Norman Douglas

From England JOHN DAVENPORT, author, editor, and playwright,contributes this memoir of his friend Norman Douglas, the iconoclastic Scot best known for his wry fantasy, South Wind. The eclectic Douglas,one of the last Europeans,”diplomat, lawyer, zoologist, traveler, and author of twenty books, is here presented as a figure of brilliant and almost baffling variety. He appears, also, as an Epicurean who scorned idealism and loved reality with an energy which never flagged.



ONE of the proofs of Norman Douglas’s originality is that such a number of writers should have been claimed by critics to have influenced him. No fewer than thirty-two of them have been listed, from Beckford to Wilde. One could if one wished add Apuleius and Zeno to an uneasy company including Darwin and Petronius. Out of this strange amalgam the figure of a scientific humanist, traveler, skeptic, prose stylist, wit, and man of pleasure might emerge, whose name was Norman Douglas. He was like none of his imaginary literary forebears or contemporaries, yet it is possible to see why—however rightly or wrongly— each name might from time to time have been invoked, because he was so utterly, in a commonplace age, himself. He fitted into no category.

George Norman Douglas was eighty-three when he died, one of the last Europeans, extinct now as the bison of Besancon. Born on December 8, 1868, he was the third son of John Sholto Douglas of Tilquhillie. His birthplace was Austrian—at Bregenz in the Vorarlberg, where his paternal grandfather, an enterprising man, had settled and established cotton mills in order to pay off the mortgage on his Scottish property. The mortgage was paid off, but Sholto Douglas still managed the family mills, and in 1864 married the daughter of a neighbor from over the valley.

It was not until he was six that Norman saw Tilquhillie Castle. His father had been killed in a climbing accident in 1874, and a miraculously happy childhood was disrupted. Norman Douglas had no particular love of Scotland, and in later life spoke with a sun-lover’s scorn of damp castles and their inhabitants—generation after generation of “a frowsty country brood, old fashioned to the point of imbecility, and sometimes beyond.” Yet Kincardine as well as the Austrian Tyrol was a good training ground for such an ardent lover of nature. He was a keen zoologist, botanist, and mineralogist from a very early age.

Douglas came to know the ways of cities well enough, but with all his immensely civilized outlook and deep-rooted culture (“that veneer of erudition,” he called it) he remained essentially a countryman. Just before he died he said ruefully of a dearly loved friend, “Poor Willie, he’d walk a mile to avoid seeing a tree.” He from his earliest days walked and climbed many miles in Scotland and in the Tyrol. He continued to spend his school holidays at Bregenz, for his mother had made a second marriage to an Austrian painter who lived there. The thought of these holidays sustained him through the dreary years passed at a preparatory school in England, in Staffordshire, and later at Uppingham, where the redoubtable Dr. Thring, then at the height of his pedagogic fame, was headmaster. The natural beauties of the English landscape seemed tame to the mountaineer: “too green, like living in a salad”; and Dr. Thring and the young Douglas were not cut out on at all the same lines.

When he was not yet fifteen he persuaded his mother to take him away from Uppingham. From 1883 to 1889—six happy years—he was at the Gymnasium at Karlsruhe. A good classical scholar, bilingual in English and German, he now learned French, Russian, and Italian, and in the spring of 1888 paid his first visit to Italy. He saw Capri, as yet unravaged. This was a turning point, although he did not realize it at the time. In 1889 he went to Paris to perfect his French, preparatory to entering the British Diplomatic Service.

The next few years were spent in London, where he “crammed” with the famous Mr. Scoones, and enjoyed the life of a young man of fashion. London in the nineties seems to us now a fabulous world, whether viewed through the eyes of Henry James or of Oscar Wilde. It never appealed to Douglas, especially now that he had seen the South. His first trip to Greece was made in 1892—“a revelation in more ways than one.” He passed into the Service in 1893 and spent a year at the Foreign Office before being sent as attaché, by his own choice, to St. Petersburg. Life in the Indian summer of Tsarist Russia was not without its attractions, but there were complications, and in November, 1896 — to avoid a scandal involving a Princess X—he asked to be placed en disponibilité for two years. He did not know at the time that he would never return to the Service, but in fact his real life had begun, for which a successful career in diplomacy would have been a poor substitute. He became an intellectual nomad.

He had recently bought a villa on the Posilipo, near Naples, having inherited half his father’s Austrian property. At first his wanderings were largely confined to South Italy; but in 1898— the year of his marriage to his Irish-Austrian cousin Elsa FitzGibbon—he went with his wife to India. They visited Tunis together the following year, and in 1900 went to Ceylon.

