Another Roaring Twenties bestseller: Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat (1924)

Sylvia writes:

I found The Green Hat difficult to get into.  The first 30 to 40 pages seemed very slow but the pace then quckened until it reached a quite gripping denouement. It pays re-reading as there are several clues which it is easy to miss the first time round.

The character of Iris Storm is intriguing.  Although she has acquired the reputation as a “shameless, shameful” woman, she is actually a tragic figure: lonely, misunderstood, slandered and trying to forget the past – “I have lit many fires to quench one large fire.” (p.215)  Iris could be seen as a woman before her time.  In a man’s world she tries to play as a man – and loses tragically.   

The quality of the writing is patchy but Arlen has some very successful devices such as filling novel with the colour green.  Not only does the green hat appear at key points in the narrative but Iris also has a huge green emerald which is lost at a significant moment.  Green was all the rage when Arlen was writing the novel and he gives a delightful description of a woman in a London street who strode past the narrator “in a bright green wrap with a high sable collar, and moving frantically below were bright green shoes and bright green stockings that appalled the suave dignity of the evening light.” (p.53).   There are other green references – bright green walls and a bowl of green malachite in a nightclub (p.128), the dingy green velvet in a shop window (p.142).  There are some other successful descriptive passages such as the drive through the Paris night to the nursing home which itself is very powerfully evoked.

The novel is very much of its time.  It is set in Mayfair and Paris, is full of powerful cars and evening dress for dinner each night, gives a glimpse of the often tragic legacy of the First World War and an elliptical treatment of such issues as venereal disease whilst being written in a rather sardonic tone with some racist language.  Attitudes to extra-marital sex and divorce have changed immensely since the 1920s: “never to give way to what you want to do, if honour tells you that you may not do it” (p.190).

9 thoughts on “Another Roaring Twenties bestseller: Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat (1924)

  1. I have just started reading The Green Hat, as a companion to Crazy Pavements. It could not be more different! I am up to page 43, and it seems to me to be ponderous, pretentious and terribly serious. Oh dear. I hope Sylvia is right and I have reached that point where it perks up.

  2. I teach this in the US to undergraduates (upper-division English majors) and they find the first quarter of the book slow going. They generally warm up to it, and it’s a great book to teach alongside other “shameful” female characters, like those in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Maugham’s Cakes and Ale.

  3. The first part of the book rather reminded me of New Woman novels earlier in the century – the almost anthropological examination of a new kind of woman. It fascinates me that this book was a bestseller when to the modern reader it is so hard to get into. What did contemporary readers respond to that we don’t?

  4. I like your last comment Erica. Why is it so difficult to get into the minds of readers (people whom we regard as like us but a long time ago) and see the books they read through their eyes. Why was Edward Bulwer-Lytton so popular in the nineteenth century when you couldn’t pay somebody today to read his books?

  5. It is a question I have been pondering as I wade through The Green Hat. There’s a lot of unintelligible quasi-philosophical rambling – and this seems to be the point: it is saying something it believes to be important. Certainly as far as I know it is offering a new insight into a new kind of society, and like Crazy Pavements addresses the reader in a flattering way to suggest that we share in the sophistication of that world. I guess this is the appeal!

  6. Apparently the character of Iris Storm was based on Idina Sackville, “The Bolter” – so I think I will have to track down The Green Hat just to see how he portrays her!

  7. Pingback: Melodrama, Ethel M. Dell and ‘The Tosh Horse’ | Reading 1900-1950

  8. Pingback: May Fair by Michael Arlen (1925) | Reading 1900-1950

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