Saturday, February 1, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Green Hat, by Michael Arlen

I have a certain interest in old bestselling novels, mostly those published in the first half or so of the 20th Century (and often findable quite cheap in antique shops). So I thought I would start a series of looks at these old books. I'll begin with something I wrote a few years ago.

I first heard of The Green Hat in connection with Anthony Powell, a favorite of mine. (Powell mentions The Green Hat in A Question of Upbringing, the first novel of A Dance to the Music of Time; and he also lived in Shepard's Market (London), as did Dance's narrator Nick Jenkins, which is where the action of The Green Hat opens. In his memoirs Powell says something to the effect that he chose that locale when he moved to London because of its relative notoriety, derived from The Green Hat.)

The Green Hat was a major bestseller in 1924, when it was published. It was twice made into movies, the most famous of those being a late silent movie, A Woman of Affairs (1928), starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. (The Green Hat was sufficiently controversial that the censors made the producers change the title, the character names, and such major plot points as one character having a venereal disease.) Michael Arlen, original name Dikran Kouyoumdjian, was born in Bulgaria of Armenian parents, but moved at a fairly young age to England. He became wealthy after the success of The Green Hat, and later moved to the U.S. His son, Michael J. Arlen, became a well-known journalist in the U.S., mainly as a TV columnist for the New Yorker, and also wrote a couple of memoirs of his parents (not entirely happy memoirs, apparently), as well as some novels.

The Green Hat is an interesting book to read, but to a contemporary reader I think it mostly fails. At least it does for me. The main issue is that the character motivations fail to convince -- there is just too much melodrama. Perhaps these motivations really did make sense in 1924, but I'm not really sure of that. [This is what I wrote on first reading the novel. But I will say, the book has stayed in my mind ever since -- it's a wildly overwrought book, and indeed sometimes silly, but it's an arresting and interesting read nonetheless.]

Arlen also makes a bunch of statements about Englishness and so on that I thought silly. To be sure, perhaps Arlen was having us on -- he was after all an outsider -- born in Bulgaria, treated with suspicion during WWI because Bulgaria was an enemy, looked down on as an Armenian (one quote I have read has someone saying "Arlen is the only Armenian I've met who didn't try to sell me a carpet"). On the other hand, Arlen seems to have desperately wanted to be regarded as an English gentleman, and later as an American.

He did become famous and rich after The Green Hat, but none of his other works were ever as successful. He did write one SF novel, Man's Mortality (1933), a dystopia said to resemble Brave New World. (Arlen and Aldous Huxley were friends.) His writing career came to an end in about 1940. After the war he moved to the U.S., where he died in 1956. [I did a brief review of Man's Mortality for the Curiosities column at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction]

I'll do a brief sort-of-review then a fuller spoiler-laden synopsis, complete with warning. First, the review.

The Green Hat tells of the doings of a small group of English people, the main ones around 30 years old, in 1923 and 1924. Thus it is set just after the debacle of World War I, and indeed its theme -- stated fairly baldly at places in the book -- is one of reaction against the "old values" of European civilization that were, as it is sometimes said, "destroyed" by the War. The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is more of an observer of events than a participant (though he does take some actions in the novel).

The central story is of Iris Storm, the woman in the green hat of the title, a woman of rather unsavoury reputation. The narrator meets her at the opening -- he lives in the same building as her estranged alcoholic brother -- and from her he hears some of her personal story (and perhaps sleeps with her). We gather that Iris has been married twice, both husbands dying very soon after the marriage (her first, a suicide, on their wedding night). She is rumored to have had multiple lovers. She herself thinks her family under a sort of curse.

As the story continues a traumatic event seems to drive Iris to a further destructive act -- the seduction of Napier Harpenden, a childhood friend and an up-and-coming civil servant, only three days before his wedding. Napier still gets married, but months later Iris lures him back, and makes ready to run off with him, at which point a final confrontation reveals the true secret behind Iris's rackety life.

It's a very melodramatic novel. It's told with considerable verve, and plenty of arch turns of phrase, that at times intrigue, but often come off (at this remove) forced or false. The tone varies a bit -- though appropriately, I think -- from comic to cynical to tragic to resigned. The major problem is that the character motivations never really convince. They are given dramatic gestures to make, and I just didn't believe in them. We are told that the characters have certain features -- but we aren't shown them, and so they don't come alive. (Not even Iris Storm, though she comes closer to being fascinating than any of the men.) I'm not surprised that it was a bestseller, and I do think it reads rather better today than many bestsellers of its time, but it is ultimately slight and artificial. But I'm glad I read it.

For those who are interested, I'm going to add a more detailed synopsis of the plot below -- but beware, this will give the whole thing away.

The story of The Green Hat unfolds somewhat murkily -- on purpose I think -- though all is quite clear at the end. It opens with the ever unnamed narrator meeting a fascinating woman in a green hat. She's about his age (30 or so), and very beautiful. It seems she wants to see her brother, Gerald March, who lives in the same building as the narrator. He takes her up to her brother's room, who is (as usual) dead drunk. The woman in the green hat, Mrs. Iris Storm, spends some time talking to the narrator, telling bits of her family's story -- they are a cadet branch of a noble family, and rather corrupted, mostly by drink, also perhaps by fate. At the end, I think -- but I am by no means sure! -- that the narrator sleeps with Iris, but it is clear that they will remain friends but not lovers.

