Robert (Smythe) Hichens Essay - Critical Essays

Hichens, Robert (Smythe)


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.

Principal Works

The Coastguard's Secret (novel) 1886

The Green Carnation (novel) 1894

An Imaginative Man (novel) 1895

The Folly of Eustace, and Other Stories (short stories) 1896

Flames: A London Phantasy (novel) 1897

The Londoners: An Absurdity (novel) 1898

The Slave (novel) 1899

Tongues of Conscience (short stories) 1900

Felix: Three Years of a Life (novel) 1902

The Garden of Allah (novel) 1904

The Woman with the Fan (novel) 1904

The Black Spaniel, and Other Stories (short stories) 1905

The Call of the Blood (novel) 1906

A Spirit in Prison (novel) 1908

Bella Donna (novel) 1909

The Dweller on the Threshold (novel) 1911

The Fruitful Vine (novel) 1911

Mrs. Marden (novel) 1919

Snake-Bite, and Other Stories (short stories) 1919

After the Verdict (novel) 1924

Dr. Artz (novel) 1929

The Paradine Case (novel) 1933

The Gardenia, and Other Stories (short stories) 1934

The Power to Kill (novel) 1934

The Afterglow, and Other Stories (short stories) 1935

The Sixth of October (novel) 1936

Daniel Airlie (novel) 1937

The Journey Up (novel) 1938

Secret Information (novel) 1938

That Which Is Hidden (novel) 1939

The Million: An Entertainment (novel) 1940

Married or Unmarried (novel) 1941

A New Way of Life (novel) 1942

Too Much Love of Living (novel) 1947

Yesterday: The Autobiography of Robert Hichens (autobiography) 1947

Nightbound (novel) 1951


Frederic Taber Cooper (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: "Robert Hichens," in Some English Story Tellers: A Book of the Younger Novelists, Henry Holt and Company, 1912, pp. 342-75.

[An American educator, biographer, and editor, Cooper served for many years as literary critic at the Bookman, a popular early twentieth-century literary magazine. In the following essay, he surveys Hichens's early works, from The Green Carnation to The Fruitful Vine, commenting on his themes, style, and development as a writer.]

It is almost a score of years since Mr. Robert Hichens first sprang into local notoriety through The Green Carnation, which set all London buzzing hotly anent the identity of its bold...

(The entire section is 7967 words.)

Harold Williams (essay date 1918)

SOURCE: "The Contemporary Novel," in Modern English Writers: Being a Study of Imaginative Literature, 1890-1914, Sidgwick & Jackson, Limited, 1919, pp. 355-416.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in 1918, Williams provides an overview of Hichens's novels in which he judges their relative strengths and weaknesses.] There are aspects in which the novels of Mr. Robert Hichens are not unlike those of Mr. Conrad. He combines elements of romance, of realism, and the study of motives, causes and mental phenomena. When a young man he came to London to become a student of the Royal College of Music; but by a happy inspiration he chose the moment when the aesthetic...

(The entire section is 1393 words.)

Abel Chevalley (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: "Development of the English Novel during the Past Thirty Years," in The Modern English Novel, translated by Ben Ray Redman, Alfred A. Knopf, 1925, pp. 117-34.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in French in 1921, Chevalley contends that Hichens's later works did not fulfill the promise of his earlier writings.]

Why has [Robert Hichens] not given us all that he promised? It seems that he has lost himself in an excess of analysis, in a vain effort to attain the inaccessible, which may perhaps be explained by his musical education and his essays in occultism.

In 1894 he published The Green Carnation, a cutting satire...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Lacon (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "Mr. Robert Smythe Hichens," in Lectures to Living Authors, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925, pp. 93-9.

[In the following essay, Lacon writes in the form of a lecture to Hichens on the overall course of his career.]

There was once a singular institution called, somewhat grandiloquently, the London School of Journalism. I gather from the public press that schools purporting to teach the art of writing, journalistic or other, flourish even in the present day: there may even, by now, be another bearing the same title. They arise, and fade, and rise again. And there is, I suppose, a certain part of the journalistic trade that can actually be taught—given a teacher...

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St. John Adcock (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: "Robert Hichens," in The Glory That Was Grub Street: Impressions of Contemporary Authors, The Musson Book Company Limited, n.d., pp. 105-14.

[An English author whose works often concern the city of London, Adcock served as editor of the London Bookman from 1923 until his death in 1930. In the following essay, he focuses on Hichens's literary beginnings and his novel The Garden of Allah.]

There is a tradition that every novelist began as a writer of verse, and if Robert Hichens did not exactly conform to it, he did not altogether break with it, for in his youth he wrote both verse and prose, but without regarding either as the business of his life. His...

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Further Reading


Payne, William Morton. Review of The Green Carnation, by Robert Hichens. The Dial XVII, No. 201 (1 November 1894): 266-67.

Maintains that the popularity of The Green Carnation will be short-lived.

Priestley, J. B. Review of After the Verdict, by Robert Hichens. The London Mercury X, No. 59 (September 1924): 541.

Judges After the Verdict to be unrealistic.

Review of The Garden of Allah, by Robert Hichens. Punch (26 October 1904): 306.

Maintains that the appeal of The Garden of Allah lies in its character development rather than in its...

(The entire section is 150 words.)