Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Case for Robert Hichens

Robert Smythe Hichens

Nearly forgotten today, but once one of the most popular and prolific authors of his time, Robert Hichens deserves to be rediscovered and celebrated. Unfortunately his name is overshadowed by another Robert Hichens who was the quartermaster on the Titanic and is still a figure of great controversy. On Wikipedia, the writer Hichens is now awkwardly called Robert Smythe Hichens to differentiate him from the other, although as far as I know he never used his middle name in any of his books.

He was born at Speldhurst, Kent, November 14, 1864, and educated at Tunbridge Wells and Clifton College, then became a student at the Royal College of Music, London. He was drawn, however, to journalism, and soon became the music critic of London World, replacing George Bernard Shaw. Hichens wrote his first novel The Coastguard’s Secret, at the age of seventeen. He followed this with approximately one novel a year, many of them quite popular. His style was slightly purple, as far as the prose, but his themes captured the yearning on the part of his generation for adventure and psychological intrigue. He often wrote about people in extreme situations, on the brink of insanity or murder. His novel Bella Donna (1904), set in Egypt, was a compelling tale of a beautiful woman who poisons her husband to death. It was first made into a film starring Pola Negri, then remade in 1946 as Temptation with Merle Oberon.


Perhaps the quality of his work is not on the same level as other writers I’ve singled out here, including Patricia Highsmith (who also often wrote about murder) and Beverley Nichols who had a lot in common with him, but Robert Hichens had more success than any of them.

His book The Garden of Allah was a phenomenal bestseller in 1904 when it was published, and later turned into a theatrical extravaganza on Broadway and London. In 1919 it was staged at the Powers Theatre for three nights with a “company of 100 Arabs, Algerians, Armenians with their camels, horses, donkeys, goats and other livestock.” The tale was filmed numerous times, most notably in 1927 as a silent starring Alice Terry. David O. Selznick revived it in 1936 as a Technicolor vehicle for Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer. The novel was also the source name for the legendary Hollywood hotel, The Garden of Allah (Dietrich in fact had once lived there.)

Hichens’ specialty was the romantic melodrama, usually set in the Middle East, with exotic occult themes. Hichens had a passion for Egypt, and wrote an acclaimed book about its architecture and monuments with illustrations by Jules Guerin. Today the book is considered a collector’s item primarily for its evocative depictions of the Nile and atmospheric ruins. It has its odd revealing moments in captions such as “The half-naked workmen toiling and sweating in the sun.”


One of his most intriguing works is An Imaginative Man (1895), a tale of madness and dissolution in which a young man wracked with jealousy over another man kills himself by throwing himself off the Sphinx, dashing his brains against the ancient rocks surrounding it.

Hichens also wrote a classic tale “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” that some consider one of the finest supernatural short stories ever written. In later years, he turned to detective fiction, perhaps to reach a wider audience or to cash in on the vogue for mysteries. One of his best-known works was published in this period: The Paradine Case (1933), which reflects Hichens’ themes perfectly, as well as the man. It’s based in part on the murder of James Maybrick, the alleged author of the Jack the Ripper diary which was the subject of intense scrutiny a few years back. That proved to be a modern-day hoax; the ink used by its supposed author was found to have chemical components that had not existed in the 19th-century. But Maybrick, who had no connection to the later scam, was a fascinating character nonetheless. His wife, Florie, had been accused of poisoning him to death in 1889 with arsenic she’d removed from fly paper traps and then served to him in meat juice. Some believe she was falsely accused since Maybrick was already an arsenic addict. She was convicted nonetheless and sentenced to life imprisonment, although she was released in 1903, and wrote a book entitled Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years.

Hichens seized upon the love triangle that led to Maybrick’s murder for The Paradine Case, which was quickly snatched up by David O. Selznick and turned into a vehicle for the comeback of Greta Garbo. She decided, however, that she didn’t want to make her return to the screen as a murderess and the part was offered to Ingrid Bergman, who eventually decided against it. Alfred Hitchcock was hired to direct it as the last movie in his contract with Selznick. It proved to be one of the costliest he ever made, coming in at over $4 million and only taking in half that amount. It is now considered one of his flawed pictures, but retains a devoted fan base. I, for one, think it is one of his best because it does not rely on showy stunts or elaborate scenery. It takes place almost entirely in a courtroom and relies on brilliant camera work to create suspense.

Selznick insisted on casting his new discovery Alida Valli, above, a sultry Italian beauty whom he was grooming as the next Garbo. Hitchcock, who was fond of her, later said that she was too impassive and lacked enough fluency in English to put over the very talky script. Watching it again recently, I felt that the real problem in her performance was nerves. You can actually see her skin tremble in certain closeups. Gregory Peck, too, was miscast. While certainly a wonderful actor and a draw at the box office, he just doesn’t come across as an aristocratic English lawyer. Hitchcock had wanted Laurence Olivier. The picture was stolen by the always astonishing Ann Todd, and Ethel Barrymore, who won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Charles Laughton’s browbeaten wife.

While Hichens certainly was inspired by the notorious Maybrick case, he also used elements of an even more sensational trial, that of the wife of Prince Aly Kamel Fahmy Bey, who in 1922 fatally shot her husband at the Savoy Hotel. Marie-Marguerite Laurent had married the volatile Egyptian playboy and converted to Islam. He kept trying to subjugate her and forced her to perform unusual sexual practices. It came out during the trial that he had engaged so often in anal intercourse that she required an operation to repair the damage. It also came out that he was having a clandestine affair with his male secretary.

