In Praise of Eccentricity

Little magazines are short-lived, non-commercial periodicals of limited circulation dedicated to publishing experimental literature or radical socio-political ideas and theories. The historical importance of these magazines is unquestionable. They were fundamental to the genesis and growth of modernism, promoting artistic and political movements ranging from Symbolism, Imagism, Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada, to Anarchism, Socialism, Communism, and Feminism. Little magazines championed free verse, free speech, or free love, and were associated with the avant garde (a military metaphor with both an artistic and political connotation). It would however be a serious oversight if we limited research into these materials to this relatively late period in literary and social history. The eighteenth century provided a number of short-lived journals that in spite of their exclusiveness did have an impact of socio-cultural developments of the age. Amongst its collection of periodical publications the British Library holds a complete set of The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine, or, Monthly Register of the Fashions and Diversions of the Times, printed and sold by John Williams in London, which ran between October 1772 and October 1774.

At the court of Charles II promiscuity was rife, but in spite of its permissiveness the age had problems in defining manhood. If the nineteenth century was preoccupied with prostitution and fallen women, the eighteenth century took action against molly houses (places were gay men gathered) in the early decades of the age and, subsequently, became intrigued by the appearance of effeminate macaronis. By the third quarter of the century London witnessed the spectacle of the so-called ‘macaroni craze’. In Britain, the macaroni pasta dish with its characteristic topping of cheese was known since at least the early seventeenth century. Amongst the young men who had returned home from the Grand Tour and who had spent considerable time in Italy, macaroni became a sought-after delicacy. According to the inaugural issue of The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine (October 1772) these youngsters gained the reputation of macaroni-eaters or simply macaronis:

Macaroni is, in the Italian language, a word made use of to express a compound dish made of vermicelli … This dish was far from being universally known in this country till the commencement of the last peace: when, like many foreign fashions, it was imported by our Connoscenti in eating, as an improvement to their subscription-table at Almack’s. In time, the subscribers to those dinners became to be distinguished by the title of MACARONIES …

William Almack had started his career as a valet to James Hamilton, 5th Duke of Hamilton, after which he set himself up as the proprietor of the Thatched House tavern in St James’s Street. In 1764, he opened a gentleman’s club at no.50 Pall Mall calling it Almack’s. The club became the haunt of fashionable rich youngsters. Of the club’s original membership of twenty-seven young gentlemen, a sizeable number styled themselves ‘macaronis’. The macaroni became known as a young man who dressed and spoke in an outlandishly affected manner. The earliest reference to the so-called ‘Macaroni Club’ occurs in a letter of Horace Walpole to the Earl of Hertford, dated 6 February 1764. However, there is no historical evidence that such a club ever existed, yet this imaginary construction was consolidated in the public imagination in the 1770s.

Bringing together the worlds of theatre and fashion, The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine featured a macaroni print to begin each issue. The figure depicted remained unnamed, but could easily be recognized from the clues provided. Beside reviews of the latest London plays and the usual theatrical gossip, there were essays on behaviour, manners, and decorum for both men and women which lend the magazine its interest to the social historian. Characteristic of the macaroni were his stagy mannerisms and clothing. These were the marks that became codified into the macaroni type: tight clothes, fine fabrics, elegant shoes, walking stick, ceremonial sword, and an enormous wig. The wig epitomized the macaroni’s extravagance and reflected his passion for artifice and pursuit of pleasure. For most of the eighteenth century, artifice was praised as fundamental to civilized intercourse. Public life was theatrical, and the wig made the artificiality of a man’s public persona visible. Macaroni wigs subverted the traditional meaning of the masculine wig. It represented something grotesque and effeminate. Wigs had always had barely latent sexual meanings. Because they were made from women’s hair, gender confusion was always possible. Critics of the macaroni characterized him as a ‘hermaphrodite’ or an ‘amphibious creature’. He was deemed to be sexually indeterminate.

The figure of the macaroni provoked a renewed debate over how Britons could combine individualism and cultural sophistication without becoming effeminate. With his adoption of Continental dress and manners, the macaroni represented a figure that seemed to ridicule the ideal of sober ‘British’ masculinity. The Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine exposed the falseness of the macaroni. He might appear to be a man of sensibility and politeness, yet he is unmasked as a fraud hiding behind a social mask. Virtuous masculinity was made a patriotic cause. The true Briton, it was argued, hates the ‘foppery of the present degenerate times’. Foreign fashion, it was feared, led to a loss of manhood and, as a consequence, the rise of homosexuality. At the same time, the appearance of the macaroni boosted the sales of London print makers.

A caricature is a portrait that exaggerates certain personal features in order to express the essence of the subject concerned. Caricature was an Italian import. It was no coincidence that this form of impersonation appeared in public just as macaronis were stalking the streets of London. Like pasta, caricature was brought back by aristocratic Grand Tourists as a souvenir of their journey. Caricaturing became a favourite parlour game among the elite. The so-called macaroni prints, pioneered by James Bretherton and made widely known by Matthew and Mary Darly in the early 1770s, were among the first personal caricatures produced in Britain. They turned out to be massively popular. This interest allowed husband and wife Darly to relocate their shop from Fleet Street, where print sellers traditionally had settled, to the fashionable Strand. There, between 1771 and 1773, the couple published six sets of satirical ‘macaroni’ prints, each set containing twenty-four portraits, which inspired a whole genre of contemporary social satires. The Darly studio became known as ‘The Macaroni Print-Shop’. Despite his perceived foreign falseness, the caricature of the macaroni is not solely negative. By the mid-1770s, macaroni prints reflect a sympathetic approach to the subject matter. The eccentricity of the macaroni became tied to contemporary fascination with character. Eccentricity was hailed as a quintessentially British tradition. This awareness of being different became part of a sense of identity that started to emerge in the late seventeenth century. By the end of that century it was accepted that there is such a thing as a unique English temperament.

In literary terms, it was John Aubrey’s Brief Lives that started the obsession with character, personality and biography. Increasingly, eccentricity and individualism were hailed as the marks of real Englishmen. The February 1773 issue of the Macaroni and Theatrical Magazine put this awareness in the following terms: ‘One Frenchman alone is sufficient to represent fifty Frenchmen; but forty-nine Englishmen are insufficient to represent fifty of their own countrymen’. Brits, in other words, are unique characters. This explains why the individual macaroni caricature could invert from ridicule to respect. The true Brit, it was felt, avoided artificiality. His real character was singular and identifiable – even eccentric. Thus, while many aspects of the macaroni phenomenon were antithetical to the ideal of sober masculinity, the main feature of macaroni prints, i.e. their stress on the eccentric individuality of their characters, could be interpreted as reinforcing British virtues. There lies the paradox is of the macaroni’s presence: what is attacked as fashionable and false, is also secretly admired as daring and unconventional. Ridicule gained the status of compliment.

This positive appreciation of eccentricity became even more apparent during the mid-nineteenth century, an age in which the dread of mass civilization and levelling was expressed time and again by socio-cultural critics. The crowning statement in defence of eccentricity was made by John Stuart Mill in 1859. In his study On Liberty he argues that not eccentricity, but conformity constitutes the real threat to society:

In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric … That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.

Eccentricity has always manifested itself when and where strength of character has abounded. Mill associates eccentricity with creativity. The individual’s eccentric behaviour is the outward expression of the creative impulse. The eccentric’s habits are ‘strange’, not because they are illogical or the result of madness, but because they stem from an original mind which cannot conform to societal norms. It was for that very reason that the eighteenth century macaroni could let his hair down (or up).

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