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111 T Oscar Wilde and The Green Carnation:     Narcissus Exposed I n the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette on 2 October 1894 appeared a curious letter to the editor: Kindly allow me to contradict, in the most emphatic manner, the suggestion, made in your issue of Thursday last, and since then copied into many other news papers, that I am the author of The Green Carnation. I invented that magnificent flower. But with the middle-class and mediocre book that usurps its strangely beautiful name I have, I need hardly say, nothing whatsoever to do. The flower is a work of art. The book is not. I remain, sir, your obedient servant.        Oscar Wilde No one had taken seriously the suggestion thatWilde had written the book. It satirized him just within the laws of libel and was hardly the kind of publicity he needed at the time; but swelled by the megalomania of success Wilde arrogantly called attention to it himself. Privately he was of a different mind. To Ada Leverson, the audacious “Sphinx” of his circle to whom he first attributed The Green Carnation, he telegraphed more angrily: “The doubting disciple who has written the false gospel is one who has merely talent unrelieved by any flashes of physical beauty.”Afterwards he confessed to her that there were “many bits” which were “brilliant,” and that “Hichens I did not think capable of anything so clever.” The press reaction had not takenWilde by surprise, for once review copies had circulated several weeks before publication, literary London had been speculating aboutThe Green Carnation.The book’s target was obvious, even if the jacket art suggested it only at several removes. The three costumed figures echo the male trio in Gillbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885–1886). Their broad hats are typically Japanese, but imply a floral origin, and at the Farewell,Victoria! 112 feet of the lead figure is a small carnation.Wilde had been parodied by Gilbert in an earlier comic opera with Sullivan, Patience, to which a reference would have been too direct.Yet to aficionados of comic opera, some lines sung in The Mikado by Ko-Ko refer daringly to his … little list Of society offenders who might well be underground, And who never would be missed.… It remained a mystery as to who had written the novel, as no author was identified, and guesses ranged from the self-advertising Oscar himself to Ada Leverson, Marie Corelli, and even to the popular (but mediocre) poet Alfred Austin, who became Poet Laureate two years later on the death of Tennyson. As soon as Oscar had learned the truth about its authorship he treated it as a huge joke. “He sent me a burlesque telegram about it, though it came anonymously,” Hichens recalled, “showing that he had guessed I had written it. Alfred Douglas at the same time sent me a comic telegram, telling me I was discovered, and had better at once flee from the vengeance to come.” To say that Robert Hichens never sawWilde after The Green Carnation was published could imply a close friendship sundered by treachery.Actually, he only metWilde four times, all in 1894, after he had begun his book.The idea for it had come in Egypt during the winter of 1893–1894. Hichens had put up at a hotel in Luxor where meals were served at long tables, where he sat opposite E. F. Benson and Lord Alfred Douglas. He knew Douglas slightly , having met him earlier in Cairo. Although he had never seen Benson—a son of the Archbishop of Canterbury—he had heard about him in London; Benson had just published a satirical novel, Dodo, a Detail of the Day, the heroine of which had been drawn from Margot Tennant, a brilliant young woman who was later to be Mrs. Asquith and—after her husband’s years as Prime Minister—the Countess of Oxford and Asquith. Benson, between books and on vacation from a British Archeological Society dig in Athens, was the object of Hichens’s awe, for he had taken a famous figure in smart circles and drawn her from life into an instant best seller: “So young a man and already the author of a book which everyone was reading, laughing over and talking about! And I was merely an unknown journalist, a ‘nobody.’…” Nearly thirty, he was still looking for his first literary success in a decade when success generally came early. Hichens became certain that...


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