A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The rise and fall of Oscar Wilde has long taken the public imagination by storm.
To many, he has come to represent the brave homosexual man, battling against society – oppressed, imprisoned and finally broken by his cruel treatment. He’s both a victim and a hero. His famous anarchic wit that was able to put one over the society of his time lives on in practically every quotation dictionary, collection or generator on the internet. His plays - The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, Lady Windermere’s Fan – were showstoppers in their day and still live on in theatres all over the country today – outlasting both the man and the laws that finally broke him.
That famous court case (in fact three court cases) where Wilde stood in the dock making speeches about “the love that dare not speak its name” and delighting the crowd with his witticisms (Wilde’s response to a question about kissing a male servant: “Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it”) – has gone down in history and is part of the fin de siècle narrative as the 19th century drew to an end.
This history has so captured the collective imagination, it is well-nigh impossible to see The Picture of Dorian Gray removed from the lense of the life of its author. (Indeed, take a look at the cover on the left.) In truth, I did not even try.
The story is now well-known. A beautiful young man sells his soul for youth and beauty and allows a portrait of himself to wither and decay and show his moral degradation, whilst he, himself, stays looking pure and young forever. In a typical Victorian melodramatic plot, Dorian falls foul of an avenging brother of a woman he has scorned and ends up descending in further dastardly crimes – including the murder of his friend - before coming (and I don’t think this is going to be much of a surprise as a spoiler) to a sticky end.
Through the lense of Wilde’s life, the first thing that is impossible not to be struck by is the similarity between descriptions of Dorian and that of Bosie – Wilde’s notorious lover.
Bosie – or Lord Alfred Douglas – was the son of the Marquess of Queensberry (more on him later) . Wilde fell madly in love with the young aristocrat and the two became lovers – their difficult relationship seeing them together on and off for the rest of Wilde’s life.
The image of Dorian, with his beauty, his blonde hair, his porcelain skin and rosebud lips; with his decadence and petulance – could be describing Bosie – blonde, handsome and charming, but also petulant and tantrumming by terms. It is tempting to think that Dorian must be based on Bosie, so it is surprising to learn the book was written before Wilde even met the great love of his life.
The trouble for this reader is that Dorian himself isn’t actually very interesting. The book drones on and on (and on) about the extraordinary effect Dorian has on others. He captures the attention of Lord Henry – a Wildean mouthpiece whose every utterance is a gemlike witticism; he is art itself to the poor suffering painter, Basil Hallward, who tells Lord Henry that Dorian is his sole inspiration and the whole future of art. (Hmmm.) However, apart from his rosebud lips, his eyes, his blonde locks etc etc etc…it’s rather hard to see what is so fascinating about the young man. He is a vessel, a beautiful surface only.
It is not difficult to read the gay subtext into Dorian (indeed if you consider it buried enough to even call it a subtext). Of the three main male characters – artist Basil Hallward spends the majority of his time in the novel mooning around like a lovesick schoolboy over Dorian; Lord Henry seems to be almost repulsed by women; and Dorian dazzles and delights every man he meets . In one regretful musing, Dorian even contemplates how the love of Basil could have saved him – not a physical love you understand but a love like that experienced by Michaelangelo, and even Shakespeare…(a strange pre-cursor of Wilde’s famous court speech when asked to define the “Love that Dare Not Speak its Name”).
No, the only really fascinating character in the book – if indeed he can be described as a character – is Lord Henry. He is the influencer, the devil-like seducer of minds, a morally ambiguous character with the gift of wit. His voice is certainly similar to the flamboyant dandy, Oscar Wilde, with his aphorisms and affectations. And yet, despite all the characters alluding to Henry’s terrible sinfulness, we do not really discover what this sinfulness really consists of. Lord Henry comes across as a theoretician – all glittering thought but no action. In this, it seems that he, rather than Dorian, is the work of art. Henry’s ideas glitter and fizz. The action, however, is taken by Dorian.
