- Norman Douglas’s Letters
The first two of a projected twenty volumes in the new series Norman Douglas: Selected Correspondence will likely come as a surprise to those unaware that symposia on the polyglot writer and his work have been held every other year in Austria, in Bregenz and at his birthplace, the Villa Falkenhorst, in nearby Thüringen, since the year 2000. The proceedings of these events have also been published, and scholarship on this once rather well-known but now mainly forgotten figure has seen a true flowering, partly stimulated by interest in the cultural history of early twentieth-century Capri. These attractively produced volumes draw on this recent work, and will, no doubt, themselves engender yet more.
The first, with seventy-seven letters spanning 1915 to 1951, concentrates on a single friendship, that with a writer of popular histories. They radiate outward to take in numerous personalities of the period, including, of course, the addressee’s better-known husband, the novelist Compton Mackenzie. Divided into four sections and prefaced by a useful and lucidly written commentary as well as a Foreword and Preamble, the letters cover myriad subjects. The footnotes are dense and often rich, and rightly so, for, as the senior editor argues in his commentary, the minor personalities mentioned in passing “a generation hence, will need all the footnotes they can get to retain their relevance.” The editorial principles are briefly summarized; an Index helps make the volume’s contents accessible; and illustrations provide context. The layout and type-font are attractive, and the margins generous: this is, in every sense, a labor of love, with craft, expertise, and attention to detail evident. [End Page 483]
The degree to which the letters in Volume 1 contain any “ribaldry” will inevitably depend upon one’s sense of humor. One advantage of a nonchronological, correspondent-based selection is that an individual relationship, and its contexts, comes into bright focus; on the down side, however, is a slight lack of variety in tone and subject, with Douglas in performative mode repeating many of the same tricks and mentioning the same people. There is, nonetheless, as the editors indicate, much spontaneity on offer here.
A number of figures considerably larger than Douglas himself pepper these pages: D. H. Lawrence, Harold Acton, and Richard Aldington bob in and out. Nancy Cunard and Oscar Wilde’s friend Reggie Turner make cameo appearances. And Douglas, inveterately restless and foot-loose, flits from Capri to Florence to Mentone to Antibes and Venice, the darling of high society, of fellow writers, and a sexual adventurer. A brief chronology in each volume would help considerably to keep the record straight, and might also make some footnotes about what was published when unnecessary. On the whole, however, the letters emerge uncluttered by learning that, while evident and considerable, is unobtrusive.
Douglas is as sloppy and as careful a letter writer as anyone, and both the man and his prose style are admittedly an acquired taste. Born into privilege, he lived, given his reduced means in adulthood, a charmed life, getting by on his wit, formidable conversational skills, and an abundantly evident gift for friendship. His mainly unhappy years in England during 1910–16 figure here only briefly (he also saw out the Second World War there), but he was, it might be recalled, a friend of no less demanding a man than Joseph Conrad. Faith Compton Mackenzie obviously drew out a more gossipy side of his personality, and including some letters by her (if any survive) would have added tone to what is a chiaroscuro portrait. There are intimacies, confessions, a bit of backbiting, with Douglas both amused and perhaps slightly distressed by the spectacle of his own temperament and...