chapter  31
3 Pages

Compton Mackenzie, Vestal Fire

Set in the period 1905-1920, Vestal Fire (George H. Doran Company, 1927; first published in the United Kingdom in 1927 by Cassell) is an amusing, outrageous, and at times long-winded (by modern standards) study of the Anglo-American community on the Italian island of Sirene. A young Englishman named Nigel Dawson is identified as “one of those,” and when he grows a beard and moves to the mainland, he is laughingly referred to as “the bearded lady.” The central gay character and, indeed, the most influential figure in the novel is Count “Bob” Marzac Lagerstrom, who arrives on the island from his native France where, it is revealed, he had been convicted of pederasty. Not only is Count Bob addicted to opium, but also he is obsessed with his attractive Italian secretary, Carlo, whom he adopted when the boy was thirteen years old. As Compton Mackenzie explains of Carlo,

To whatever there was abnormal in his relations with Marzac he had become easily habituated in that strange bisexual pause in the growth of normal adolescence. . . . The Latin individual is capable of what seems to the Anglo-Saxon a cynicism in sexual relations utterly beyond his comprehension. A decent Englishman would have despised Carlo; but a decent Italian would not have despised him, however much he might abominate his detestable situation. (pp. 212-213)

Count Bob is immediately taken up by two elderly American ladies, the Misses Pepworth-Norton, but, as his reputation becomes known, the majority of the residents snub him. Such behavior is rejected by the Misses Pepworth-Norton, who can find no fault with Count Bob. As a result, the island is split into two camps. The saga ends with the early death of Count Bob, and the passing of first one

and then the other of the Misses Pepworth-Norton. However, World War I has also wrought a fundamental change to the island and its visitors. The deaths of the “old guard” mark the end of an era, with the “new guard” lacking both class and personality.