LURID: Victorian Psycho - The Picture Of Dorian Gray
LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.
"Après un certain âge tout homme est responsable de son visage." — Albert Camus, The Fall
Happy birthday, Oscar Wilde: author, critic, playwright, raconteur, bon viveur and fallen angel. During the Victorian fin de siècle, he sat atop London’s literati, gracing the most exclusive salons as a fêted poet, writer of fairy tales, wit, critic, journalist and playwright. By the time the twentieth century kicked in, he was an alcoholic outcast, bankrupt, cut off from his former social circles in a low-rent Paris hotel. He died on November 30th, 1900, after a bout with cerebral meningitis.
Although many other celebrated artists, before and since, have ended their days unloved in the gutter, few have experienced a descent as precipitous as Wilde’s. His plummet from grace occurred when his shadow side, hidden from his high society acquaintance from earliest adulthood, was dragged into the light of day by external forces – led by the vengeful Marquis of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s most notorious lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
It’s oddly prescient, therefore, that his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (first serialized in Lippincott’s in 1890) embraced the notion of duality, of unspeakable deeds committed under cover of respectability and social connections. More than any of his other works, the novel would come to define him. As well as distilling the dark heart of 1880s London, Wilde put much of himself into its pages. Of its triptych of male characters, he said, Basil Hallward is “what I think I am,” Lord Henry “what the world thinks me,” and “Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”
Be careful what you wish for. There are some uncomfortable analogies to be drawn between the tale of a cursed work of art that caused the destruction of its creator, and the long-term effects of the novel on Wilde’s career. The Picture of Dorian Gray so enthralled an Oxford undergraduate, one Lord Alfred Douglas, that he claimed to have read it fourteen times, and became obsessed with meeting the writer. The rest is tragedy. Five years later, during the libel trial, Queensberry’s attorney Edward Carson read passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray aloud in court as part of his case against the author. Carson accused Wilde of flaunting his desires in print, and treated the novel as autobiography, rather than art. Wilde lost, and was subsequently put on trial twice more for “gross indecency”, found guilty, and sentenced to two years hard labor. Rarely have an author’s words come back to haunt him so cruelly.
The genesis of The Picture of Dorian Gray is no less intriguing than its aftermath. Other than the central, supernatural device, it’s as much a distillation of social anxieties and conditions of the times as any earlier novels written by Charles Dickens or George Eliot. It stands as the successor to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Both Stevenson and Wilde conceived their novels as cautionary tales for the 1880s, horror stories about the terrible fate of men who indulged in the taboo behavior that was such a preoccupation of the era. However, Stevenson wrote his book before London was shocked to its core by the Jack The Ripper murders, while Wilde’s came after the city had accepted the monster walking in its midst.
Two years before the brutal slaying of Mary Ann Nichols, Stevenson set the stage for Saucy Jack’s reign of terror, depicting a city of stark social contrasts. Then, as now, London was a playground for the rich, thanks to their easy access to the brothels, opium dens and card games staffed by the poor. Of a smoggy evening, the toniest Mayfair gentleman could don a disguise (or, in Dr. Jekyll’s case, a whole new face and body), stroll eastwards to the cholera-choked slums and indulge his darkest passions without fear of discovery.
Stevenson could not have known how soon his speculative fiction would be echoed in headline fact. Nor could he have known how the symbolism of his book (and the smash hit stage version, playing all summer at the Royal Lyceum – managed by Bram Stoker) would inform the chatter about the Whitechapel murders. Popular opinion held that Jack the Ripper was a gentleman, like the evil Mr. Hyde a visitor to the slums rather than a resident.
Conspiracy theories through the ages have clung to this belief, suggesting a minor royal, doctor, or society painter as suspects. However, the ‘gentleman killer’ theory presented a paradox to the Victorians, who still believed in the scientific validity of phrenology (the links between skull shape and criminal inclination). Jack must be such a monster he couldn’t possibly show his true face to the world – otherwise, without doubt, the world would see him for what he was.