The Bay of Naples was always the center to which he returned; his two sons were born at Posilipo— the elder in 1899, the younger in 1900. After his divorce in 1903 he removed to Capri, and it was now, apart from building and planting and generally “pleasuring his daimon,” that he began seriously to write. In his own ironical phrase, he “took to writing out of sheer poverty”; and doubtless there is a certain Johnsonian truth in this. Be that as it may, he served a long apprenticeship. His first book, Siren Land, did not appear until 1911, but a draft was completed by 1905. He was a scrupulous artist, and his art is revealed in each of his twenty-odd books. South Wind, which appeared in 1917, had a comparative popularity which has thrown the rest of his work into the shade, but it is questionable whether it is by any means his best book, although in some ways, because of its iconoclastic morale, it is the most “important.” Most critical opinion would give the palm to Old Calabria. He himself preferred Alone. Future generations may be more intrigued by the Aubrey-like discursiveness of Looking Back. In any case, the point is that he was at all times, and from the beginning, a highly skilled craftsman.


DURING the first decade of the century Douglas was laying the foundation of his unique knowledge of Capri past and present, out of which grew the delights of Siren Land and South Wind. Needless to say, he* was not immobile during these years. He roamed the Mediterranean and went more than once to Egypt. In 1909 he was in Tunis again, wintering there and returning to Capri in the following spring; but later in 1910 he was compelled for financial reasons unwillingly to return to London, where he remained for the next five years, although he made several journeys (notably to Calabria) during this period and revisited Capri whenever possible. Siren Land, sponsored by Joseph Conrad and Edward Garnett, was accepted for publication in 1910 and appeared the following year. Douglas was forty-two when Siren Land was published. It was not the first book of a brilliant amateur fresh from the university, but one long pondered by a mature man who had been training himself to think and write clearly for over twenty years.

During the lean London years Douglas—not with the best will in the world — was literary editor of the English Review, then under Austin Harrison, in whose pages the work of D. H. Lawrence first appeared. At the same time he was preparing Old Calabria, making notes for London Street Games, and planning South Wind. One of the best topographical books in the language, Old Calabria deservedly earned its author a place beside Kinglake.

By the time of its publication, Douglas had left England for Paris and then made his way down to Menton and on into Italy. He describes his London war experiences in Alone. “How we lingered in long queues, and stamped up and down, and sat about crowded, stuffy halls, waiting, only wanting, to be asked to do something for our country by any little guttersnipe who happened to have been jockeyed into the requisite position of authority! What innocents. . . .”

Alone is a captivating book, the book of an escaped prisoner. One would have to be very glum and fogbound not to enjoy it. It is not a work for the gray-minded. “I thought of certain of my fellow-creatures. I often think of them. What were they now doing? Taking themselves seriously and rushing about, as usual, haggard and careworn— like those sagacious ants that scurry hither and thither — and stare into each other’s faces with a kind of desperate imbecility, when some sportive schoolboy has kicked their ridiculous nest into the air and upset all their solemn little calculations.”

More intellectual nomadism followed—trips to India, Syria, East Africa, Greece, Tunis, in the congenial company of Edward Hutton, or Orioli, or Nancy Cunard — the base of operations now being Florence, where he lived until moving to Vence, on the French Riviera, before the last war, having had trouble with the Fascist authorities, He had not been in England for a quarter of a century when in 1942 he arrived in London, and spent half a dismal decade there before he could get back to the sunlight he loved. He died on Capri thirty-five years after the publication of South Wind. There was a certain justice that he should end his life on that island, which he had known for over sixty years, and which he had helped to make famous. ”Capree,”alas, is not Capri. It is not the tourists so much as the tradesmen of Naples with their gimcrack villas who have spoiled it. “Not a freak left in the place,” he wrote in a mournful letter, soon after his return. He is buried in the cemetery overlooking the glittering bay, not far from his South Winders. There are only two honorary Freemen of Capri. The other one is Benedetto Croce.

Apart from Late Harvest (1946), a lively retrospect over his books, containing the earlier Summer Islands, Douglas wrote nothing after Looking Back (1933), so that the main body of his work was produced when he was at the height of his powers.

An inexhaustible mine of good sense and good prose, his books have affected all who read them, as the man affected those he met. For he was an inspired if impious pedagogue. It has been well said that what makes his “travel books" unlike anyone else’s is that he takes as his subject the total nature of the area he is writing about, its history, geological and social, its fauna and flora, its religious beliefs past and present, and its present and past pleasures. He spins his astonishing erudition about his personal experiences in Calabria or Tunis without obtruding his own personality. These books are written out of his belief that the first object of life is living.