Scandal at the Savoy

The trial was a sensation. The defense painted the victim as an evil monster whose “Oriental” perversions were the real culprit. Laurent was acquitted. The homoerotic element is still apparent in the novel as the valet (called Latour in the film) is slavishly devoted to his master, the blind soldier. This relationship is further developed in the movie. Louis Jourdan, as Latour, is stunningly handsome, and Hitchcock made the most of his looks. He is played as a moody pretty boy who worshiped his master, almost to the point of obsession. The man driving the trap and pony which takes Gregory Peck to the manor house where Jourdan still lives pointedly refers to him as “a queer one”. While a common expression, the use of it here does not strike me as accidental. Selznick and his various writers (including Ben Hecht who doctored the script) wanted to emphasize the strange erotic tie Latour had to his blind superior.

Louis Jourdan: villainous valet

Alida Valli, too, reflects the aura of the Fahmy case. She is the Continental femme fatale. At first she appears to be falsely accused. A mere innocent. But as the film progresses, one begins to question her part in the murder. Was she envious of Latour’s close ties to her husband? Did she kill her husband out of spite, in a jealous rage? By the end she has more in common with the murderess Marie-Marguerite Laurent than Mrs. Maybrick. Gregory Peck even says to her at one point, “When this is all over, you’ll be lunching at the Savoy again.” Audiences seeing this film in 1947 when it was released, especially in London, would surely have remembered the notorious case on which it was based and would have laughed at this telling line.

Hitchcock apparently had his own reasons for being drawn to The Paradine Case. In his youth he had known a beautiful girl named Edith Thompson, who had been convicted of conspiring with her boyfriend Frederick Bywaters in murdering her husband, Percy. It was a case which fascinated him and might have been instrumental in many of the themes he explored in his films. She was executed for the crime…by hanging.

Edith Thompson: convicted killer

Latent homosexual themes were not unusual in Robert Hichens’s novels. One of his finest works was a sensational satire that came out in 1894 entitled The Green Carnation. Dealing with the decadent aesthetic movement in London society, it was a thinly disguised roman à clef based on Oscar Wilde and his relationship with the much younger Lord Alfred Douglas. The book was subtle but pulled few punches. In describing the circle of men who sported green carnations in their lapels in deference to Esme Amarinth, the character obviously based on Wilde, Hichens writes: “All the men who wore them looked the same. They had the same walk, or rather waggle, the same coyly conscious expression, the same wavy motion of the head.”

The publisher, Heinemann, suggested that Hichens not use his name on the book. It was published anonymously. This led to speculation, just as the publisher intended, that it had been written by an insider in Wilde’s circle. Some accused Ada Leverson, “the Sphinx”, of having penned it. Others Reginald Turner, Wilde’s best friend. Still others openly accused Oscar Wilde of writing it to enhance his already scandalous reputation. Wilde guessed the authorship and sent Hichens a telegram warning him to skip town before he sought his revenge. It was a lampoon. But Wilde was annoyed enough that he sent a letter to the newspaper stating categorically that he could never have written a book that was so “middle class.” It was a pompous boast that underscores his arrogance and insecurity. He had already confessed to Ada that he thought the book was surprisingly clever.

Bosie and Oscar

It is clever. And wonderfully witty. Hichens had the “perfidy,” to use Bosie’s term, to steal his friends’ best lines and use them in the text. You can’t help when reading The Green Carnation to feel as if you are sitting right next to Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas at one of their intimate dinners. In fact, Hichens had gathered his material while on a trip up the Nile with E. F. Benson and Reggie Turner during which he met and befriended Douglas. Later in London he was introduced to Wilde and wrote down everything the man said to him. It all makes for a lively novel and one of the rare documents that truly captures the wit and charm of Wilde in his prime. 

Sadly, it was just a year later that Wilde was arrested and disgraced. Hichens, who perhaps felt that his book was contributing to Wilde’s scandal, asked his publisher to recall the novel from stores. It was not until 1949 that he consented to have it reprinted (below) by the Unicorn Press. Before doing so he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas and asked for his permission. It was a gracious act and Douglas gave his consent without any reservations. In the new edition, Hichens used his own name and wrote a revealing introduction that recounted how he had come to write it. The book was out of print for decades afterwards and only recently has been reprinted.

Despite these tidbits gleaned from his books, there is scant information about Hichens, the man. He never married. In 1947 he wrote his memoirs, Yesterday. But he was extremely discreet, even coy, about his personal life, which is not surprising when you consider what had happened to his friend Oscar Wilde. It seems obvious that he was indeed homosexual. Rupert Croft-Cooke, in his chatty biography of Bosie, calls Hichens an “intelligent queer.” Hichens made a great deal of money during his long career and lived in luxury in Switzerland and along the Mediterranean until his death at 85 in 1950. Details of his personal life are sparse. He seems to have had a long-standing friendship with the Swiss author John Knittel. 

Robert Hichens and his friend John Knittel.

So is it worth reading any of Hichens’ exotic romances today? I think so. One has to read them in the light of literary archeology. The themes are dated; the style antiquated. But they reflect the cunning of a clever wordsmith, and are sparkling touchstones that evoke the spirit of their times.