three pairs of lovers with space

JOHN DAVENPORT ON NORMAN DOUGLAS

 

George Norman Douglas (8 December 1868 – 7 February 1952) was a once well-known Austro-Scottish writer and an active lover of boys, about which he was sufficiently open that it was well-known in his wide literary and social circles.

Among the many other writers who knew him well and were strongly impressed and drawn to him was the highly-regarded English critic and book reviewer John Lancelot Agard Bramhall Davenport (10 May 1908 – 27 June 1966).

Presented here are three quite different writings by Davenport about Douglas. First, are extracts from Davenport’s introduction to the 1955 edition of Douglas’s classic travel book, Old Calabria, which set out the psychological links between Douglas’s pederasty, the rest of his personality, and his writing. Secondly, there is a brief description of him in Davenport’s article “In praise of Black Sheep”, which shows how it was precisely Douglas’s defiance of conventional morality which made him so attractive to other free spirits, even exclusively women-loving ones like Davenport himself. Thirdly, there are extracts, including hitherto unpublished revelations about Douglas’s love affairs with boys, from Davenport’s letters to Michael Davidson, also a writer and a pederast.

 

Introduction to Old Calabria

This introduction, reissued in several later editions, first appeared in the fourth edition of Old Calabria published by Secker and Warburg of London in 1955. Davenport’s frankness about Douglas’s love of boys is more understandable seen in the context of the two biographies of Douglas that had hitherto bee published, both in the preceding year, 1954. Nancy Cunard’s Grand Man: Memories of Norman Douglas, also by a friend who knew him well, brought him to vivid life, but said nothing about his private life. By contrast, Richard Aldington’s Pinorman did reveal his love of a boys, “but it was the work of a man suffering from one of the saddest complaints that anyone can be afflicted with – a combination of envy, jealousy and feelings of persecution. Aldington came not to praise Douglas but to bury him with sanctimonious suggestions and insinuations which whenever possible are of the nastiest kind. He overreached himself by admitting that he did not even know whether some of the accusations he made were founded on fact.”[1] As Davenport says, he raised the matter, because Aldington had done so “in a fœtidly misleading way.”

 

That Old Calabria is the best book in any language on the region is pretty generally agreed; it needs no critical bush. Yet to understand it fully it is necessary to know something of its author, which is the excuse for this introduction. Three things need to be realized about Norman Douglas: that he was a child of the nineteenth century; an aristocrat and immensely masculine. It is important to remember the first, because it was his reaction from Victorianism that made him contemptuous of cant and hypocrisy, while at the same time retaining a sense of social order. The second, because the word gentleman has been much abused. It has come to mean the well-behaved or well-intentioned middle-class product of the public school.[2] This is not mere hair-splitting: Douglas’s attitude to the world had nothing “gentlemanly” about it. Exquisite manners concealed a flinty arrogance. The third, because he became, against his will, the object of devotion to a tiresome group of admirers who misunderstood and seized upon one aspect of his nature. He was just entering his eighty-fourth year when I last saw him on Capri some months before his death, and I can still hear the mock despair of his parting words: “For God’s sake, dearie, preserve me from those ******.” [p. vii]

Life in the Indian summer of Tsarist Russia he found vastly to his taste, but any leaves he had were spent in the South. During one of them, in 1895, he wrote an official report on the pumice industry in Lipari which led to the abolition of the local child labour: this he regarded as “one of the meritorious acts of his life.” [p. x]

1904 is a key date in other ways. He found to his dismay that he had not eliminated an infection of twelve years earlier, the result of a London indiscretion. He was eventually cured, and his health completely restored, but the shock was great. At this time occurred a change in sexual directive: he became a παιδεραστής. The word is written thus not in order to air the writer’s Greek, but rather as a composer may sometimes write a C double flat or an A double sharp for a B natural: to underline a precise definition. There are many types of sexual aberration. To say that a man is homosexual is more or less meaningless. In the case of Norman Douglas it is particularly misleading. He became, then, a pederast. With his boundless tolerance he naturally accepted in other many abnormalities without moral criticism. His own inclinations, with which we are here concerned, made him a lover of boys in the classical and in the modern Mediterranean sense. For the record, I think it worth while to say that they also loved him. He retained his intense masculinity, he was never in the faintest sense feminine – until he was fifty he continued, as he had always done, to have frequent sexual connections with women – but psychologically his interest shifted to the adolescent male.

This may be considered dull or shocking according to the reader’s disposition. Had Mr. Richard Aldington not aired the question in a fœtidly misleading way, it would not have been raised. It is right that we should know, since so much has been hinted, what was the attitude of this man. The contributing factors have been made clear: a man already disillusioned not only by his own but by his wife’s self-indulgence finds himself reminded of the penalties that excess can bring. This man for fifteen years has been haunted by the south, and for over seven years has been living on the Bay of Naples. He is nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita: thirty-five years old. There is also another, a Byronic force at work. The loss of profession, wife, fortune – and (as he groundlessly feared) health – what more was needed in that southern sun to turn him against the established values he had casually accepted? His pederasty was in a sense the counterpart of Byron’s incest, although he left his more half-witted disciples to make a song and dance about it.

