Now all but forgotten, Robert Smythe Hichens (1864 – 1950) was a well known and successful novelist for over half a century, many of his novels being concerned with the supernatural and the occult.
Hichens was gay but extremely discreet, even coy about his personal life. His close friends included gay writers E.F. Benson and Reginald Turner, the latter was also a close friend of Oscar Wilde and was with him at his deathbed.
From around 1879 to 1886 Hichens lived at Avonbank (now The Blue House) on Clifton Down, near Bristol Zoo. He was a day boarder at Clifton College but left aged 15 having not progressed beyond the fourth form but within two years had published his first novel “The Coastguard’s Secret” (1886). He was the first Clifton College pupil to achieve widespread popularity as a novelist.
Hichens first attracted attention for his 1894 novel The Green Carnation, a satire about Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. Because the book made it clear Wilde and Douglas were homosexual it was withdrawn from print in 1895 but not before helping to set the stage for Wilde’s public disgrace and downfall. Although written as a spoof, The Green Carnation has a great deal of sympathy with the personalities of the aesthetic movement. After Wilde’s trial Hichens refused to permit any reprints so it did not appear in print again until 1948, two years before Hichens’ death.
In The Green Carnation Wilde and Douglas are thinly disguised as married playwright “Esme Amarrioth” and his friend “Lord Reginald Hastings”. Hichens gathered his material while on a trip on the Nile with E.F. Benson and Reginald Turner, during which Hichens met and befriended Lord Alfred Douglas. Later in London he was introduced to Wilde and wrote down everything Wilde said to him, capturing in the novel the wit and charm of Wilde in his prime. Hichens had attended the lectures at the Victoria Rooms in Bristol on October 14 1884 when Wilde spoke on ‘Dress’ and ‘The Value of Art in Modern Life’ to a “fashionable and crowded audience” according to the Bristol Mercury.
The green carnation became an emblem of Wilde and his circle after the character Lord Darlington wore one in his buttonhole in Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan. The flower of an unnatural colour was seen as embodying the decadence of the “unnatural”, and hence male same sex love. Early sexologists believed that green was supposedly the favourite colour of “inverts”, as gay men were then often referred to. One review of the book noted “The Green Carnation will be read and discussed by everyone…nothing so impudent, so bold, or so delicious has been printed these many years”. The 1948 reprint included an introduction by Hichens and Oscar Wilde’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette of 2 October 1894 denying he was the anonymous author. Wilde refers to the novel as “the middle class and mediocre book that usurps it’s strangely beautiful name, I have, I need hardly say, nothing whatsoever to do with. The flower is a work of Art. The book is not”.
In 1895 Hichens enjoyed huge success with An Imaginative Man set in Egypt, a study of insanity where the hero has a number of sexual adventures before smashing his head against the Great Sphinx. The desert romance The Garden of Allah (1904) was an international sensation and was filmed three times in 1916, 1927 and 1936. The novel has odd revealing moments such as when Hichens describes “The half naked workmen toiling and sweating in the sun”. Throughout his work Hichens tends to punish any love between man and woman, and seemingly abhors any hint of homosexual love. In Flames: A London Phantasy (1897) there is a close emotional bond between two young men about town who experiment with the unseen and the supernatural. They hold hands in the dark and try to unite their consciousnesses. The homo erotic undercurrents are clear to modern readers and may be seen in much of Hichens work.
Today Hichens’ novels can be read as “literary archeology”. The themes are dated, the style is antiquated and full of “purple prose”, but they reflect the cunning of a clever wordsmith and evoke the spirit of their time.
Hichens lived much of his life abroad and died in Zurich, Switzerland aged 85. In his later years he had a long standing friendship with Swiss author John Knittel.
Jonathan Rowe 2021