Norman Douglas and the Continental Edition

Norman Douglas and the Continental Edition

Douglas, Norman (1868-1952). Twenty-two letters to London bookseller and publisher A. W. Steele, manager of William Jackson, Ltd., 1927-1930, plus three bank drafts from William Jackson countersigned by Douglas, 1925.  Most of the letters are on letterhead c/o Thomas Cook, Via Tornabuoni, Florence, some are headed Mentone.  Light creased and soiling; one page reinforced with archival tape; very good overall.

     Although these letters are addressed only as “Dear Sir,” the recipient clearly is Alan William Steele (1905-1985), who managed William Jackson, Ltd., a book exporter based in London, and one of the principle distributors of fine and privately printed works. The company was founded by Frederic C. Joiner, who reportedly had fine business acumen but little literary sensibility.  Steele joined the firm in 1927 after a brief career with W. H. Smith and as an independent bookseller.  As George Jefferson observed, “It was to Alan Steele that Joiner passed ‘difficulties’ arising from his more dubious enterprises at a time when that fearsome duo, Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks and the Director of Prosecutions Sir Archibald Bodkin, were zealous in their search for allegedly indecent publication, and especially those bearing continental imprints” (see George Jefferson, “The Furnival Books,” The Private Library, 3rd ser., 8:2 (Summer 1985) 62-78).

     Among these scurrilous texts were Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Pansies, Joyce’s Ulysses – and, we now know, Douglas’s gleefully filthy little volume, Some Limericks. The principals of the firm may not have seen eye-to-eye on these matters.  In the summer of 1928, Lawrence complained bitterly that “a beastly firm of book-exporters” was returning the 80 copies of Lady Chatterley they had ordered. A letter from William Jackson, Ltd to one of their American clients expressed regret at not being able to send the book, “but after careful consideration we have decided to have nothing whatever to do with this book as it is of a thoroughly obscene and disgusting nature.” To his publisher Lawrence exploded, “Damn and blast that Steele fellow – the dog.”  By September, however, he had calmed down: “I got the books back from them, have sold them all, and have Messrs William Jackson well in mind for a future occasion.” (Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol. VI, pp. 477-478, 518n3, 547).  

     As these letters from Norman Douglas suggest, Joiner and Steele’s concern over Lady Chatterley might have had more to do with avoiding the wrath of censors who were on the alert for a notorious title than with personal scruples.  Indeed, this correspondence reveals that Steele was no stranger to under-the-counter sales.  The letters indicate a lively trade in Douglas’s privately printed works – Steele would typically order 50 or 100 copies of Douglas’s books at time – and present details about publication plans, editions, inventories, and discounts.   Most revealing is the veiled discussion of Some Limericks in Douglas’s letter of 20 December 1928 – months after Steele was compelled to cancel his order with Lawrence:

Certainly I can let your clients have the book, if they are discreet persons. But, as I shall never again keep accounts, they will have to send the five guineas beforehand. I should also like them to understand that, once I have the Italian postal receipt of registration, I do not wish to be held responsible for what may happen to the parcel en route.

     Nothing has happened as yet.”

     The correspondence also widens our glimpse into Steele’s publishing ventures.  A habitué of Charles Lahr’s legendary Red Lion (or Progressive) Bookshop, Steele made the acquaintance of young authors. In 1930, he began to publish them, producing modestly-priced fine editions under two imprints, William Jackson and Joiner & Steele.  Chief among Steele’s books was his Furnival series – slim, limited editions of stories by H. E. Bates, John Collier, A. E. Coppard, Rhys Davies, Liam O’Flaherty, T. E. Powys, and Dorothy Richardson, and others. Steele and Joiner severed their partnership around 1934, bringing the series to a close. 

     These letters reveal that Douglas was one of the first people Steele approached for material.  In a letter from 19 May 1929, the writer declines to contribute to the publishing venture as “I am up to the neck in work just now and have no short stories on hand.”  On 3 February 1930, he thanks Steele for a copy of Coppard’s The Man from Kilsheelan, sent evidently as a sample of the Furnival series, and again expresses his regrets at being unable to contribute.

     An important correspondence offering insight not only into Norman Douglas’s work but also more broadly into the workings of the book trade during this febrile period of literary transition.


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    Norman Douglas and the Continental Edition