The Green Overcoat

I’m reading Hilaire Belloc’s novel The Green Overcoat (1912). The protagonist is a university don, “a tall, thin man, exceedingly shy and nervous, with weary, print-worn eyes.” Prof. Higginson’s career is meant to illustrate the fact that a single misdeed can lead to a whole train of transgressions, especially when he heaps one lie on top of another to cover up his absconding with a green overcoat on a rainy day. The scholar tells himself that he will return the item its rightful owner but never quite gets around to it, thus proving the adage about “good intentions.”

“The Professor of Psychology was a learned man, and his sense of reality was not always exact…. Now the Devil during all Professor Higginson’s life had had but trifling fun with him until that memorable moment” of taking the overcoat. This in turns leads to him being mistaken for the owner of said garment. He suffers abduction, commits a forgery in order to escape and  fabricates a psychic experience to explain his absence to the police and an overwrought housekeeper. In the end, the mystery is tactfully unraveled by the lawyer Charles Kirby while Higginson is punished by the very fame he illicitly sought in trying to promote his theories of “Subliminal Consciousness and the Functions Uncoordinated by Self-cognisant Co-ordination,” etc.

Belloc’s novels are light-hearted farces. I like to compare them to the works of P. G. Wodehouse, though they have much more of a “metaphysical edge.” What does metaphysics have to do with comic fiction? Well, it plays a huge role in the works of Cervantes and Dickens. For Belloc there is always the tension of good and evil, no matter how amusingly treated, and his social satire gives his tales an added dimension of human interest and hilarity. Certainly one can appreciate the lampooning of academic fraud that plagues us still.

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