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Saturday, 12 May 2012

Oscar Wilde and the real Dorian Gray

In 1889 Oscar Wilde met twenty-three year old poet, John Gray. He immediately fell in love with Gray. Wilde later described him as being: "Wonderfully handsome, with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth's passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world." A mutual friend, Lionel Johnson, said that he had the "face of a fifteen" year-old boy. George Bernard Shaw recalled that he was "one of the more abject of Wilde's disciples".

Wilde decided to write a story that would revive a debate that he had with James McNeill Whistler, four years earlier. Wilde had argued that poetry and prose were superior to painting and sculpture because the writer could make use of all experience rather than a part: "The statue is concerned in one moment of perfection. The image stained upon the canvas possesses no spiritual element of growth or change. If they know nothing of death, it is because they know little of life, for the secrets of life belong to those, and those only, whom the sequence of time affects, and who possess not merely the present but the future, and can rise or fall from a past of glory or of shame. Movement, that problem of the visible arts, can be truly realised by Literature alone."

Wilde also wanted to challenge the new naturalism movement that was headed by the novelist Émile Zola. Wilde argued: "Zola's characters have their dreary vices, and their still drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty and imaginative power. We don't want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders." He suggested that "the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art".

The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine on 20th June 1890. The story tells of a young man named Dorian Gray (John Gray), who is being painted by Basil Hallward. The artist is fascinated by Dorian's beauty and becomes infatuated with him. Lord Henry Wotton meets Dorian at Hallward's studio. Espousing a new hedonism, Wotton suggests the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfilment of the senses.

When Dorian Gray sees the portrait he remarks: "How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day in June... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that - for that - I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!" In the story Dorian's wish is fulfilled.

Richard Ellmann has argued: "To give the hero of his novel the name of Gray was a form of courtship. Wilde probably named his hero not to point to a model, but to flatter Gray by identifying him with Dorian. Gray took the hint, and in letters to Wilde signed himself Dorian. Their intimacy was common talk... Wilde and Gray were assumed to be lovers, and there seems no reason to doubt it." As a result some critics believed the book, named after his lover, promoted homosexuality. On 30th June, 1890 The Daily Chronicle suggested that Wilde's story contains "one element... which will taint every young mind that comes in contact with it."

The most hostile review came from Charles Whibley in The Scots Observer. "Why go grubbing in muck heaps? The world is fair, and the proportion of healthy-minded men and honest women to those that are foul, fallen and unnatural, is great. Mr Oscar Wilde has again been writing stuff that were better unwritten; and while The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he contributes to Lippincott's is ingenious, interesting, full of cleverness, and plainly the work of a man of letters, it is false art - for its interest is medico-legal; it is false to human nature - for its hero is a devil; it is false to morality - for it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health and sanity. The story which deals with matters fitted only for the Criminal Investigation Department or a hearing in camera is discreditable alike to author and editor. Mr Wilde has brains, and art, and style; but if he can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph-boys, the sooner he takes to tailoring (or some other decent trade) the better for his own reputation and the public morals."

Whibley's comments about "outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph-boys" was a reference to the so-called Cleveland Street scandal. This was particularly offensive to Wilde. The scandal involved Arthur Somerset, the son of the 8th Duke of Beaufort and the Henry James FitzRoy, the son of the 7th Duke of Grafton, who were said to have frequented a homosexual brothel off the Tottenham Court Road. According to Harford Montgomery Hyde, the author of Oscar Wilde (1975), this was "where telegraph-boys from the General Post Office were able to earn additional money by going to bed with the Cleveland Street establishment's aristocratic customers." Wilde saw this as an attempt to link him with a homosexual scandal.

Wilde wrote to William Ernest Henley, the editor of the newspaper: "Your reviewer suggests that I do not make it sufficiently clear whether I prefer virtue to wickedness or wickedness to virtue. An artist, sir, has no ethical sympathies at all. Virtue and wickedness are to him simply what the colours on his palette are to the painter. They are no more, and they are no less. He sees that by their means a certain artistic effect can be produced and he produces it. Iago may be morally horrible and Imogen stainlessly pure. Shakespeare, as Keats said, had as much delight in creating the one as he had in creating the other."

Wilde was concerned by the suggestions that he was trying to promote an illegal act. He decided to turn the short-story into a novel by adding six chapters. He also took the opportunity to remove some of the passages that indicated that The Picture of Dorian Gray was about homosexual love. Wilde also added a Preface that was a series of aphorisms that attempted to answer some of the criticisms of the original story. This included: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written."

Wilde also used the Preface to attack the naturalism movement: "No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style... No artist is ever morbid... Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril... The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim."

You can see a picture of John Gray here:

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