Leanne Waters submitted her doctoral thesis in September 2018 to the UCD School of English, Drama and Film. Her project, Melodrama and Religious Affect in Bestselling British Fiction, c.1880-1910, was supervised by Prof. Nicholas Daly. Her chapter on ‘Christly Children, Affect, and Late-Victorian Fiction’ is forthcoming in The Figure of Christ in the Long Nineteenth Century(Palgrave 2018). In the coming year, she will be rewriting her doctoral thesis as a monograph for publication under the mentorship of Prof. Darryl Jones at Trinity College Dublin.
In this blog post, I want to talk to you about a turn-of-the-century novel that became a global, theatrical sensation at the beginning of the twentieth century, and which was then adapted for film in the 1930s and starred some of the most famous actors of their time. The story I’m talking about is The Garden of Allah. However, few – if any – people today will have heard of it. That’s because, despite its tremendous sales as a book, its massive returns as a play, and its all-star cast as a film, The Garden of Allahhas been largely forgotten. I’ll be talking a little bit about why this story has fallen out of remembrance, but for the most part, what I’d like to focus on is what I’m calling the ‘nested voices’ of The Garden of Allah: those fictional characters and real-life contributors who, on the one hand, helped make The Garden of Allahthe sensation that it was, but who, on the other hand, we’ve failed to remember (or properly analyse) as historical and literary scholars. I’ll start by telling you a little more about the novel and its stage adaptation, and then I want to turn our attention to the place of silence as it relates to the evolution of this once-beloved story.
The Garden of Allah: A Brief History
The Garden of Allah was first published in 1904 by the British author, Robert S. Hichens. It’s a desert-adventure story that follows the brave but bereft Englishwoman, Domini Enfilden. After the death of her father, Lord Rens, Domini travels to Beni-Mora, a hinterland town of the Sahara Desert. While there, Domini falls in love with the mysterious, lone traveller Boris Androvsky, finds God, and immerses herself in African and Islamic cultures. Stylistically, it’s the stuff of pure melodrama.
While it’s difficult to ascertain exact sales figures for The Garden of Allah, the University of Virginia’s 20th-Century American Bestsellersdatabase ranks Hichens’ novel as the third bestselling book in America in 1905 (Unsworth 2016). And its global and enduring success is documented in a number of surveys. Clive Bloom, for example, includes Hichens and The Garden of Allahin his compilation of bestselling authors since 1900, alongside other prominent writers of the time such as Florence Barclay, Hall Caine, Marie Corelli, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Baroness Orczy, to name a few (Bloom 2008). Equally, Peter Keating (1991) situates The Garden of Allahwithin a paradigm of “escapist” bestsellers that had “a shared sense of fundamental assumptions and values”, and which included such popular novels as Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zendafrom 1894, George du Maurier’s Trilby from the same year,and Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan from 1895.
To give you a measure of what made a bestseller at this time, Philip Waller (2006) tells us that a novel selling 5,000 copies or more was considered a successful book, and a novel selling 10,000 or more was deemed a publishing triumph. The authors I’ve mentioned, among whom Hichens is so often ranked, sold novels in the hundreds of thousandsin their own time, and continued sales up to the present have brought them to around the million mark in some cases. So, when I call The Garden of Allaha bestseller, I’m talking ‘Dan Brown’ and ‘Stephen King’ here.
Waller condenses the popularity of The Garden of Allah’s over a forty-three-year period, and his summary of its publication history gives us a good sense of The Garden of Allah’s tremendous reach:
though American interest in The Garden of Allahwas massive, the book was also a huge best-seller in Britain. […] when the first illustrated edition appeared in 1914, that was the twenty-fourth altogether. And these were all at standard price: a cheaper edition (the thirtieth) was held back until 1920, to ride the stage-play wave. In addition, two silent movies were based on it, in 1916 and 1927, and a third in Technicolor in 1936 by David O. Selznick, starring Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer.
The stage adaption to which Waller briefly refers was brought to the stage by Liebler & Co. and the American producer, George C. Tyler. Hichens co-scripted the play with the equally-forgotten Mary Anderson de Navarro. It opened at the Century Theatre in New York on the 21stof October 1911 and was an unprecedented success. Financially, it broke box-office records and returned a significant sum of money to those involved. Sadly, the play has never been anthologised and so we can only access the playscript through archival collections. One manuscript can be found in the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library. I was lucky enough to visit those archives this year for my own research, but the manuscript includes substantial sections have been redacted, corrected and reworked by hand. I’m hoping to remedy the play’s unremembered status and anthologise it properly at some point in the future.
