Sunday, June 29, 2014

THE GREEN CARNATION -- An infamous novel that is actually very good

Now I'm reading THE GREEN CARNATION by Robert Hichens. Published anonymously on its original publication in 1894, it contained highly fictionalized portraits of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. Around the time when Oscar Wilde ended up on trial for 'gross indecency,' Hichens withdrew the book from publication. But even though it was fiction, it was used against Wilde in his trial.

What's interesting is how good THE GREEN CARNATION really is. Hichens was only 30 years old when he wrote it, and it contains a great deal of a young man's unvarnished rebellion in showing up the various hypocrisies and superficialities of his Victorian compères. Hichens himself was gay, but quite different from Wilde, and although his portrait of 'Esmé Amarinth' is not very flattering, Hichens does give the character some sharp insights.

I'm 3/4 of the way through the book and was struck by this very insightful view of what today we would term 'the closet,' in the words of 'Esmé Amarinth'. It's actually still very true today -- in terms of ignorant public attitudes toward homosexuality, and in terms of what it means for any gay person who is still in the closet. Of course it's written in a bit of Victorian code, but a close reading of it is not challenging for us 21st-century types. Here is the passage:

[Esmé Amarinth:] "How I hate that word natural."

[Lady Locke:] "Why? I think it is one of the most beautiful of words."

[Esmé Amarinth:] "How strange! To me it means all that is middle-class, all that is of the essence of jingoism, all that is colourless, and without form, and void. It might be a beautiful word, but it is the most debased coin in the currency of language. Certain things are classed as natural, and certain things are classed as unnatural--for all the people born into the world. Individualism is not allowed to enter into the matter. A child is unnatural if it hates its mother. A mother is unnatural if she does not wish to have children. 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. We must be good naturally. We must sin naturally. We must live naturally, and die naturally. Branwell Brontë died standing up, and the world has looked upon him as a blasphemer ever since. Why must we stand up to live, and lie down to die? Byron had a club foot in his mind, and so Byron is a by-word. Yet twisted minds are as natural to some people as twisted bodies. It is natural to one man to live like Charles Kingsley, to preach gentleness, and love sport; it is natural to another to dream away his life on the narrow couch of an opium den, with his head between a fellow-sinner's feet. I love what are called warped minds, and deformed natures, just as I love the long necks of Burne-Jones' women, and the faded rose-leaf beauty of Walter Pater's unnatural prose. Nature is generally purely vulgar, just as many women are vulgarly pure. There are only a few people in the world who dare to defy the grotesque code of rules that has been drawn up by that fashionable mother, Nature, and they defy--as many women drink, and many men are vicious--in secret, with the door locked and the key in their pockets. And what is life to them? They can always hear the footsteps of the detective in the street outside."