The most recent Times Literary Supplement had a good article (not online, unfortunately) about James Douglas. He was the journalist whose luridly-phrased fulminations inspired the prosecution for obscenity of Lawrence’s The Rainbow, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and plenty of other books.
David Bradshaw in his article remarks that after Douglas’s comments on The Rainbow were read out in court (he described the book’s characters as ‛creatures who are immeasurably lower than the lowest animals in the Zoo’), ‛from then on, Douglas’s nostrils were twitching for further notifiable books’.
The article does not, however, mention what must have been Douglas’s next noteworthy success. In 1918, Rose Allatini, using the pseudonym of A. T. Fitzroy, published Despised and Rejected, an astonishing novel which gave a sympathetic portrayal of homosexual conscientious objectors. A while ago I posted about the Manchester Guardian’s chilly reception of the book:
The hero, Dennis Blackwood, walks and talks through a considerable portion of the book before a war breaks out and exhibits himself as a hopeless victim of neurasthenia. He is an abnormal young man, held up for pity as such, but also for admiration. Charity can go no further than look on him as an unhappy invalid. We have no intention of disclosing in what constitutes his abnormality. Those who read his story may regard his malady as ridiculous, others as something worse.
That Guardian review appeared in June. In August 1918, an uncredited short piece appeared in London Opinion, just a couple of pages on from James Douglas’s regular weekly essay:
A thoroughly poisonous book, every copy of which ought to be put on the fire forthwith, is Despised and Rejected, by A. T. Fitzroy – probably a pen-name. Of its hideous immoralities the less said the better; but concerning its sympathetic presentation, in the mouths of its ‛hero’ and of other characters of pacifism and conscientious objection, and of sneering at the English as compared with the Hun, this needs to be asked: What is the use of our spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on propaganda, and tens of thousands more on Censorship, while pestiferous filth like this remains unsuppressed? The book is published by C. W. Daniel, Ltd., of Graham House, Tudor Street; and I imagine that it will not be long, after the authorities have examined this literary fungus, before he is a Daniel brought to judgment.
A few weeks later, Daniel was brought to court, charged under Regulation 27(c) of the Defence of the Realm Regulations for publishing work ‛likely to prejudice the training, recruitment and discipline of his majesty’s forces’. The book was banned and Daniel had to pay fines and costs of £460.
The style of the London Opinion article surely points to authorship by the man who would later say of The Well of Loneliness: ‛I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.’ and of Joyce’s Ulysses: ‛All the secret sewers of vice are canalised in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words.’
As well as male homosexuality, Despised and Rejected touches on Lesbianism, a topic that seems to have made Douglas extremely uncomfortable. It was the suggestions of Lesbianism that got The Rainbow prosecuted, and the defiant treatment of the topic that caused the banning of The Well of Loneliness.I think the existence of Lesbians disturbed Douglas’s ideas about women, whom he frequently idealised in print.
I spent an hour or so yesterday reading through Douglas’s London Opinion essays for 1918. Many of these are strong attacks on what he saw as Lloyd George’s mismanagement of the War; others are enthusiastic hymns to womanhood. In April, for example, he wrote a page with the title ‛Heroines’:
During these latter days, of iron ordeal, the Englishwoman has borne herself in a fashion that provokes amazement. She has bravely hidden her anguish under a gallant smile [….] The women of England are not only helping the men of England to win the war: they are positively winning it by their unconquerable courage. Our men are what their women make them.
And so on.
In September, though, he wrote an essay on ‛The Manly Girl’:
My holiday walks this year were full of feminine thrills. One day I was strolling through the heather by the sea and I saw what looked like a cricket team in white flannels. But they were not cricketers. They were girls in white flannel trousers and white sweaters. They were quite comfortable and quite cool and quite charming in this unconventional attire. In the Victorian age they would not have dared to have shown themselves in the open air anywhere, except in a Gaiety chorus or an Empire ballet. Today they take leave to wear our clothes without turning a hair.
He pays tribute to the women who have played a part in the war effort:
Seriously, we should have lost the war if our manly girls had not done the work of the men at the Front. And one good result has flowed from the labours of the manly girl. She is no longer obsessed by her sex. She is no longer oversexed. She can live without love… She has a hundred other careers open to her besides the career of marriage… She is ceasing to be a parasite, and her consciousness of her independence is reflected in her swagger.
Douglas has not quite turned into Rebecca West, however. He goes on:
And I confess that in her trousers and her knickerbockers she looks as desirable and as dear as ever. Her male garb enhances her bloom and her soft contours. Her manliness is piquant. She is a more bewitching witch in her doublet and hose. When I see her with feet planted widely apart, rejoicing in her feminine masculinity, I surrender to her charm.
Clearly he likes to dally with the idea of the manly girl, but he wants to put firm limits on how far this manliness should go. He approves of the girl machine-minders who have done so much for the war effort (‛A girl can mind a machine as well as a strong man.’) but for women to become soldiers would be Hunnish:
A stalwart German maiden might work a machine gun or man a submarine. The race which has invented every other form of frightfulness might stoop to this.
In Douglas’s writings, I think we see a man conscious of shifting gender boundaries, and anxious about them. He seems to need to draw firm limits, and so wants to ban things that disturb him.
No wonder he disliked Despised and Rejected. I can’t think of any other novel where the characters are so unsure of their own sexual identity. For almost all of them, sexuality is a fluid thing that keeps on re-defining itself. I usually hate saying that novels are ‛ahead of their time’, but can’t think of any other way to describe this one. Maybe it’s a bit ahead of our time, too.