The Green Carnation by Robert Smythe Hichens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m not sure why there are so many negative reviews of this book. I could quite easily imagine someone really enjoying it.
I had read on Wikipedia that this book was pulled from the shelves in 1894 after Wilde was imprisoned for the gay content in the book, which is not true. In the 1948 reprint of the book, the author states he pulled the book from the shelves voluntarily after Wilde’s imprisonment as he thought it would be in poor taste to satirize a man facing hard time in jail. The author mentions hearing about unlicensed American reprints in the early 1940’s and deciding to re-issue the book at that time.
The author is famous for his work satirizing the 1890’s, the “naughty nineties” I think they were called, so I was expecting this book to be more of a send up than it was. Wikipedia in defining satire says “its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon” which is what we get here in The Green Carnation.
I was wondering if the author, Hichens, was gay himself, but he died in 1950 so it’s hard to know. He never married, and even Wilde married, so that’s a good indication I suppose.
I had anticipated more of a send up of Wilde, making him look ridiculous, and instead got this book penned by a possibly gay devotee. I will agree that the novel does fit the Wikipedia definition, in that there is a lot of constructive social criticism. In fact that’s pretty much the entire book, with the plot, Wilde et al go to the country and scare the locals, a little lacking.
The book starts off exploring Wilde (as Esme Amarinth) and the world around him:
"I only saw about a dozen in the Opera House to-night, and all the men who wore them looked the same. They had the same walk, or rather waggle, the same coyly conscious expression, the same wavy motion of the head. When they spoke to each other, they called each other by Christian names. Is it a badge of some club or some society, and is Mr. Amarinth their high priest? They all spoke to him, and seemed to revolve round him like satellites around the sun."
And once the group is assembled, Wilde spends most of it pontificating on life:
“Virtue is generally merely a form of deficiency, just as vice is an assertion of intellect.”
"These strawberries are very good," he said. "I should finish them, only I hate finishing anything. There is something so commonplace about it. Don't you think so? Commonplace people are always finishing off things, and getting through things. They map out their days, and have special hours for everything. I should like to have special hours for nothing. That would be much more original."
Much of the book is discussions on sin and virtue. In some cases the book becomes a portent of things to come, such as the following about injustice:
“Good people love hearing about sin. Haven't you noticed that although the sinner takes no sort of interest in the saint, the saint has always an uneasy curiosity about the doings of the sinner?”
"Society only loves one thing more than sinning," said Madame Valtesi, examining the moon magisterially through her tortoise shell eyeglass.
"And what is that?" said Lady Locke.
I had read other reviews that said the gay issue wasn’t apparent, but for 1894, I found it pretty open:
“A man is unnatural if he never falls in love with a woman. A boy is unnatural if he prefers looking at pictures to playing cricket, or dreaming over the white naked beauty of a Greek statue to a game of football under Rugby rules. If our virtues are not cut on a pattern, they are unnatural. If our vices are not according to rule, they are unnatural.”
“To be unnatural is often to be great. To be natural is generally to be stupid.”
In the author’s 1948 introduction he details the three times he met Oscar Wilde before he published the book, and the most interesting part of the book is to picture Wilde pontificating as he must have done at the time. I thought the following, said of Wilde in the guise of Mr. Amarinth, summed it up beautifully:
"I don't care to hear the opinions of Mr. Amarinth," she answered in a low voice. "His epigrams are his opinions. His actions are performed vicariously in conversation. If he were to be silent he would cease to live."
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