Robert Hichens The Green Carnation (1894)
"I heard a bon mot of yours at the Foreign Office last night."Indeed. What was it?""Er--really I--oh! it was something about life, you know, with a sort of general application, one of your best."
I thought I should read something appropriate while following Oscar Wilde Week at Esoteric London last week.
"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."
The Green Carnation ("the arsenic flower of an exquisite life") is notorious for cementing Oscar Wilde's fall from grace. Hichens was well acquainted with the circle around Wilde. His satirical take on these late nineteenth century 'Moderns' is pitch-perfect. This is a very funny book if you can forget the terrible aftermath. It is wall-to-wall Wilde-styled nonsensicality; indeed "the art of preposterous conversation" often reads just like Wilde. The effect of this overload of overstyled observations on the most banal topics - along with sweepingly illogical twists on the Wildean 'habit' of contradiction and unconventionality and originality - serves to render Wildeism ridiculous.
"How curious," said Mr. Amarinth, taking a bun delicately between his plump white fingers. "My temper and my heart are the only two things I never lose! Everything else vanishes. I think the art of losing things is a very subtle art. So few people can lose anything really beautifully. Anybody can find a thing. That is so simple. A crossing sweeper can discover a sixpence lying in the road. It is the crossing sweeper who loses a sixpence who shows real originality."
Wilde is referred to in the text by name ("I shall go and lie down and read Oscar Wilde's 'Decay of Lying.' That always sends me to sleep. It is like himself, all artfulness and no art.") but he is represented in the satire by one Esmé Amarinth ("I was born epigrammatic, and my dying remark will be a paradox") who is inseparable from Lord Reggie Hastings (i.e. Lord Alfred Douglas). It is Lord Reggie's role as an inferior copy of the dazzling original which enables the text to poke its best jabs at the Wilde phenomenon:
Reggie Hastings, at least, was not ashamed. The mantel-piece in his sitting-room bore only photographs of himself, and he explained this fact to inquirers by saying that he worshipped beauty. Reggie was very frank. When he could not be witty, he often told the naked truth; and truth, without any clothes on, frequently passes for epigram. It is daring, and so it seems clever.
Lord Reggie and Esmé go to Surrey for a week of carefully contrived rusticity with the London hostess Mrs. Windsor ("Ah! here is our Bovril! I feel so delightfully vicious when I drink it, so unconventional!"), the theatrical Madame Valtesi ("I always hate to see people drinking when I have finished. It makes me feel like a barmaid.") and the young and highly conventional widow Lady Locke who may or may not marry Lord Reggie:
"What do you think about it, Reggie?" Amarinth said, as they began to discuss their oysters. "Could you commit the madness of matrimony with Lady Locke? You are so wonderful as you are, so complete in yourself, that I scarcely dare to wish it, or anything else for you: and you live so comfortably upon debts, that it might be unwise to risk the possible discomfort of having money.
Lady Locke soons discovers that the handsome Lord Reggie is appallingly self-obsessed and shallow. But is he also wicked?
She still fancied that Lord Reggie was nothing more than a whimsical poseur, bitten by the tarantula of imitation that preys upon weak natures.
But further events leave her unconvinced:
"But do you really object to the green carnation?""That depends. Is it a badge?""How do you mean?""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.""My dear Emily, it is not a badge at all. They wear it merely to be original.""And can they only be original in a buttonhole way? Poor fellows.""You don't understand. They like to draw attention to themselves.""By their dress? I thought that was the prerogative of women.""Really, Emily, you are colonial..."
She declines Sir Reggie's proposal ("Esmé said to-day that marriage was a brilliant absurdity. Will you be brilliantly absurd? Will you marry me?"):
It seems to me that Mr. Amarinth has created a cult. Let me call it the cult of the green carnation. I suppose it may be called modern. To me it seems very silly and rather wicked. If you would take that hideous green flower out of your coat, not because I asked you to, but because you hated it honestly, I might answer your question differently. If you could forget what you call art, if you could see life at all with a straight, untrammelled vision, if you could be like a man, instead of like nothing at all in heaven or earth except that dyed flower, I might perhaps care for you in the right way. But your mind is artificially coloured: it comes from the dyer's. It is a green carnation; and I want a natural blossom to wear in my heart."
Masses of epigrams on the commonplace are all marked by the simplistic opposing of whatever society values: "We make vices of our virtues, and virtues of our vices. The former we consider the duty that we owe to others, the latter the duty that we owe to ourselves."
The text also takes some jabs at the issue of whether Wilde's epigrams were indeed original or borrowed from other languages.
The Londoners escape to rusticity is as much a fraud as their utterances: "She rustled away with weary grace, rattling delicately a large bunch of keys that didn't open any thing in particular. They were a part of her get up as a country hostess." Everything is a vast fraud:
"That sky is becoming so terribly imitative that I can hardly go on. Why are modern sunsets so intolerably true to Turner?"
[Reggie] was holding up a table-spoon filled with marmalade to catch the light from a stray sunbeam that filtered in through the drawn blinds, and wore a rapt look, a "caught up" look, as Mrs. Windsor would have expressed it. "Good morning," he said softly. "Is not this marmalade Godlike? This marvellous, clear, amber glow, amber with a touch of red in it, almost makes me believe in an after life. Surely, surely marmalade can never die!" "I must have been mistaken," Mrs. Windsor thought, as she expressed her sense of the eternity of jams in general in suitable language.
As I said, a very funny book.
I read The Green Carnation for 99 cents on my Kindle but it is available all over the place for free (e.g., Gutenberg) Incidentally, I didn't realise that Robert Hichens wrote The Paradine Case (1933) on which was based the Gregory Peck movie of the same name (1947).
If you liked this... read the real thing. Oscar Wilde.