The Green Hat by Michael Arlen
When I cast my eye over the initial list of possible reads from 1924, the first title that jumped out at me was “The Green Hat” by Michael Arlen. It’s been lurking on Mount TBR for ages and seemed initially the ideal read for the 1924 Club. The twenties were, of course, a period of notorious decadence and indulgence and the blurb for this book read like it was the quintessential read. Michael Arlen was a fascinating character – Armenian by birth, he moved with his family to London in 1901; in 1913 he moved to London and embarked on a writing career. He seemed to fit in very well with the zeitgeist of the age and was often seen dashing around London in a posh car.
However, oddly enough I nearly stalled with “The Green Hat”. I picked it up after being knocked out by Colette’s short stories and I wasn’t sure I really felt like reading something so frivolous. And the initial pages were somehow very hard to read – I struggled on thinking I would have to give up on the book, until I looked at some online reviews which said how the book *was* hard to read at the beginning, so I persevered – and I’m really, really glad I did.
Our unnamed narrator introduces us to the main character in the book – Iris Storm, the wearer of the green hat and a woman of some fascination. Iris’s twin brother is known to the narrator (they live in the same building in Shepherd’s Market in London, at the time a haunt of writers such as Anthony Powell and Arlen himself); and Iris is on a fleeting visit to see her estranged sibling who’s sunk into alcoholism. The narrator is transfixed by Iris and the introductory chapter covers their first night-time meeting. As the book progresses we learn all about Iris Storm and her (indeed very stormy!) life – there is a significant back story, previous husbands, scandals and shocks. Iris is very much a scarlet woman, someone who’s betrayed her class and is considered something of an outcast. But we are in post-WW1 Europe and all the old certainties are crumbling. As Iris proceeds through a number of crises, her ultimate fate might indeed seem inevitable as she tries to grasp happiness against all the odds.
I sat there in that deep armchair, subdued by the thought of the awful helplessness of men and women to understand one another, and of the terrible thing it would be for some of them if every they did understand one another, and how many opportunities the devil is always being given to making plunder out of decent people.
Describing the plot of “The Green Hat” is in some ways irrelevant as although there is a plot, the narrative unfolds in a less than straightforward way. When I picked up the book, I expected a light, frothy Jazz age romance, which I wasn’t quite sure I was in the mood for; but what I got was something completely different. Much of what happens to Iris happens off-camera, in a series of set pieces, and we learn about it indirectly from the narrator. However, while he’s telling us about Iris’s life, he also manages to paint a devastating picture of a damaged, post-War generation.
Everything that happens in The Green Hat seems to be informed by WW1 and its after-effects. Not only has that conflict destroyed a whole group, it’s also undermined the social structure and way of life of the country. The cracks in the veneer are visible in the older generation, as they observe the younger partying its way to oblivion; and the mores and standards of the castes are being challenged constantly. Iris’s own behaviour is regarded as outrageous, as she’s stepped outside the boundaries of women of her class, and yet she purports not to care. How much she is really damaged by what people think of her is open to interpretation – certainly she regards her ancestral line as cursed and doomed. There are many subtle hints and themes that I think would come out on a second reading: the fact that many events take place at night; the recurring use of green (the hat, an emerald ring Iris always wears); and the book is more complex than might seem at first, demanding a further look. It also touches on quite deep issues: pre-marital sex, venereal disease, homosexuality and divorce.
You talk to me of your England. I despise your England, I despise the us that is us. We are shams with patrician minds and peasant faces… To me, a world which thinks of itself in terms of puny, squalid, bickering little nations and not as one glorious field for the crusade of mankind is a world in which to succeed is the highest indignity that can befall a good man.
Iris herself, though the central character, is an elusive figure and we see her more through the effect she has on others than directly. This oblique approach is convincing, imbuing her with a kind of glamour and mystery, and she almost exists only in relation to other people and not in her own right. It’s clear that Iris is judged by others for a number of reasons: she’s betrayed her class; she’s indiscreet; but most pertinently because she’s a woman and the most ridiculous double standards apply. Alas, not much has changed, has it?
“The Green Hat” builds inexorably to a dramatic climax, and I came out of it stunned and a little bit breathless. Yes, the book and the characters are sometimes a little melodramatic, but oh! the writing! Arlen’s prose is just wonderful – poetic, hypnotic and incredibly evocative, he captures place, mood and ambience perfectly. You feel as if you’ve been in nocturnal Paris or London, swimming in the river on a hot, dark summer’s night or driving madly alongside Iris.
Paris rises in a cloud of chill darkness, the rain falls like whips of ice, the street-lamps loiter on vague, bitter errands, confused strings of light, a stealthy idiot wind glories in being corrupted by corners. the platforms of the omnibuses are packed tight with small men whose overcoats are too short for them, the brims of their felt hats too narrow, their trousers turned up too high, their eyes too dark, their faces too pale. The jargon of the traffic on the rue de Rivoli, as it squabbles for every step between the deserted pavement beneath the railings of the Tuileries and the reeking pavement under the long archway lit by imprudent shop-lights falling on imitation jewellery, is multiplied an hundred-fold by the shrewish air into a noise that hurts like warm water on a chill hand.
In some ways, I was a little apprehensive about reading “The Green Hat”; I’d read that Iris was based on Idina Sackville, ‘The Bolter’ (I reviewed a book about her here), and I hadn’t taken to Idina at all. However, this novel helped me relate to the characters of the 1920s much more strongly, and I gained a real sense of how that post-War generation suffered and reacted from what was a devastating and destructive conflict. The madness, the selfishness, the desperation and the search for happiness at all costs become much more understandable in this context. But as well as giving me this new understanding, “The Green Hat” was a wonderful, wonderful read; unusually but poetically written, absorbing and involving, and quite impossible to forget. 1924 really *was* a year that produced some amazing books!