April 24: On this day in 1891 Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published. The novel had originally appeared in Lippincot’s Monthly Magazine the previous summer, and caused an uproar for what one newspaper called “its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophizing, its contaminating trail of garish vulgarity.” In revising for book publication, Wilde toned down the decadent theme and some of the more overt homosexuality, but added prefatory comments which late-Victorian England found equally offensive, such as “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
W. H. Smith refused to carry the book, but it sold well, making Wilde the focus of even more debate and finger-pointing. This had his wife complaining that “Since Oscar wrote Dorian Gray no one will speak to us,” but her husband had long-perfected the art of contempt, and was impervious:
I think I may say without vanity — though I do not wish to appear to run vanity down — that of all men in England I am the one who requires least advertisement. I am tired to death of being advertised. I feel no thrill when I see my name in a paper…. I wrote this book entirely for my own pleasure…. Whether it becomes popular or not is a matter of absolute indifference to me.
But it was popular, and the popularity led to Wilde’s most famous and fatal attraction. Given Dorian Gray by a mutual friend, Lord Alfred Douglas claimed to have read it “fourteen times running,” and by June of 1891 he had contrived his first meeting with the author. By June of 1896 their relationship would have Wilde behind bars; by June of 1900 Wilde would be in the last months of disgrace, exile, and life, deserted by even Douglas (although a recent biography by Caspar Winterman disputes and defends Douglas’s behavior).
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.