He had an absolute contempt for idealism. “When people cease to reflect, they become idealists.” He had too a loathing of reforming inquisitiveness. Because, like Butler, he hated Victorian cant and hypocrisy, it did not follow that he had what is called a “social conscience.”His skepticism made him distrustful of dreamy meddlers. “A man who reforms himself has contributed his full share towards the reformation of his neighbours.”

One can still hear the impatient “Pah!" or perhaps “Pach!" describes better his disgust at some well-meaning, booby’s schemes for world betterment. In an age of democratic incantations, generalizations, and bleak ideologies he was not likely to be popular. One of his greatest virtues as a traveler was that he went abroad without preconceptions. He saw what he saw, not what he had been told he ought to see. His hatred of puritanical cant was only equaled by his hatred of nationalism and of metaphysics, Christian or otherwise. Nor was he interested in aesthetics, although he was an accomplished musician. (His excursions into Miltonic criticisms are as unhappy as Bentley’s, and for the same reason.) A particular bugbear was a certain sort of Anglo-Italian art-jargon. “Too Cinquecento, my dear. Pach!" He was interested in nature, not in art: nature in her wilder manifestations. Tempered in the abstract, his love of humankind individually was passionate. One has only to think of his defense of Ouida against the sneers of a certain “feline and gelatinous New Englander,”or of Maurice Magnus against the calumnies of D. H. Lawrence. His unrivaled knowledge of Italian dialects testified to his love of the poor and to their love of him. What other man could have written London Street Games?


THE books give a fair measure of the man, though not the whole man; there are reticences. He was self-contained, for all his sociability in essence a solitary. It is on the whole true to say that he put the best of himself into his books. His exact contemporary Gide had his love of les nourritures terrestres, but he danced a continual moral tightrope. It was precisely the perpetual tension, the preoccupation with himself, that made Gide a significant and even a great writer. This moral tension was lacking in Douglas, and he lacked Gide’s narcissistic exhibitionism. Instead of grappling with refractory ideas he dropped them, not out of mental indolence but because, didactic though he could be, he never imagined it to be his role to conduct a mission. There was a taint of vulgarity in the idea. Knox and Calvin had their part in determining his make-up, but the snows of northern puritanism had melted in the Mediterranean sun. Douglas never felt the necessity to sharpen his sense of pleasure by keeping his sense of sin in trim. The ghost of a Scottish moralist may have lingered behind the garden god; yet in Douglas’s books — and his books are his memorial — how wholesome the pragmatism is, and how good-humored! The strength of his appeal is that he drags us out of our hyperborean gloom into the South. His overstatements, if overstatements there be, are corrective.

Behind the good-humored mask lay a pagan melancholy, producing occasional elegiac cadences in his prose, which otherwise danced to the rhythm of his own lively speech — richly allusive yet light. He has been compared with Lucian, and the comparison is not unapt. A Greek of the second century. It is unwise to push analogy too far. Douglas was a nineteenth-century eclectic. The idealism of Pythagoras was abhorrent to him; he preferred the facts of Pausanias and Pliny to the theories of Plato and Plotinus, the gossip of Athenaeus to the metaphysics of Aeschylus. Herodotus he loved; the Greek lyricists; Theocritus; Catullus; Petronius; Lucretius. But he was no sentimental humanist. He knew that the ancient world was not a schoolmaster’s pale platonic dream, and has written of controra, the ominous hour of the midday demon — “that southern Haunter of calm blue spaces.”He continues, at the end of Old Calabria:

This corner of Magna Graecia is a severely parsimonious manifestation of nature. Rocks and waters! But these rocks and waters are actualities; the stuff whereof man is made. A landscape so luminous, so resolutely scornful of accessories, hints at brave and simple forms of expression; it brings us to the ground, where we belong; it medicines to the disease of introspection and stimulates a capacity which we are in danger of unlearning amid our morbid hyperborean gloom —the capacity for honest contempt, contempt of that scarecrow of a theory which would have us neglect what is earthy, tangible. What is life well lived but a blithe discarding of primordial husks, of those comfortable intangibilities that lurk about us, waiting for our weaker moments?

