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A Life beyond Sexual Morality

The sexual exploitation of children by adults has a long, fraught history. Yet how cultures have reacted to it is shaped by a range of forces, beliefs, and norms, like any other social phenomenon. Changes in how Anglo-American culture has understood intergenerational sex can be seen with startling clarity in the life of British writer Norman Douglas (1868–1952), who was a beloved and popular author, a friend of luminaries like Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, and D.H. Lawrence, and an unrepentant and uncloseted pederast. Rachel Hope Cleves’s careful study opens a window onto the social history of intergenerational sex in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, revealing how charisma, celebrity, and contemporary standards protected Douglas from punishment—until they didn’t.

Unspeakable approaches Douglas as neither monster nor literary hero, but as a man who participated in an exploitative sexual subculture that was tolerated in ways we may find hard to understand. Using letters, diaries, memoirs, police records, novels, and photographs—including sources by the children Douglas encountered—Cleves identifies the cultural practices that structured pedophilic behaviors in England, Italy, and other places Douglas favored. Her book delineates how approaches to adult-child sex have changed over time and offers insight into how society can confront similar scandals today, celebrity and otherwise.

368 pages | 32 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Biography and Letters

Gender and Sexuality

History: British and Irish History, History of Ideas

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


"A captivating book. . . A scholarly gem. . .  Cleves’s book is a must read for people interested in the history of sexuality, the history of youth, the history of family, and the history of Italy."

Canadian Journal of History

“Cleves has opened up a space to re-examine sensitively the history of pederasty. . . Cleves meditates on the difficulty of studying a sexual practice universally viewed as abhorrent today, ultimately insisting that historians of sexuality must put their moral reservations aside when seeking to understand how sexual mores, like definitions of childhood, have changed over time. She perceptively identifies structural factors that allowed Douglas to pursue his predilections freely.”

History Today

“Cleves has written an exquisite biography of sexuality. . . . Unspeakable is a spellbinding account of tragedy, when one outlives their genre, toggling instead between uncelebrated and unintelligible, criminal and creep. “

Notches Blog

Unspeakable is a brave and beautifully written book, meticulously researched and carefully and ethically handled. Despite writing about a notable early-twentieth century British author who by today’s standards is nothing more than a pedophile, Cleves has managed the remarkable feat of producing a rich, compelling, and informative work of both history and biography that is as balanced and dispassionate as one can imagine possible.”

Steven Angelides, author of The Fear of Child Sexuality

“A major achievement. Cleves has meticulously recreated the history of a widely practiced sexual culture that will shock readers. Perhaps most startling is just how common and how recent was the celebration of pederasty among public figures like Norman Douglas and his friends. Like other groundbreaking work in the history of sexuality, this bookdemonstrates that both sexual practices and attitudes toward them—even those seen as most taboo—are as subject to reversal as anything else in the broader culture.”

Nicholas L. Syrett, author of American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States

Unspeakable is deeply original, nuanced, and bold. In sharp and often witty prose, Cleves uses the life of Norman Douglas as a way to pry open deep-seated (although relatively recent) assumptions about sex, age, and power. This book will appeal to literary scholars, modernists, historians, and the growing numbers of people focused on sexuality studies, childhood studies, and issues of gender.”

James R. Kincaid, University of Southern California

“People will be talking about Unspeakable for a long time to come. Not only does it raise questions that are crucial for the history of sexuality, but it sets new standards for literary biography of an intractable subject.”

Richard Cavell, University of British Columbia

Table of Contents


Part I George Norman Douglass

1 Crocodiles 
2 Lizards 
3 Annetta and Michele 
4 Elsa 
5 Capri 
Reflection I 

Part II Norman Douglas

6 Norman Douglas 
7 London Street Games 
8 Keeping Faith 
9 Alone 
10 Together 
Reflection II 

Part III Uncle Norman

11 The Pederastic Congress 
12 A Hymn to Copulation 
13 Diavolo Incarnato 
14 Epicurus 
15 Moving Along 
Reflection III

Part IV Heraclitus

16 On the Run 
17 England Is a Nightmare 
18 Footnote to Capri 
19 Omnes Eodem Cogimur 
20 Pinorman versus Grand Man 
21 Looking Back 
Reflection IV 


Canadian Historical Association: Wallace K. Ferguson Prize

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