designers like McQueen and Philip Treacy could do.
“Some people seem to think anyone who does anything creative is eccentric, and I just think, ‘Fuck off and get a life of your own.’ If you are original you are original and that’s different. I don’t think I am eccentric. I am just trying to be true to myself and be an individual.”