Why should this brilliant amateur think that he might become a writer? It is necessary to take a look at his earlier literary activities, which had been scientific rather than humanistic. The whole temper of his mind was pragmatic. He had not taken to German metaphysics; what appealed to him in Greece was not the mysticism of Pythagoras or the idealism of Plato but the “fundamental hardness,” as Professor Dawkins puts it, “in which man is so close to nature,” which has always marked the Greek race. It was this which appealed to that flinty core of arrogant independence he had by blood. The Mediterranean sun did not soften him: on the contrary, it toughened him. The snows of Northern Puritanism melted, indeed, but only to reveal the granite beneath. It was the granite of which saints and sensualists are made. Norman Douglas reacted from the nineteenth-century Puritanism in which he had been brought up. He claimed to be a follower of Epicurus, but in fact the reaction was too extreme for epicureanism. Aristippus, rather, was his master. Reverse the figures of Konx and Calvin, and you may find yourself confronted by Priapus and Silenus. There was a certain conscious naughtiness in his revolt: he never killed his conscience. There was the same sort of naughtiness, infinitely more prim, in Samuel Butler. There was his almost precise contemporary, Gide[3] – but analogies are dangerous, and Norman Douglas would have disdained to dance such a tight-rope as the Frenchman. He decided which side he had fallen on, and it was not that of the angels. There was none of Gide’s moral tension in him, and he lacked Gide’s narcissistic exhibitionism. He was not out to conduct a mission – a deplorably vulgar notion – but to share his pleasure in the visible world with others. So, in a roundabout way, to his actual writing. [pp. xi-xii]

The ensuing description of Douglas’s flight to from England to France in January 1917 omits to mention that the charge brought against him of criminal assault arose from sexual advances on a boy.

This flight to Paris was the fourth of the turning-points. He had written three of the best travel books and one of the wittiest novels in the language; now he was to become an exile, a willing exile, perhaps, but a compulsory one. He had been arrested on a charge of criminal assault. He was permitted bail, but encouraged by his two sponsors to break it, as things might have gone ill with him. Henceforward he felt himself, not perhaps an outcast, but an enemy of the conventional society into which he had been born. Once again, one is reminded of Byron, although Norman had nothing of the self-conscious beau ténébreux about him. When he went down into Italy early in 1919 and began writing that most charming of his books Alone, his own favourite, the Douglas legend really began, the legend of naughty “Uncle Norman”. [p. xiv]

 

 

In praise of Black Sheep

“In praise of Black Sheep” was originally written as a BBC broadcast in about December 1961. It was published first in the Listener and then in the June 1962 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, New York.

Norman Douglas by Michael Ayrton, 1948 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Norman Douglas was also a black sheep. He was born in 1868, and became an enemy of conventional society in the early years of the present century, long before I was born. Some of his invective was perhaps a little too vehement. I never noticed this. For me—and for a great many others—he was all that was most free, graceful and life-loving. The notion of him as a decayed aristocrat living on his wits, and living all too dangerously, is an absurd one. His supposed selfishness was only a carapace by which he kept his integrity.

“One owes something to oneself,” was a favorite phrase of his. John[4]’s carapace was composed of flinty good manners. He ‘evaporated’ when bored, or when his time was being eaten up by the curious. But toward the end of his life, when he was back on Capri, he was visited by hundreds of Italian peasants who came long distances to see him, not because they had been patronized by ‘Old Timberio,’ but because they loved him. Norman could make everything leap to life—literally. He first started the re-plantation of Capri which had become a barren island. As a young man he saw to it that child labor in the pumice industry on Lipari was abolished. All his good deeds were done anonymously. He preferred that the world should think of him as a sophisticated---even a corrupt---member of the ancient régime. But very few self-styled hedonists would have crossed London in the blackout in their late seventies to visit a friend in the hospital, bringing books, wine and tobacco and the best conversation on earth. Earth! That was what he belonged to! There was nothing prefabricated about the man. Walking with Norman in southern Italy was a revelation. He made past and present inter-fuse, so that a ruined temple sprang to life and the living lizards lived forever. A black sheep … give me more of them!   

 

Letters to Michael Davidson

Davenport first wrote to Michael Childers Davidson (1897-1975) in November 1962 to express his admiration for Davidson’s recently published memoir, The World, The Flesh and Myself. Their correspondence continued until Davenport’s death nearly four years later, and rapidly gave rise to a close friendship. Davenport knew at the outset that Davidson had met Douglas and read his books, because Davidson had described both in his memoir. The letters quoted from here were all written from Davenport’s home in Cambridgeshire. They are to be published in Sicilian Vespers and Other Writings by Michael Davidson in May 2021.

