Thursday, June 17, 2010

Vintage Novels {The Green Hat}

The Green Hat was one of the best-selling novels of 1924 and, due to it's plot, caused a sensation, particularly in America, where some people were shocked by it and naturally told their friends about how shocking it was so that they could go out and read it's shame-making details too. The novel made Michael Arlen an instant literary celebrity for his portrayal of the Bright Young People set way before Evelyn Waugh and others became famous. Yet, given all of this popularity and notoriety, the book and it's author is now largely forgotten.

Set in 1922, the novel is told by an unnamed narrator beginning on the night that he meets the woman in the green hat (which is a very important detail given that no one else wears such an attention-seeking accessory in 1922). She is Iris Storm (isn't that just a marvellous name) who is a member of the upper-class and a wealthy widow, twice over, and only 29. Iris drives a bright yellow roadster everywhere, travels widely and rarely visits England. She is also notorious because her first husband killed himself on their wedding night "for purity" and she is now known as being a "fell woman". Iris meets the Narrator because he lives downstairs from her alcoholic twin brother, once a promising young novelist. Iris and the Narrator talk for hours in his flat and she quite obviously lets her emerald ring drop from her finger when she is vaguely telling him why she has so many affairs. The ring drop shows what kind of a woman she is at the beginning of the novel, which is quite different from who she is at the end (be warned, it's not a happy ending). The events which unfold are told by the Narrator over the next two years as he encounters Iris in London and Paris at important events in her life. Iris invites the Narrator along when something important is going to happen because he is an observer and he thinks that she feels that he understands her character and why she has deliberately chosen such a sad and lonely life.

I decided to read this novel because I had come across it's name and Michael Arlen's briefly in books about the Bright Young People. It's not my new favourite novel and I don't really like it. It's not funny at all, the writing is still a bit amatuerish with a lot of literary references for references sake and also the plot was quite predictable and just so terribly sad. However, it is an important book to read and that is because of Iris. Iris is a glimpse into the start of the Lost Generation. She does live life fast, drives fast and travels in great opulence seeking only pleasure, however she is still tied to Victorian notions because she is doing this in a quasi act of penance for a reason that is understandable but a bit silly. Iris is a very sympathetic character who's life has been decided by circumstances and who wears specific clothes and accessories in order to symbolize her character.

The Green Hat is still being printed and has been loosely adapted into A Woman of Affairs in 1928 with Garbo and Gilbert, but I do think it would make a very good BBC adaptation.

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