Much has been written (and scripted, such as in the film “Wilde” with Stephen Fry and Jude Law) about Wilde’s relationship with Bosie. It was a relationship of certain excesses and cruelties. Many blame Bosie for Wilde’s subsequent downfall- Bosie is alleged to have been reckless, hedonistic, introducing Wilde to the world of rent boys and encouraging him into greater promiscuities.
Part of me is uncomfortable with all of this – we cannot really know the ins and outs of any relationship – but one thing is clear: it is Wilde’s association with Bosie that led him, ultimately, to the dock. But not necessarily in the way one might think.
Bosie’s father, The Marquess of Queensberry was – by all accounts – a nasty character obsessed with hunting and boxing, and was appalled at rumours of his son’s relationship with Wilde. This lead to various unpleasant altercations. The last came about after the Marquess left a note for Wilde at his club addressed to “Oscar Wilde posing sodomite”. Wilde decided to sue Queensberry for libel. Why he chose to do this is one of the great mysteries of the case, that I still cannot understand.The lawyers proceeded to dredge up a myriad of rent boys prepared to say publicly they had had sex with Wilde and – to cut a long story short – three trials and a whole heap of scandal later – Oscar was bankcrupt and sentenced to two years hard labour in prison.
Why did Wilde take Queensberry to court? What on earth possessed him?
Just as it is easy to read Dorian as a homosexual (or homoerotic) text, so it is convincing as a critique of Victorian society. A society where appearances and class were really what mattered. A society that was apparently stuffy, prudish and uptight on the surface but where prostitution was rife and a quarter of men had syphilis. The whole of Victorian society had its own painting in the attic. A society where hypocrisy reigned, the upper classes condemned lifestyles they themselves enjoyed – where it is not so much the sinfulness that was seen to be the problem - but whether or not people knew about it and, what’s more, whether people from a different class knew about it.
Having written and read recently about the set and the family that is thought to have inspired Brideshead Revisited, I have become increasingly interested in our view of the past and how it is presented to us in literature and on television. Whether we today still uphold a view that simply isn’t true. A vision the past liked to present to itself. The likes of Downton Abbey and the many period costume dramas adapted from novels of the time tend to dwell lovingly on the uptight formality, the uncomfortable relations between men and women – the polite bit.
And yet, when you read about Oscar Wilde and Bosie and their circle, when you read about Lord Beauchamp and his relationships with his footmen – when you read about Evelyn Waugh in Oxford a couple of decades later – you wonder at how much we should believe this view of the past. Homosexual acts might have been illegal, but for many it was an open secret. From what I understand, there were few prosecutions (Lord Alfred after all was never prosecuted) and many, at the time of Wilde’s trial seemed as shocked at the fact he had slept with those of the lower classes than that he was consorting with men.
In a society where so many in the establishment and upper classes knew what was going on and so many led double-lives, did Wilde make that disasterous blow against Queensberry because he thought that this society would close in and protect him and help maintain the façade? Or did he think it was time to burst through that hypocrisy once and for all? Or had he become so used to the separation between the one life and the other that he simply didn’t see the risk?
But his society did not protect him. Homosexuality was one thing, but open homosexuality…that was something completely different. Two years hard labour, destitution and dying prematurely in his 40s in exile abroad – Wilde paid dearly for his decision to take Queensberry to court. Very dearly indeed.
And here also we go back to Dorian Gray. For, perhaps tellingly, his greatest sins emerge not out of appetite or evil but in his anger at being exposed.
In this, Oscar Wilde, still has his finger on the pulse. About his society, his class, and maybe even about himself.
And perhaps that is what really shocked people about The Picture of Dorian Gray - not the story or the sinfulness (easily lapped up in most Victorian melodramas), not even those homoerotic subtexts (easily read whichever way you wish). But the fact that it exposed them and their hypocrisy – the result of which was violence, cruelty and suffering. Hypocrisy, which in Dorian Gray, is one of the greatest sins of all.
First published in 1890