One of the books I’ve read most recently is titled The Green Carnation (published in 1894), and it’s an interesting book—which is both good and bad. The title comes from, as you can probably guess, a carnation that’s been dyed green. (Creative, right?) The carnation’s origin traces back to use in France by men who engaged in sodomy; the dyed flower served as a sort of “sign” of their sexual preference. Wilde, of course, coopted the dyed carnation idea for his own (similar) uses in London. While the significance of the carnation was lost on many, quite a few started picking up that there was something deeper and more meaningful behind the choice of color and flower. One such man, named Robert Hichens, caught on. So it fits that he was also the author of The Green Carnation.
Wilde was soon to refer to Hichens as a “doubting disciple who has written the false gospel,” but Hichens originally published The Green Carnation anonymously. Hichens had followed Wilde and Bosie around with a notebook, talked to their friends, and gathered enough information on their goings and comings to write a satire about Wilde, Bosie, the “Aesthetic Movement,” and the effeminacy that was associated with all three.
The Green Carnation takes place over several days in the lives of a group of heavily satirized characters—the characters of Wilde and Bosie are so accurately (and humorously) described, though, that it was instantly obvious to the readers of that time that book was about the two. The plot is centered on three characters, however. The moral compass (and arguably the protagonist) of the book is Lady Locke, but I’m going to spend more time in this blog entry writing about Wilde’s character. He’s named “Esmé Amarinth” although I’ll refer to him Wilde for the sake of clarity. (I’ll be referring to the character of “Reggie Hastings” as Bosie, as well.)
The most striking characteristic of Wilde in The Green Carnation is that he’s almost criminally insane through the way he speaks (both randomly and nonsensically) throughout the book. He often ignores other characters, and is more than willing to talk about whatever he wants to talk about—regardless of the topic at hand. I realize that simply stating it won’t do the character justice, so I feel as though it’s worthwhile to pull in some actual, and hopefully enjoyable, quotes.
The first example is Wilde speaking of how operas should perform matinees—the purpose of which would be to “unfit one for the duties of the day”:
“It makes me perpetually sorrowful in London to meet with people doing their duty. I find them everywhere. It is impossible to escape from them. A sense of duty is like some horrible disease. It destroys the tissues of the mind, as certain complaints destroy the tissues of the body. The catechism has a great deal to answer for” (pg. 7).
In the second example, Wilde spontaneously decides to sing a song whilst accompanying himself on the piano:
“Go out into the garden all of you, and I will sing to you a song of the moon. It is very beautiful. […] My voice will sound better from a distance. Good voices always do” (pg. 74).
The third and final example is from the conclusion of the book. As Wilde and Bosie ride a train into the metaphorical sunset, the two observe a pair of gentlemen trying to catch the train they’re on:
“Look out of this window, dear boy, and you will see two elderly gentlemen missing the train. They are doing it rather nicely. I think they must have been practicing in private. There is an art even in missing a train, [Bosie]. But one of them is not quite perfect in it yet. He has begun to swear a little too soon” (pg. 211).
The absurdity of Wilde, to an outsider, probably seems laughable. But Hichens uses enough (likely) quotes and aphorisms from Wilde and others that it was convincing enough to fool many as to whom the actual writer was. (As would be discovered down the road, Hichens had pulled at least one quote directly from a private telegram between Bosie and Queensberry.) While I’ll go further into detail in the next post, it’s worth knowing that many originally thought Wilde had written the satire about himself.