I

6.xi.62

Dear Mr. Davidson,   

John Davenport (left) with his friend, the poet Dylan Thomas, in 1952

I have just read The World the Flesh & Myself with the greatest admiration. So beautifully written, so absolutely straight. We seem to be opposites: myself a widower with four children, a Papist; but with so many friends in common, dead & alive. […] Norman Douglas I knew for most of my life & half his. Did he ever till you about his first boy (1904),[5] whose wife later offered him (N.D.) their eldest son: ‘Ecco, carissimo Signor Douglas: we have been keeping him for you.’ This I have always felt justified Norman’s tastes; & your own, although they are alien to myself. […] Please accept a dull extrovert’s handshake & admiration. I have asked the B.B.C. to let me review your book. Sincerely,

John Davenport

 

 

II

19.xi.62

My Dear Davidson,

     […] I’m so glad you liked the little preface to “Old Calabria”. I was supposed to write a biography, & that is the pathetic skeletal vestige of it. Still if has some useful dates – how he loved dates.! 1904 is the date of the affaire with the boy. The wife’s offer took place in 1920, when he was back in Italy. […]
Yours most sincerely,

John Davenport

 

 

III

26.xi.62

My dear Michael,

     […] The Dawkins book on N.D., described as a ‘biography’ by Penguin, is a timid little dissertation on some of his works, written under the pseudonym of MacGillivray.[6] The reason why I have never added to that preface is that Norman had really said all he had to a say about himself. All I unearthed was squalor: most depressing, I promise you. He let himself grow gross. Taking one’s false teeth out in order to suck off a boy of 14 lacks Theocritan grace or charm. Something went wrong in the middle. This is interesting, but defies analysis; at any rate by me. In the preface I hint at the overstrong reaction – reaction from puritanism, I mean. Please don’t think I’m a hopeless prig. […]
                                  Yours ever J.D.

 

IV

[Undated, but postmarked Palermo (where Davidson was living) 11 December 1962]

Dear Mike, I feel so ashamed of myself for having written such a lachrymose letter this morning. This is an apologetic p.s. Short, but not meant to be dismal, & contain-ing two notes for your files. Hare you any files?
     1) N.D. always said that Robin, born while the divorce proceedings were going on, was not his child, naming an Austrian cavalry officer. He loved poor old Archie, but not Robin, who is a dreary business executive in Chicago.[7] When I met him on Capri he was having an affaire with his illegitimate daughter (married to a South African) in vain emulation of his putative papa’s naughtiness.

Love JD.

 

V

Christmas Eve 1962

Dear Mike,

     […] I once had the very great pleasure of making love to her [a woman surnamed Fry] in an open grave in Brompton cemetery. This tickled Norman’s fancy, I remember. About poor old Archie Douglas there is awfully little to say. He is a great melancholy giant of a man who was in the Scots Guards in the 1914-18 (your) war, but who never recovered from shell shock. He was buried alive for 48 hours & suffered permanent damage. It was a great grief to his father. He lives with an American wife on Long Island. He’s worth six of that little shit Robin, who, as far as I’m concerned, has no redeeming feature. Also, hopelessly americanized. […]

Yours affectionately

J.D.

 

VI

4/1/63

Dear Michael,

    

Photo of Ettore, aged 15 or nearly so, posted 27 Oct. 1951 & inscribed on the back "To my dear friend Norman with affection, from his most affectionate Ettore"

[…] I certainly had no intention of being priggish about physical expressions of love like fellatio when I wrote of N.D. None of the sexual variations[8] shocks me; & I can even remember Theocritus’s word – λειχαξειν – I think he invented it: the word I mean![9] Nor does the removal (on insertion) of false teeth distress me. I remember the dusky ululations from Cornish hedges of dear old Cornish fisherwomen: “It’s better with your teeth out!” No. I should have explained mere deeply. When N D was in Lisbon with Neil Hogg (1940/41) he had a last love affair. He arrived in London Christmas 1941, & Faith Compton Mackenzie – an angel – & I went to see him. {Many years before on Capri it had been his delight to make her sing in a shrill Cockney choirboy’s treble endless Anglican hymns to his sensitive accompaniment on her Steinway}. He then said that he was now too old for these games, & was planning a final decade of contemplation – sexual but not active. When he went back to Capri in ’47 after a – not compulsorily – chaste lustrum in London, he seized like an old satyr on the lost delights. Who shall blame him? But it was not pretty. The boy Ettore was a wretched spindly creature; there was little love or joy; there was (for the first time) a wretched chapter of blackmailing Neapolitan parents, and all the night-mare horrors one associates with our haunted Anglo-Saxon world.[10] His melancholy – N D’s – saddened me. There was obviously no reciprocal love. It was as commercial as the modern Christmas we both deplore. It was then that he wistfully mentioned the teeth, etc. He could no longer have an erection: not surprisingly. I felt, and he felt, I am sure that there was no mutual satisfaction. Hence my own sadness about his rather bitter end. Incidentally, your simile of the horsey man sucking a straw de-serves classic status. I shall do my best to see that it gets it – with due acknowledgements, of course!

