Sadie yawned, bored by this impersonal male gabble. And as it continued to forget that talk was designed to tell a woman interesting things about herself she took herself off to bed and was asleep in five minutes.Norman Lindsay, The Cautious Amorist
A few weeks ago, I finished reading The Cautious Amorist by Norman Lindsay. The author is an Australian artist known for his gorgeous and often quirky images with nude women. This particular book was banned for being too lewd and immoral when it first came out. I’ll get back to that later.
The premise of the book is that four people get stranded on a deserted island for a while when they are not rescued like everyone else from a sinking cruise ship. There are three men and one woman. The woman, Sadie, is thus a prized commodity that the men all want for themselves, but being stuck on the island they also need to work together to find food and build shelter and otherwise survive.
Lindsay was clearly doing sort of a thought experiment about how morality and social relationships change in extreme isolation and survival conditions. And he just as clearly didn’t have that much faith in people and manners. But he doesn’t turn them into savages or anything like that either. They maintain mostly workable relationships among them, even as they sneak around trying to get Sadie for themselves and watch each other suspiciously to make sure nobody else is getting time alone with her (all while she seems to blithely float along unaware of most of the drama).
“That reminds me,” he said. “I was talking about it to Sadie; about making cloth from bark. Have you any idea how it’s done?”
“No, I haven’t; though I’ve seen it done.”
“You’ve seen it done?”
“Yes, on a film. All I remember about it is that some of the girls had nice breasts. I’ve got a notion that they whacked the bark with pieces of flat wood.”Norman Lindsay, The Cautious Amorist
My biggest frustration with this book was that I really didn’t like any of the characters. They are each sort of a caricature and none come out looking likable at all to me. Pat is a muscle-bound drunkard who likes to hear the sound of his own voice entirely too much and has a very lazy cruelty (think mean girl – he says things to cause drama he can laugh at, but anything more than that is too much work). Gibble is a stuffy moralist who all too easily becomes an unhinged, paranoid, controlling stalker as soon as there is any hint of his imagined reality not being the one everyone else sees. Carrol seems intended as our relatable Everyman, but is really too lazy and self-absorbed to be actually very interesting.
Sadie herself drove me crazy. She spends most of the book acting entirely vapid and uncaringly self-centered, more concerned with the state of her fancy clothing and being told she is beautiful than anything else. She does nothing really productive the entire book. Near the end it becomes clear that she is actually pretty intelligent and able to manipulate the men to protect her own interests, which makes her brainless, uncaring act that much more exasperating to me. I spent most of the book wondering why these three men are falling all over themselves chasing this woman who is about as responsive and interesting as a mannequin!
“The only horrible, vile, indecent, disgusting act is the act of love; we’re never allowed to mention it…”Norman Lindsay, The Cautious Amorist
As I said before, this book was banned for a long time because it upset the censors who tried to keep anything published from being immoral or overly encouraging of frowned upon behavior. The issue with this book was that it not only made light of sex, but it also suggested that morality was only a social construct and would fall away quickly out of the light of civilization. But the story itself doesn’t really live up to this description and I have to imagine that people who found it despite the ban were likely disappointed. There’s nothing explicit in the book at all and since they spend the entire book talking about morality, even if they are sneaking around doing questionable things, it is far from feeling like morality is ever abandoned.
The book is interesting in some ways, but I wasn’t enthralled by it. To be honest, Lindsay’s sketch illustrations were by far my favorite part. They beautifully evoke motion and relationships, even without a lot of facial details and rarely any background at all. His art is well worth checking out, but the book is probably only interesting to those who find it’s history intriguing.