Robert (Smythe) Hichens Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Robert (Smythe) Hichens 1864-1950

English novelist, short story and nonfiction writer, dramatist, poet, screenwriter, and autobiographer.

Primarily known for his novels, Hichens is frequently described as a writer who failed to fulfill his early promise. He devoted himself to his craft for over sixty years, composing more than forty novels, numerous short stories, and several plays, but his greatest triumphs appeared during the first decade of his career. He initially achieved fame with The Green Carnation, a satire on the Aesthetic Movement that caused a sensation in England. Ten years later he published his most critically acclaimed and popular work, The Garden of Allah, a romance set in Northern Africa that sold nearly a million copies and was adapted for both stage and screen. During the remainder of Hichens's career, he continued to experiment with subject matter, producing social satires, romance novels, supernatural and occult fiction, and detective stories. While a few of these works were quite popular, for the most part they enjoyed only modest success.

Biographical Information

Born in Speldhurst, Kent, Hichens decided at an early age that he wanted to be a musical composer. Although his father, a rector at a parish in Canterbury, hoped he would attend Oxford, Hichens instead entered Clifton College in Bristol, where he studied piano and organ, and he later enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London. Despite some success as a lyricist, Hichens became convinced that he did not have enough talent to become a distinguished musician. Still in his early twenties, he then decided to pursue his other great interest, writing. Hichens had been writing since he was in his teens, mostly short stories and poetry, but he had also composed three novels, one of which, The Coastguard's Secret, was accepted for publication on the condition that Hichens pay half the cost of producing it. After studying for a year at the London School of Journalism—his experiences there provided some of the material for the semiautobiographical novel Felix—Hichens began writing articles for newspapers and contributing stories to periodicals, including the Pall Mall Magazine. He originally sent The Green Carnation to the Pall Mall Magazine for serialization, but the editor recommended it to a book publisher. A witty roman d clef that satirized fashionable London society and the figures associated with the Aesthetic Movement, notably Oscar Wilde, The Green Carnation was an immediate success that made Hichens a celebrity when it was learned he was the anonymous author. Shortly after the appearance of The Green Carnation, Hichens succeeded Bernard Shaw as music critic for the London World. He resigned from this position three years later and devoted the rest of his life to travel and writing. Hichens traveled extensively throughout Northern Africa, Egypt, Italy, Sicily, and the Orient, locales that figure prominently in his books. He also spent a great deal of time in Switzerland, where he was living at the time of his death in 1950.

Major Works

During the early part of his career, Hichens wrote three types of fiction: social satires on current fads in fashion and the arts; romance novels, many of which are studies of amoral or deviant behavior; and stories about supernatural and occult phenomena. Critics agree that his best works, with the exception of The Green Carnation, belong to the second category. The most memorable of these is The Garden of Allah, which describes the love affair between a lonely British spinster, Domini Enfilden, and a renegade Trappist monk, Boris Androvsky, who meet in a tourist town in Algeria and ultimately spend a passionate honeymoon in the North African desert. Hichens's portrayal of Androvsky's moral dilemma and his evocation of the desert landscape and its captivating effect on the two main characters proved enormously appealing to both readers and reviewers. Upon publication, The Garden of Allah went through five editions in just three months. It retained its popularity for some years afterward, as well; it was produced as a play in both New York (1911) and London (1920), and it was filmed three times. Hichens's other important works in this category, The Call of the Blood and its sequel, A Spirit in Prison, also treat the theme of forbidden love. In The Call of the Blood, which takes place in Sicily, a newly married Englishman, Maurice Delarey, has an affair with a peasant girl named Maddalena after his bride, Hermione, interrupts their honeymoon to visit a friend in England who is dying. Maurice is killed by Maddalena's father, but Hermione is led to believe that he drowned. A Spirit in Prison, set on an island in the Bay of Naples, concerns the friendship that develops between the daughter of Maurice and Hermione, Vere, and Maddalena's illegitimate son by Maurice, Ruffino. Criticism of The Call of the Blood and A Spirit in Prison echoed commentary on The Garden of Allah. Both novels were praised for their psychological insight, but critics were even more impressed by Hichens's depiction of local color, many of them finding his vivid pictorial descriptions more interesting than his narratives. Among the most noteworthy of Hichens's works dealing with occult and supernatural phenomena are the novels Flames and The Dweller on the Threshold, which explore such ideas as psychic influence, personality transference, and reincarnation, and the short stories "The Return of the Soul" (from The Folly of Eustace, and Other Stories), "How Love Came to Professor Guildea" (from Tongues of Conscience), and "The Black Spaniel," all of which concern reincarnation and the transmigration of souls between humans and animals. After the publication of A Spirit in Prison, Hichens divided his time between fiction and drama, but from the 1920s through the 1940s, he devoted most of his energy to the writing of novels, hoping to capitalize on the vogue for detective fiction. The best-selling The Paradine Case, which was made into a movie, is representative of Hichens's crime stories in its exploration of human psychology.

Critical Reception

Commentary on Hichens's works is scarce after the 1920s. Earlier critics, recognizing the talent displayed in The Green Carnation and The Garden of Allah, were puzzled by the mediocrity of most of his subsequent publications. By way of explanation, they cited his flagging sense of humor, growing obsession with detail, and increasing tendency to overanalyze. Although popular interest in Hichens's works was renewed when he began publishing detective novels, none of his crime stories rivaled the success of The Green Carnation or The Garden of Allah.