So, that’s the evolution of this story as far as the early twentieth-century stage. Now that we’ve established all that, I want to look briefly at some of the issues at stake within that evolution: namely, the issue of silence. I’ve promised to look at ‘nested voices’ and by this I mean that I want to think about how, textually and extratextually, The Garden of Allah’s development as a story is a layered and multivocal one. Like a Russian doll, embedded within its history are countless voices that have remained unheard, but which ought to be considered major components in our overall understanding. I’ve already touched upon the ways in which the once world-famous Hichens and the novel itself have been silenced extratextually, insofar as they have been consigned to the margins of literary and theatrical history. And of course this is despite – as I’ve mentioned – the novel’s almost unprecedented sales and multiple editions, the play’s box-office records across America and in New York specifically, and the early film adaptations of the novel in the twentieth century.
While we can only speculate as to why such prevalent stories drop out of cultural consciousness, some explanations may be found in the emergence of new literary modes during and after the first World War. For example, Modernist aesthetics, which dominated cultural production (in art, literature, and philosophy) throughout the twentieth century, rejected the literary excesses, sensationalism, moral polarity, and overt sentimentalism of melodrama, a mode in which The Garden of Allah is deeply grounded. Such new literature helped to deepen the already well-established divide between ‘high’- and ‘low’-brow literature. Additionally, as a result of early twentieth-century technological advancements, religious bestsellers had to compete with entirely new modes of entertainment. As Andrew McCann (2014) has argued – building on the work of Nicholas Daly of Friedrich Kittler – popular fiction at the turn of the century was “about to be eclipsed by the cinema”. And so “Late Victorian popular fiction is caught in this strange historical cleft. Its claim to popularity […] will be the very thing that guarantees its obsolescence”.
Indeed, in the case of The Garden of Allah, the 1936 film starring Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer has become far more famous than the original novel. And we see this with other prominent bestsellers at the end of the nineteenth century, as in the case of Ben-Hur: an 1880 novel by Lew Wallace that has been eclipsed by its 1959 film adaptation starring Charlton Heston. This shift in public consumption from the popular novel to the popular film also speaks to the fact that it is individual texts and authors, not genres, that are often forgotten. For example, Bloom suggests that there are much broader reasons for the later decline, which have more to do with “changing morality” in general. He writes:
times also change and publishing, like all else, had to reinvent itself to sell essentially the same product (even if the individual authors become forgotten). […] Works that had sold in the tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands could not be sold in hundreds by the 1920s and had to be pulped. Readers’ sensibilities shifted in ways that often anticipated a publisher’s faith in an individual author or series but rarely disturbed the established nature of a market for a series. Genres were, and still are, rapidly modernised or ‘reinvented’ whilst authors once central to such genres are forgotten.
Bloom’s argument is reflected in the legacy of religious bestsellers. Although many popular, religious authorslike Hichens have been forgotten over the course of the twentieth century, the presence of popular religious fictionhas never waned. This is particularly true of American religious fiction, which has dominated bestseller lists internationally since the end of the nineteenth century – think, for example, of the Left Behind Series, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and of courseDan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Individual books may disappear, but genres flourish.
That said, we also find glaring silences within the novel itself. Set against the backdrop of the Sahara Desert, The Garden of Allah is replete with silences that, for the most part, are codified as moments of intense religious devotion. When our protagonist, Domini, visits the neglected church in the town of Beni-Mora, the novel stresses: “There was at this moment a sensation of deep joy within her. It grew in the silence of the church, and, as it grew, brought with it presently a growing consciousness of […] the scarce-realised thought of God” (Hichens 2001). This is just one of countless instances in this overtly Christian novel.
At other times, the text also subtly makes manifest the condition of silence as it relates to and is imposed upon marginalised characters within the novel’s broader context of turn-of-the-century colonisation. We see this in Hichens’ representation of the text’s Sand Diviner, for example. Amidst such a deeply Catholic text, the accepted wisdom of this unsettling desert nomad initially seems out of place. Hichens’ text is unequivocal about characterising the Diviner as a supernatural being of another order. Domini believes him to be a “spectral figure” of “the under-world – the world beneath the veil”, whose eyes blaze “with an intelligence that was demoniacal”, whose face suggests “to her formless phantoms of despair”, and whose form is “Made fantastic and unreal by the whirling sand grains” of the desert (Hichens 2001). In short, the Diviner is thoroughly othered.