Love J.D.

 

 VII

9th January ’63

Dear Mike,

     […] I remember after reading Paneros & the later Cook Book saying “But Norman, you don’t seem to have much faith in any aphrodisiac. Are there any?” With a richly rolling Austrian R he said “VARIETY, my dearest boy.” […]
     N.D. wrote about the Ponza Islands, but not (I am almost sure) about Lipari. He went there first in 1895 on leave from St. Petersburg. That was when he wrote an official F.O. report on the pumice industry, which led to the abolition of the child labour. I hope all goes well with you there.

Love J.D.

 

 

[1] Mark Holloway, Norman Douglas: a Biography, London: Secker & Warburg, 1976.

[2] Presumably Davenport means to distinguish this modern abuse of the term with the traditional definition of a gentleman that had prevailed until the 18th century based on high social class (roughly equating to hereditary entitlement to armorial bearings).

[3] The French Nobel Laureate writer André Gide (1869-1951) was much more open even than Douglas in making it clear in his published books that he was a pederast. See The Initiation of André Gide.

[4] Augustus John, the subject of Davenport’s preceding character sketch.

[5] Davenport is mistaken either about the date or about this having been Douglas’s first boy, as Douglas himself alluded in his memoir, Looking Back,  to a liaison with a Neapolitan boy called Michele in about January 1897. This does not mean that he was wrong in asserting in the foregoing introduction to Old Calabria that 1904 was when Douglas switched his main sexual interest from women to boys. His unsuccessful marriage had taken up much of the intervening period.

[6] Richard MacGillivray Dawkins originally published his Norman Douglas in 1933.  

[7] Given that Davenport knew Norman Douglas well and is reporting what the latter told him, his information that he denied paternity of Robert “Robin” Sholto Douglas is a matter of considerable importance to understanding the elder Douglas’s life, and one that was apparently not even suspected by Mark Holloway, author in 1976 of a fine biography of him that is widely considered definitive. Holloway reports that Robin was born on 20 August 1902 and that, according to his putative father’s petition for divorce, his mother had had her adulterous affair with the Austrian Baron von Stengel (and miscarried his child) between February and May 1903, when she was living apart from her husband. Holloway further explained Norman’s marked preference for his (undoubted) child Louis Archibald “Archie” Douglas (born in 1899) as partly because “Robin, who was born to parents who agreed to divorce before he was weaned, was a constant reminder to his father of those unhappy days.” However, Holloway himself points out that the petition for divorce may not present a truthful account of what happened, so Davenport’s account, implying that the adultery with Stengel began over a year earlier, seems to offer a more credible explanation of both the divorce and Norman Douglas’s feelings for Robin.  Davenport evidently did not think this information fit for public release, as he gave no hint of it in his description of Douglas's marriage and sons in his introduction to the 1956 edition of Old Calabria.

[8] [Note on the side of the paper by Davenport] We all do them in our different ways. And often wish there were more. The limerick “there was a young man of Nantucket/ Whose cock was so long he could suck it” drew from N.D. the comment that it was just as well the phenomenon was a rare one – “or most of us would be doing little else.”

[9] In a letter of the 17th of the same month, Davenport explained that “λειχαξειν simply means licking &/ or sucking (it is only used in a sexual connotation).”  

[10] Ettore, Douglas’s last love, was a starving Neapolitan aged ten when Douglas first met him in November 1946; he lived with him in Capri from about August 1947 to February 1948 and stayed there frequently for the rest of Douglas’s life (Mark Holloway, Norman Douglas, London, 1976). Holloway describes their relationship and the feelings of Douglas’s friends about it in very much the same terms as Davenport, even quoting one of the friends as saying “Ettore was a little tart”. In mentioning Douglas fellating Ettore, Davenport adds interestingly to what has hitherto been known or surmised. Michael Allan, in Dear Doug! Letters to Norman Douglas from Eric Wolton, René Mari, Marcel Mercier and Ettore Masciandaro and a selection of letters from Emilio Papa (Graz: W. Neugebauer, 2008, p. 135), after quoting Holloway, wrongly concluded: “Considering Douglas’s state of health during the last years of his life, it seems doubtful that the relationship with young Ettore was anything more than sentimental.”

 

 

 

Comments powered by CComment