The sage, that perfect savage, will be the last to withdraw himself from the influence of these radiant realities. He will strive to knit closer the bond and to devise a more durable and affectionate relationship between himself and them. Let him open his eyes. For a reasonable adjustment lies at his feet. From these brown stones that seam the tranquil Ionian, from this gracious solitude, he can carve out, and bear away into the cheerful din of cities, the rudiments of something clean and veracious and wholly terrestrial — some tonic philosophy that shall foster sunny mischiefs and farewell regrets.

The passage gives Norman Douglas at his best, and it describes what lies at the basis of all Ins work, whether it be a frolic like In the Beginning, an autobiographical ramble like Alone, or South Wind itself, that begetter of so many legitimate and illegitimate imitations. South Wind is Peacockian only in its wit. Following his brilliantly voluble guide through vineyard and ilex grove to the peak of Nepenthe, high above the indigo inland sea, the reader suddenly finds himself peering into an abyss, and with a chuckle and a clatter of goat-hooves the guide has gone.

What takes place in this absurd book? [asks the author]. The three unities are preserved. A respectable but rather drab individual, a bishop, whose tastes and moods are fashioned to reflect those of the average drab reader, arrives at a new place and is described as being, among other things, peculiarly sensitive on the subject of women. He cannot bear flippant allusions to the sex. He has preserved a childlike faith in their purity, their sacred mission on earth, their refining influence upon the race. His friends call him old-fashioned and quixotic on this point. A true woman, he declares, can do no wrong. And the same man, towards the end of the book, watches how the truest woman in the place, the one whom he admires more than all the rest, his own cousin and a mother, calmly throws her legitimate husband over a cliff, He realizes that he is “face to face with an atrocious and carefully planned murder.” Such, however, has been the transformation of Ins mind during a twelve days’ sojourn among the new influences of Nepenthe that he understands the crime, he pardons it, he approves it.

In fact a murder under those particular circumstances is not only justifiable and commendable but—insignificant. That is why the bishop— that is, the reader—discovers the crime to be a “contemptible little episode" and decides to relegate it into the category of unimportant events. No wonder the book upset the priggish, unmoved by the fact that the victim is a peculiarly repulsive blackmailer. The change of moral climate was too much for them, and they forgot that the author was not advocating wholesale murder but a revision of all sheepishly accepted standards.

Like Butler, Douglas believed in jolting the complacent. He never went out of his way to do so, he was not out to épater les bourgeois, but he was not going to be bothered by bores. An intellectual nomad, he was no Bohemian, as they found to their cost, exquisite though his manners in general were. “All men fall into two main divisions: those who value human relationships, and those who value social or financial advancement. The first division are gentlemen; the second division are cads.”With the second division he could be ruthless; and, of course, puritans were cads and bores both, in all probability, asking to be tossed and gored. Aldous Huxley and D. H. Lawrence have described with grotesque overemphasis this “wicked” side of his nature, in which no doubt he was encouraged by some of his more tail-wagging disciples. Such a deliberately selective vision Douglas, in A Plea for Better Manners, called “the novelist’s touch.”

After 1910 Douglas had no money except what he earned. It was his unlimited capacity for enjoying the simplest pleasures of life that enabled him to remain Epicurean. “The business of life is to enjoy oneself; everything else is a mockery.” This does not necessarily mean the hedonist’s oysters and champagne. He seldom enjoyed himself more than while writing with infinite pains a series of dull monographs, He pleasured his daimon. “Others are free to do likewise whenever they can, and enjoy oysters and champagne, or nursing the sick, or learning Chinese, or kissing the chambermaid, or whatever their fancy, their own uncontaminated fancy, may suggest.” He loved the pleasures of the mind. “Knowledge is power; they say. Knowledge is not only power, it is good fun.”

In his last years the most varied people, friends of every class, creed, and nationality, would make pilgrimage to the Villa Tuoro, where he was the house guest of his friend and executor Kenneth MacPherson. In company, his rich laugh would crackle out as of old; but he loved life too much to relish the prospect of death, which for him was annihilation. He awaited it with half-mocking, halfmelancholy dignity: “I’m beginning to putrefy, my dear.”

It may not unreasonably be asked, why make so much of this man? An incomparable companion, a coiner of phrases, witty no doubt, yet . . . Perhaps, to compensate for the general indifference to him, his admirers overestimate his value as an artist. Perhaps. The claim is not that he is “great ” but that he is consistent. His enormous energy went into his life, but his books are an integral part of that life, a life joyful but not easy. He had a genius for communicating enjoyment in an age when there was all too little of it. He believed that a gentleman should be prepared to pay for his pleasures. Norman Douglas paid, and we are his guests at a perpetual feast.