The Picture of Dorian Gray

Morethan a century after its publication, Oscar Wilde’s novella The Picture of Dorian Gray is recognizedas one of the classics of English literature, a masterpiece of fin-de-siècle Aestheticism and in manyrespects a harbinger of the Modernist movement. Its current iconic status couldnot have been foreseen in 1890 when the story first appeared—simultaneously inBritain and the United States—in the pages of Lippincott’s Magazine. This review from London’s Daily Chronicle voiced the outrage ofmany:

Dulnessand dirt are the chief features of Lippincott’sthis month: The element that is unclean, though undeniably amusing, isfurnished by Mr. Oscar Wilde’s story of ThePicture of Dorian Gray. It is a tale spawned from the leprous literature ofthe French decadents—a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy withthe mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction—a gloating study of themental and physical corruption of a fresh, fair and golden youth, which mightbe fascinating but for its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, itstheatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophizings…. Mr.Wilde says the book has “a moral.” The “moral,” so far aswe can collect it, is that man’s chief end is to develop his nature to thefullest by “always searching for new sensations,” that when the soulgets sick the way to cure it is to deny the senses nothing.

“Unclean,” “corruption,””leprous,” “putrefaction,” and “French decadents”were of course all coded terms for “homosexuality”—a word that wouldnot enter the English language until two years later, and a concept that couldnot be openly discussed in a respectable newspaper of the time, nor mentionedin polite company; when Dorian Gray wasrevised for publication in book form a good portion of the material deemedunclean and leprous had to be removed. In fact, there had already beensubstantial cuts made in the Lippincott’sversion by its editor, J. M. Stoddart, a process over which the author, inaccordance with magazine protocol of the era, was given no control whatever. AndWilde and his subsequent editor would make further changes for the publicationof Dorian Gray in book form a yearlater, in 1891.

Strangely,considering the cult status The Pictureof Dorian Gray would eventually attain, Wilde’s original version has neverbeen published until now, more than one hundred and twenty years after theLippincott edition. It has been made available by Harvard’s Belknap Press in arichly annotated and illustrated volume edited by Nicholas Frankel. It is not often that a piece of seriousscholarship is accorded such deluxe treatment, and in this case it is a causefor real celebration, for Frankel has provided a wealth of supplementalmaterial and visual matter, as well as a “Textual Introduction” and aseries of notes that explain references and cultural context, help the readerunderstand the editing processes, and point out the passages that were singledout for deletion, such as this speech the portrait painter Basil Hallwardaddresses to Dorian:

“Itis quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a manshould ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman…. From themoment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence overme…. I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of everyone towhom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I waswith you.”

(This was a little strongeven for an era when “romantic friendships” between men wereacceptable, and in fact even the hero’s name, “Dorian”—”Greek”—wasmore than a bit suggestive.) Altogether, the revised 1891 manuscript thateventually appeared in book form encompassed a whole series of changes andomissions designed to alter and conventionalize the “moral,” such asit is, by heightening the beautiful Dorian’s monstrosity and thus rendering hima far less sympathetic character than he had appeared to be in the originaltypescript. Looking at the typescript, then, we find more comprehensible Wilde’soft-quoted statement on the book’s autobiographical elements: “BasilHallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian whatI would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”

Frankel has done much toplace Wilde and his novel within the context of their time—”a heatedatmosphere of hysteria and paranoia” about sexual “deviation.” The1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act was extended by Henry Labouchère, a radicalMember of Parliament, to include the criminalization of acts of “grossindecency” between men. (The Labouchère Amendment was not repealed until1956.) The vagueness of the amendment’s language—just what acts did “grossindecency” encompass, anyway?—caused fear amounting to paranoia among thehomosexual community; as Frankel writes, “The conditions had been createdfor a series of homosexual scandals that would rock London and increase thelevel of homophobia in British society.”  

The so-called ClevelandStreet Affair, which broke only months before Dorian Gray‘s first appearance, was the most spectacular of these,involving the infiltration and arrest of a ring of “rent boys” whoworked by day as telegraph messengers and by night as prostitutes out of abrothel in Cleveland Street. A number of aristocrats and prominent military menwere implicated; Lord Arthur Somerset, the Prince of Wales’ equerry, fled thecountry; a shadow was even cast on the name of the Prince’s elder son, thoughthat suspicion was subsequently proved groundless. “In the wake of theCleveland Street Scandal,” Frankel explains, “Wilde’s emphasis onDorian Gray’s youthfulness, or susceptibility to the ‘corruption’ of an olderaristocratic man (Lord Henry), is one of the features of the novel that mostoutraged reviewers.”

Nowadays,the knowledge of Wilde’s poignant subsequent history casts a shadow over Dorian Gray. Married since 1884 to abeauty, Constance Lloyd, Wilde had been secretly leading a homosexual life atleast since 1886 and probably much longer. (“The one charm of marriage,”Lord Henry quips in Dorian Gray, “isthat it makes a life of deception necessary for both parties.”) In 1889Wilde began courting a beautiful young poet named John Gray, the probable modelfor Dorian. (At least Gray himself believed this to be so, and the name wouldseem to be a clincher.) After the novel was published Wilde began hisdisastrous affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. His feud with his lover’s violentfather, the Marquess of Queensberry, resulted in one of the most famouslawsuits in history, Wilde’s eventual arrest on charges of sodomy, and hissentencing to two years’ hard labor. The most celebrated playwright and wit inEngland had become its most despised pariah. He never saw his two sons again;Constance changed their name, and hers, to “Holland,” and taught theboys “to forget that we had ever borne the name of Wilde and never tomention it to anyone.” After his release from prison Wilde went into exilein France, where he assumed the name “Sebastian Melmoth” and died, inpenury, in 1900. “I will never outlive the century,” he hadpredicted. “The English people would not stand for it.”

Whether the original textis actually “better” than the book version published in 1891 is amoot point. Some of Wilde’s original material may have been lost in the latter(even the word “mistress” was deemed unsuitable for publication atthat time, and the novel’s heterosexual material was censored as ruthlessly asits homosexual innuendos). But much was gained, too, in the expanded versionWilde prepared in 1891, with the brilliant Lord Henry being given somewonderful new material. This annotated version, though a treasure for scholarsand for anyone with a serious interest in Wilde, the 1890s, and Aestheticism,should serve as a supplement to the standard text rather than a replacement.