Eccentric Women? Gender and the Notion of Eccentricity

Abstract : British writers in the eighteenth century spent much time reflecting on the notion of normality, as the rising middle ranks promoted their ideology as a class, while defending the right of the individuals to their own personal choices. The period was also marked by scientific advances, and for this reason, it is not surprising that the term 'eccentric', originally restricted to astronomy, started to be used widely to refer to unconventional human behaviour. At first sight, eccentricity in the eighteenth century seems to be a male preserve, as the term is mostly applied to men famous for their wit and original thinking, such as Samuel Johnson or Lawrence Sterne. From this point of view, women are banned from displaying eccentricity, as this would mean being in total opposition to the ideal of the proper lady promoted by the dominant discourse on women during that period. When eccentric women are portrayed in literature, they are generally masculine and unattractive. But the distrust of eccentric women should also be interpreted as a fear of their innate tendency, as females, to deviate from the centre constituted by men and their ordering of society. In that sense, femininity is also often presented as naturally eccentric, straying away from the centre of masculine rationality. Women, from that perspective, have to be educated to be able to resist their natural slant towards eccentricity. On the other hand, men have more liberty to deviate, as they can define their own centre. At the same time, eccentric men themselves can be the victim of such a vision, as their eccentricity seems to set into relief the feminine side of their nature. The analysis of some cases should be able to clear some of the complex relations between enforcement of normality and the right of individuals to be different. Far from being a simple method of attracting attention to oneself, as it was often portrayed, eccentricity may have been a way of introducing tolerance and flexibility into a normative type of society. However, the limits women encountered when considered eccentric mean they were not as likely as men to benefit from such a perspective.
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Contributor : Marie-Odile Bernez <>
Submitted on : Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 1:39:27 PM
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Marie-Odile Bernez. Eccentric Women? Gender and the Notion of Eccentricity. Laurent Mellet et Sophie Aymes. In and Out, Eccentricity in Britain, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp.125-139, 2012. ⟨halshs-01017383⟩



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