Commentators on Norman Douglas’s work frequently noted that he never wasted material. He not only recycled articles and essays but also viewed his books as opportunities to expound upon the myriad subjects on which he was an expert or at least had strong opinions. South Wind is a kind of grab bag of lectures and observations on various, often obscure, aspects of geology, climatology, history, morality, religion, and folklore, among other topics. Douglas’s use of articulate characters confined to a restricted setting allows for ample airing of views and recalls the methods of English novelist Thomas Love Peacock, whose country house novels were once very popular.
South Wind’s setting itself is a good example of Douglas’s methods. Nepenthe is not to be found on a map, but critics have generally related it to the island of Capri, about which Douglas wrote a series of scholarly pamphlets and upon which he was living when he completed South Wind. Douglas did not deny his novel’s debt to a real location but insisted that Ischia, Ponza, and the Lipari Islands (all lying off the southwest coast of Italy) were the actual sources for Nepenthe’s natural scenery. Douglas even incorporated a version of his observations regarding the pumice stone industry of the Lipari Islands, the subject of one of his first publications. Douglas’s creation had deep roots in his own experience—the details of which he drew upon heavily.
The novel’s characters are the result of much the same process, which represents a central weakness of South Wind. One or two seem to be based on historically obscure acquaintances of Douglas, but others are little more than personifications of facets of their author’s own personality. The voluble Mr. Keith is clearly a spokesman for Douglas’s hedonistic views, and Mr. Eames and Count Caloveglia represent Douglas’s scholarly and antiquarian interests. All are perfectly adequate mouthpieces, but none emerges as rounded or particularly memorable.
While Douglas had difficulty in creating complex characters, he also experienced problems in plotting. When this deficiency...
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