His ability to speak with unseen forces is particularly poignant when we consider the Diviner’s otherwise limited speech in the novel. While of course he does speak, sometimes trying to entice Domini to have her fortune told, he does so mostly in French: “Venez, Madame, venez! […] Je la vois, je la vois. C’est là dans le sable” (Hichens 2001). In part, this is simply the result of France’s colonisation of northern Africa since the 1830s, but the Diviner’s limited English in a novel written by an English author and for an English readership does have greater significance when we consider it as part of the semiotics of melodrama. When the Diviner tries to warn Domini about Boris Androvsky and what he has seen of their future together in the desert, the text states:
from the shrouded group of desert men one started forward to the palanquin, throwing off his burnous and gesticulating with thin naked arms, as if about to commit some violent act. It was the sand-diviner. […] As the camel rose, he cried aloud some words in Arabic. Domini heard his voice, but could not understand the words. Laying his hands on the stuff of the palanquin he shouted again, then took away his hands and shook them above his head towards the desert, still staring at Domini with his fanatical eyes. The wind shrieked, the sand grains whirled in spirals about his body. (Hichens 2001)
Here, the Diviner is frustrated by his de factosilence, the fact that Domini cannot understand what he is saying. His violent, gesticulating arms, shaking hands, fanatical eyes, and sand-swept body act as his only signifiers. These gestures speak volumes, but nevertheless the Diviner effectively remains silenced. Equally, when practicing his occult powers, though the Sand Diviner speaks rapidly in Arabic, his prophecies must be translated to Domini (and the reader) by Count Anteoni, again silencing his ‘authentic’ tongue. He may have a great deal to tell, but he can never do so directly. The text makes his esoteric wisdom all the more inaccessible by placing a language barrier between the reader and the secrets he has to tell. Moreover, that same scene is delineated by silence: the Sand Diviner bends over his sand patterns and stares “at them in silence for a long time”, and though at first the silence seems “unnaturally intense” to Domini, eventually she comes to understand its necessity: “She no longer wished that Larbi was playing upon his flute or felt the silence to be unnatural. For this man had filled it with the roar of the desert wind. And in the wind there struggled and was finally lost the sound of voices” (Hichens 2001).
The Diviner operates in The Garden of Allahas a kind of melodramatic mute, often an inherently foiled sage who has much to say and limited means of articulation. The Diviner’s entire enterprise is expressionistic, despite his textual silencing. As a Diviner, his objective is revelation, to tell the secrets of the future, and when words fail him, those hidden realities attempt to declare themselves extra-linguistically, and are expressedon the Diviner’s body. This accounts for the Diviner’s sickly and often grotesque appearance: hisunhealthy appearance – to follow the thinking of Peter Brooks (1995) – is an outward, corporeal manifestation of the moral and emotional crisis of the novel, which only the Diviner can see. The future is not only written in the sands, but affectively and gesturally – in the gaps of language proper and on the body of the seer, who is unable to fully and effectively communicate the hidden truths of the unseen, cosmic order.
These silences are particularly curious, given their context. The Garden of Allahis, stylistically, melodramatic – meaning that it relies on such narrative strategies as overstatement, excess, and verbal hyperbole. To silence such a powerful character as the Sand Diviner within melodramatic stylistics, is to invert the expected focus of the story. Paradoxically for melodrama, in The Garden of Allah,what is not said becomes more significant than what is said. Equally, the 1911 stage adaptation was produced on the back of countless voices that have been long since forgotten. In part, some of these creative participants orchestrated their own anonymity, such as Mary Anderson de Navarro, who coscripted the play with Hichens, but who featured on programmes only as ‘a collaborator’, and who insisted on anonymity during the play’s first season. In other instances, participants were actively silenced, such as the play’s Moroccan cast members, who, like its ‘real foliage’ and ‘live animals’, functioned as mere scenic effects. Indeed, in an interview with the New-York Tribune, lessee and director George C. Tyler, amplified the play’s aura of mystery and silence, commenting, “To obtain the contract I had to swear not to tell”. Indeed, so much of The Garden of Allah’s evolution appears to rely on ‘not telling’. Countless unheard voices are hidden in the fabric of the novel, the production of the play, and the forgotten legacy of Hichens. These include: the voice of the divine, as conceived in the early twentieth century; African voices that have been both appropriated and othered during the height of Imperialism (like the Sand Diviner); the voices of largely forgotten contributors (like Mary Anderson de Navarro); and the voices of those were actively silenced in real life in order for The Garden of Allahto entertain, without ‘shocking’ its audiences. Alhough there’s so much more to say about The Garden of Allahin terms of literary analysis, as well as theatrical and cinematic history, my main goal today has been fairly simple: to recuperate the artistic renditions of the narrative, as well as the many voices that got lost in its evolution, and to introduce them to an academic audience. But I hope along the way, I’ve hit on some more complex issues that are relevant to cultural studies: on the one hand, the complex evolution of The Garden of Allah, and the irony of forgetting such a narrative; and on the other hand, centrality of silence (even) in a mode as traditionally expressive as melodrama.
Bloom, Clive. Bestsellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900, 2ndedition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess,Yale University Press, 1995.
Hichens, Robert. The Garden of Allah, Fredonia Books, 2001.
Keating, Peter. The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914, Fontana Press, 1991.
McCann, Andrew. Popular Literature, Authorship and the Occult in Late Victorian Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Unsworth, John M. “1905: Fiction”, 20th-Century American Bestsellers, University of Virginia, 2016, http://bestsellers.lib.virginia.edu/decade/1900.
Waller, Philip. Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870-1918,Oxford University Press, 2006.