Green Carnation

Green Carnation

The Green Carnation, is closely linked with the famous playwright and well-known Victorian poet and playwright Oscar Wilde.

first published anonymously in 1894, was a novel by Robert Hichens with scandalous effects. The lead characters were closely based on Oscar Wilde and his then lover Lord Alfred Douglas – also known as “Bosie”. Despite being quite scandalous for the time, due to the themes of gay love, the novel was an instant success in the U.K.

In 1892, Wilde had one of the actors in Lady Windermere’s Fan wear a green carnation on opening night and told a dozen of his young followers to wear them too. Soon the carnation became an emblem of Wilde and his group—no doubt aided by his having scandalized critics after the play by appearing on stage smoking a cigarette! Indeed, an amusing parody of Wilde was published in 1894 called The Green Carnation—and which the horrified author withdrew from publication during the Wilde trial because he felt it had helped bring Oscar down.

The long answer is more complicated. What, if anything, did the green carnation mean? On this question, Wilde was less than helpful. When asked by one of his followers, he replied, “Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess.”

But as scholars have noted, Wilde was almost certainly being coy. In fact, he gave a hint as to its meaning in the same conversation, telling his follower that he should get one at Goodyear’s (a famous flower shop in London) because “they grow them there.” As anyone who knew the Decadent Movement would see, Wilde was playing with one of his favorite ideas: that nature should imitate art, and not the reverse. In that sense, then, the green carnation was symbolic. A flower of an unnatural color embodied the decadent and the unnatural.

Did it, however, embody something more—namely “unnatural” love? Certainly that is a possibility. It is the first thing most people would have thought of if they had heard the word “unnatural” at the time, and the claim is often made that the green carnation was fashionable among “inverts” (as gays were then called) in Paris, with Wilde having simply imported the fashion to London. In addition, early sexologists tell us that green is supposedly the “invert’s” favorite color.

Yet that is as close to evidence as we will get; there simply is no direct link between the flower and sexuality. Instead, like so many things from gay history—particularly from periods where same-sex love was illegal and dangerous—the green carnation merely hints at homosexuality.

For Oscar Wilde Tours that hint of homosexuality from a distant past is significant. Gays in Wilde’s time could not be open in the way we are today. That is why we have to hunt for clues about their lives—in art, in literature and in symbols that made up a kind of private language. In choosing the green carnation as our symbol, we are acknowledging that past and those languages. And besides, it simply looks fabulous…

It is

The reviewer for The Observer wrote, “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 book features the characters of “Esmé Amarinth” (Wilde), and “Lord Reginald (Reggie) Hastings” (Douglas). The words put in the mouths of the hero and his young friend in the story are mostly gathered from the sayings of their originals. Robert Hichens spent nearly a year “in the company of the men” and was able to accurately recreate the atmosphere and relationship between Oscar and Bosie.

The book was withdrawn from circulation in 1895, but by that time the damage had been done. Wilde soon stood two consecutive trials for gross indecency and was sentenced to two years at hard labour. The Green Carnation was one of the works used against him by the prosecution.

The Green Carnation was republished in 1948 with an introduction by the author, which also included Wilde’s letter to The Pall Mall Gazette, 2 October 1894, denying he was the anonymous author. It was reissued in paperback in this form in 1992, and republished again in 2006 as a hardcover with a foreword by Anthony Wynn.

In the letter Wilde wrote:

Sir. 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 newspapers, 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.[1]