The story continues with repeated encounters between the two -- the narrator's role being mainly an observer to the main action of the story. (In this he resembles the narrator of Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, Nick Jenkins.) We learn that Iris Storm has been married twice -- quite young she married Boy Fenwick, who committed suicide on their wedding night, apparently "For Purity!". The implication is that Boy was disgusted to learn his new wife was not a virgin. Boy, apparently, was Gerald March's best friend, and his relationship with his sister was permanently ruined by Boy's suicide. Iris apparently conducted numerous affairs and became notorious in England after this. She married once more, a certain Hector Storm, but he too soon died -- murdered in Ireland by members of Sinn Fein. But did he put himself in harm's way to escape his faithless wife?

Then Gerald March commits suicide after he is charged with making unwelcome advances to a woman. The very same night Iris seduces Napier Harpenden, a childhood friend and a rising star in the foreign office, who is to be married in three days. A sort of Greek chorus of the narrator and two older friends, the Tory Guy de Travest and the Liberal Hilary Townshend, take against Iris at this point -- she has gone too far. Napier and his fiancée, Venice, get married, and Iris goes to France. Nine months later, the narrator is in France and chances to find Iris in a hospital, recovering from septic fever occasioned by the stillbirth of her child by Napier. Iris has lost hope (this is her second failed pregnancy) and she will surely die unless she sees her lover again. Napier is also in France, on vacation with Venice, and he dodges Venice long enough to go to Iris's hospital room, which alerts Venice to the possibility of a relationship. Iris survives and agrees to forsake Napier.

But a few months later Iris is back in England, and she and Napier plan to run away together to South America. This causes considerable consternation among the mutual circle of friends involved, particularly as Venice is a much-liked young woman. Two further events drive the story to crisis. First a dinner party/swimming party, involving Napier, Venice, the narrator, Hilary, Guy, Iris, and one or two others, which ends with the group (not quite) skinny-dipping, and with Iris saving Venice from drowning ("Venice drowning" ... what an image, eh?). In the process Iris loses a treasured emerald. Then, the day before Napier and Iris are to leave, Iris agrees to meet with Napier's father, Sir Maurice Harpenden. Sir Maurice emerges has the true villain of the story. We learn the real truth about the past of Gerald, Iris, Boy, and Napier: they were all fast friends as children. Gerald hero-worshipped Boy (there is a definite hint of a homosexual crush there, though nothing is explicit), while Iris and Napier were best friends who decided they were in love. At 18 or so, Iris and Napier decided to marry, but Sir Maurice, convinced that the impoverished and decadent March family was not a good match for his son, scotched the idea. Napier agreed to have no more to do with Iris. Gerald, infatuated with Boy, more or less pushed him on Iris, who in despair agreed to marry him. But on their wedding night, he confessed he had syphilis, and instead of infecting Iris, through himself out the window of their hotel to his death. Selflessly, to protect Boy's good name, Iris allowed it to be known he killed himself "for purity!" -- technically a true statement, as he was surely impure, but something that forever dashed Iris's reputation, as all society assumed she was the impure one. Then followed her rackety career, including the marriage to Hector Storm that effectively ended when she cried Napier's name in a fit of passion.

Sir Maurice is to an extent repentant, but Iris gets the notion that Venice might be pregnant. She decides that after all it would be horrible for her to ruin Venice's life, especially if a child is involved, and she rushes out to her beloved yellow Hispano Suiza, and drives madly off into the night, and purposely crashes into her and Napier's favorite tree from childhood, which they called Harrod's, killing herself. (It is hinted that Napier does not divorce Venice but still leaves her, heading for India to throw himself into work.)


  1. A good start!

    Have you read William Saroyan's "Seventy Thousand Assyrians" yet? An early self-conscious example of, simultaneously, both the Anxiety of Influence and not so much.

    Among film buffs, Arlen might be best remembered as the creator of the Falcon, who fit rather comfortably between the Saint and the Hammett and Chandler fact, one Falcon film was based on Farewell, My Lovely...and Leslie Charteris has Simon Templar mock "the Falcon" as a cheap imitation of himself in one of the Saint stories...a bit like Sherlock Holmes cracking wise about Solar Pons.

    1. Hey, Todd, sorry for not replying for so long. I haven't ready the Saroyan book. I think the only thing of his I've read is MY NAME IS ARAM.

      Saroyan another Armenian, of course ...

    2. You should read the Saroyan story, at the link or otherwise, wherein their mutual ancestry is part of the matter of the tale...

  2. Oh, and the younger Michael Arlen did some solid work as a television critic, even if I'd still read Harlan Ellison first (but Arlen vastly ahead of Tom Shales).

  3. I have tried twice to read this novel, to no avail. No one acts, thinks, talks, or responds like the narrator, and the pseudo-poetically expressed account of her doings that Iris March spews to him is pretentious twaddle. I love the period (the 1920's), but "the Green Hat" doesn't seem grounded in that time or, to my way of thinking, any time. It's blather dressed up as profundity and/or cynicism, each undercutting the other. I say it's spinach and the hell with it.

    1. I think that's a completely reasonable response to it! (As I wrote: "The major problem is that the character motivations never really convince. They are given dramatic gestures to make, and I just didn't believe in them. We are told that the characters have certain features -- but we aren't shown them, and so they don't come alive. (Not even Iris Storm, though she comes closer to being fascinating than any of the men.) I'm not surprised that it was a bestseller, and I do think it reads rather better today than many bestsellers of its time, but it is ultimately slight and artificial. But I'm glad I read it.)"

      I'll only add that I have a fascination with popular fiction of that era, and even the failures can entertain me.