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South Wind

Washington Post critic Michael Dirda weighs in on Norman Douglas' classic "South Wind" a 1917 novel that makes for hilarious and "utterly pagan" beach reading.

(Page 3 of 5)

Nepenthe itself is an isle of many secrets. "Curio-hunters, gentlemen of commerce, nautical wrecks, decayed missionaries, painters, authors and other vagrant riff-raff" regularly turn up, usually with something to hide or for other dubious, even sinister reasons. Douglas lists some of these in speaking of wizened Mr. Eames, who has been devoting his later years to annotating and updating Monsignor Perrelli's Antiquities of Nepenthe. His excursus on the sirocco, or south wind, alone extends to 23,000 words. Though an innocent antiquary, Mr. Eames nonetheless attracts continual speculation about his supposedly dark past:

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It was not true to say of this gentleman that he fled from England to Nepenthe because he forged his mother's will, because he was arrested while picking the pockets of a lady at Tottenham Court Road Station, because he refused to pay for the upkeep of his seven illegitimate children, because he was involved in a flamboyant scandal of unmentionable nature and unprecedented dimensions, because he was detected while trying to poison the rhinoceros at the Zoo with an arsenical bun, because he strangled his mistress, because he addressed an almost disrespectful letter to the Primate of England beginning 'My good Owl' -- or for any suchlike reason.

As it happens, nearly all these suspicions about why Mr. Eames might have ended up on Nepenthe cut rather close to the bone. While Douglas, born in 1868, married and fathered two sons, by middle age he had become essentially homosexual, with a classical fondness for adolescent boys. In nearly every known case, he treated his various Ganymedes with kindness and generosity, remaining friends with them in later years, helping them in their married lives and eventual careers. Nonetheless, just before South Wind appeared Douglas was arrested and accused of forcing indecent attentions on a boy he met at London's Natural History Museum. Rather than face a trial, he adopted the course that Oscar Wilde rejected: Douglas fled to the Continent and didn't set foot in England for some twenty-five years.

While he behaved with atypical cruelty to his ex-wife and certainly neglected his own sons, Douglas really seems to have been as charming in person as any of his dissolute characters in South Wind. One young woman remembers meeting him in 1906 on Capri. She was being chaperoned by two respectable ladies but was immediately taken with the timbre of his voice and his irresistible, rushing energy. She timidly invited the attractive stranger to tea:

'Tea? No.... You shouldn't sit up in that cold hole drinking tea. Tea, my god! Who let you come over here with those two old women? American parents don't know the first thing about bringing up children. Have you read Plutarch's Lives? Do you learn a column of the dictionary every day by heart? Well, you should. Tea indeed -- come along...'

As young Muriel Draper is dragged off to see "the only real trees on this hellish island," en route the odd couple pass various Capri notables, about whom Douglas keeps up a running commentary:

'So you know that old thieving harlot, do you? I don't care if she is very well known in America. Look out for your purse and your lovers when she's about. Haven't got any? Well, you should have. Oh! These American parents!' And another passed.... 'Beware of that young Danish doctor now. He is here because he just murdered his old uncle for a paltry thousand pounds.... Yes, he did too.'


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