‘A Strange Idolatry’

Extract of a piece I wrote for Wordsworth Editions just before Christmas on The Picture of Dorian Gray…

In a news cycle that has just seen conservative commentators lose it over Harry Styles appearing on the cover of December’s Vogue wearing a Gucci evening dress under a tux, it feels in every way appropriate to celebrate Oscar Wilde’s beautiful androgyne, Dorian Gray – especially as the critical responses sound so similar. When Wilde toured America, for example, the clergyman T. W. Higginson published a high profile and much-reprinted article entitled ‘Unmanly Manhood’ in which he argued that the flamboyant author would ‘improperly influence’ the behaviour of both men and women. When The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared as a serial in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890 it caused a sensation, reviewers falling over themselves to denounce it as ‘unclean’, ‘effeminate’ and ‘contaminating’. It was ‘a poisonous book’ complained the Daily Chronicle, ‘the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.’ W.H. Smith withdrew every copy from its railway station bookstalls. Five years later, in Wilde’s disastrous legal action against the Marquess of Queensberry, Edward Carson QC conducted a savage cross-examination of the author based around his novel’s alleged ‘corrupting influence’ and ‘unnatural vice’. It was subsequently used as evidence by the prosecution in the first of Wilde’s two trials on the charge of ‘gross indecency’, which resulted in his imprisonment and early death. Last week, the alt-right political activist Candace Owen reacted with equal venom to a perceived threat to the social status quo, viewing Harry and his dress as a direct threat to western civilization and sparking a robust debate across social and mainstream media. ‘There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this,’ she tweeted, concluding ‘Bring back manly men.’ (John Wayne was mentioned.) Republican broadcaster Ben Shapiro agreed, replying to Owens: ‘The POINT of Styles doing this photo shoot is to feminize masculinity.’ Higginson, Carson, Queensbury and the legion of late-Victorian critics who found Wilde and his fin de siècle gothic fantasy so threatening would no doubt agree. The beautiful boys, meanwhile, look on and enigmatically smile…

The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s only novel, and its crisp, aphoristic dialogue heralds his famous social comedies just as the book’s underlying philosophy brings together his earlier critical work on aestheticism. It came about after Wilde dined with Arthur Conan Doyle, the Irish politician T.P. Gill, and the Lippincott’s editor John Marshall Stoddart in August 1889, at which Stoddart commissioned work from all three of his guests. (Conan Doyle’s contribution was The Sign of Four, the second Sherlock Holmes novel.) Wilde was then the editor of The Woman’s World magazine. As a writer, he was best known for his essays on art and his children’s stories, published collectively as The Happy Prince and Other Tales the previous year. His first offering was a fairy tale called ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’, in which the hero cuts away his soul to marry a mermaid. The soul eventually tricks the fisherman into re-joining it, the mermaid pines away and dies and her lover soon follows. Stoddart rejected this as too short and unsuitable for his audience – the story was subsequently included in Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates collection – and Wilde produced a much more adult fairy tale instead.

The Picture of Dorian Gray exists as three distinct texts: Wilde’s original Lippencott manuscript as submitted to Stoddart (unpublished until 2011); the published serial, edited by Stoddart without Wilde’s consent to tone down inuendo, allusions to homosexuality and to excise the term ‘mistress’ from descriptions of Dorian’s female lovers; and the subsequent novel of 1891, revised and expanded from 13 to 20 chapters by Wilde with a new preface. This was in part to (unsuccessfully) mollify the critical charges of ‘immortality’ by deepening characters and adding a new storyline involving Sibyl Vane’s vengeful brother, essentially playing Laertes to Dorian’s Hamlet. It is the novel with which most readers are familiar, and on which the many film versions are based, most notably the definitive 1945 adaptation starring Hurd Hatfield as Dorian, George Saunders as Lord Henry Wotton and Angela Lansbury (in only her third film role) as Sibyl Vane and, more recently, the resolutely heterosexual Dorian Gray (2009) with Ben Barnes in the title role supported by Colin Firth as Lord Henry.

The story is well known; like many gothic novels as much if not more for the Hollywood adaptations as the original text, which tend to follow Stoddart in making the narrative much less gay. The premise blends the myths of Faust and Narcissus with the gothic archetype of the Doppelgänger. Influenced by the Mephistophelean Lord Henry, Dorian falls in love with his own youth and beauty in Basil Hallward’s portrait and wishes it would age in his stead. It does, and while Society marvels at his seemingly timeless good looks, the dockside prostitutes guess the truth and nickname him the ‘Devil’s Bargain’. The increasingly grotesque portrait is thus his double, the ‘most magical of mirrors’ that ‘would reveal to him his own soul’. As the portrait shows Dorian as he really is – prematurely aged through debauchery, cruelty written all over his features – the living Dorian is the true double. He has become the Decadent ideal, a human objet d’art

To read the full essay, please click here

For details of the Wordsworth edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray please click here

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