At last London has a sensation. The quiet of the early autumn is broken by an explosion of a genuine bombshell, and everyone is rushing to read ‘The Green Carnation’.
– Arthur Waugh, The New York Critic, 1894
All sorts of things are still to come out of our new literary prize (for gay male writers: keep up at the back); the one that might be unique to us is the prospect of creating our very own emblem. I don’t see the Orange judges wandering around with satsumas on their lapels, and the judges of the Whitbread never had to balance a pint of beer on their heads (though I’m not saying straight out that it was never done). But it would be a crime not to revive, in physical form, the wilfully unnatural bloom made famous by Oscar Wilde and his circle, way back in the 1880s.
The interesting thing arising from a little (a very little) online research is that this union of a fluffy perennial with a bottle of the most eccentric of inks, this badge, played a role in Wilde’s downfall, and in a particularly literary way. The Green Carnation – a creation, it may be, of Parisian deviants prior to Oscar’s use of it – was the title of a scandalous novel published in 1894, a thinly veiled portrait of the playwright and his paramour, Bosie. Suffused with the great man’s wit and a good seasoning of indiscretion, can’t you just imagine it being read, in pavement cafes in Parisian boulevards, wrapped in brown paper and read aloud in Brighton hotel rooms…?
Perhaps you’d look up at some point, and there he’d be at the next table, dining with panthers and purring with contentment. Absinthe-coloured words filling the air. Perhaps you would go home and dye your own blooms – and would you think twice, then, about fixing one in your buttonhole and heading brazenly out the door, bound for the same world? Would that fantasy in brown paper, that satire, that inside story on Wilde, also screen off that world? Bringing it out of illicit into the world of cafe conversation?
Writing of the book for newspaper readers in New York, Arthur said: ‘The writer remains anonymous and his preference for secrecy is not surprising, for good-humoured satire to make enemies, he would scarcely have a friend left. Nobody is spared.’ The preference for secrecy wasn’t limited to the Green Carnation’s author: when Wilde took Bosie’s Uncle to court for libel and wound up standing trial for his own behaviour, the novel was presented as evidence of an extremely damning kind, and Wilde wasn’t spared.
It doesn’t seem to have done the author any harm, though: Robert Hichens’ career seems only to have flourished, with The Paradine Case a bestseller later filmed by Hitchcock. The Garden of Allah was filmed twice, one version featuring Dietrich, and later giving its name to a gay nightclub and an apartment complex on Sunset Boulevard, the scene of ‘wild parties’ frequented by naughty movie stars of all kinds of persuasions. Some great stories and photos here: http://www.waltlockley.com/gardenofallah/gardenofallah.htm The original novel, and its scandal, have faded away.
It’s a good kind of new life for the green carnation – still a badge, still a little provocative, still symbolising the same contradiction of art and nature and beauty – but with all the negatives reversed. A green light, and an invitation to come into the circle, the party, the private conversation, still bosky with the scent of secrets and permissiveness, but now open to all comers.