Good citizens, surely, would notice something off about the Man Who Was Jack, as soon as they saw him, as Enfield does in Stevenson’s novel as soon as he lays eyes on the “troglodytic” Edward Hyde.
There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something down-right detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere…
Yet, as the months drew on, and Jack the Ripper remained unapprehended, Londoners had to accept these monstrous deeds were not necessarily written across the murderer's visage. Whoever Jack was, he had managed to keep his shadow side, his Edward Hyde face, undetected, possibly with the help of friends, family, or aides. Could there be a loyal circle of co-conspirators, perhaps already experienced in keeping matters confidential? Men who vehemently protected each other’s insalubrious interests, for fear their own should be exposed?
Less than a year after Jack the Ripper butchered his last victim, Mary Jane Kelly, and disappeared unpunished, another scandal about secret lives hit the London tabloids. In July 1889, a messenger boy was discovered carrying a large amount of cash, far more than he could have earned in legitimate labor. Accused of stealing the money, the messenger argued that he had earned it “by going to bed with gentlemen” for a rate of four shillings a time. Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline headed the investigation of the suspected male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street, and observed several prominent social figures arriving and departing, including several titled noblemen, high-ranking military personnel and Prince Albert Victor, second in line to the throne.
Abberline’s investigation and subsequent raid on the “den of infamy” led to three trials (for commissioning acts of impropriety, libel, and for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice after witnesses fled the country) and plenty of salacious stories in the American, French and British press. The messengers were framed as helpless working class victims of evil aristocratic predators, the boys’ moral integrity sacrificed in pursuit of the older men’s corrupt pleasures. This played into the high-minded narrative begun by W.T. Stead in his infamous series of ‘Maiden Tribute’ articles in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, who lamented the fate of London’s 50,000 female prostitutes “purchased like slaves” to slake the lust of “the dissolute rich” before being discarded as Stead’s articles led to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which raised the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 and re-criminalized homosexual acts between males, plus various acts of seduction and abduction with intent. The act also challenged the idea that the rich exist beyond the law and can treat the poor as their playthings with impunity – an idea, which, thanks to the continued chasm between the haves and the have-nots, still has currency in our own time. Hey there, Patrick Bateman…
Oscar Wilde, of course, as a prime member of London’s chattering classes, was at the center of this maelstrom of scandal, conjecture, headlines, gossip, improbable theories and the creeping feeling that decadence as a lifestyle choice might be on its way out. For months, London’s most desirable dinner party guests discussed nothing else. For obvious reasons, the Cleveland St. trials hit very close to home and would have been a topic of more than delicate discussion, but some writers have suggested that Wilde may have also known more than he let on about the Whitechapel murders. In The Ripper Code (2008), Thomas Toughill proposes Wilde’s former friend and roommate, the portrait painter Frank Miles, as a candidate for Jack-hood – although Miles was an inmate of Brislington House, an asylum near Bristol, suffering from “general paralysis of the insane” (i.e. syphilis) at the time, and may have struggled to make the 120 mile commute.
At one such dinner party on August 30, 1889, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle were guests of Joseph Marshall Stoddart, editor of the American magazine Lippincott’s. For the record, Doyle felt Wilde “towered above us all, and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say” – much like Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes, who made his second outing in print (The Sign Of Four) in Lippincott’s in February 1890. Only a fly on one of the most enviable walls in literary history could tell us whether they discussed the Ripper case – Wilde must surely have been interested in Doyle’s medical experience and the way he parlayed it into his detective fiction, particularly when it came to describing crime scenes, and the proper disposal of a dead body (a problem Dorian grapples with in a particularly gruesome section of the book).
The Picture of Dorian Gray, therefore, can be seen as evolving from a uniquely lurid set of authorial preoccupations, part personal, part historical. The story is simple, a riff on Mark 8:36 (“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”) with overtones of Faust.
Young, naïve, beautiful Dorian sits for painter Basil Hallward, unaware of the artist’s desire for him oozing into every brush stroke. The resulting portrait is a thing of beauty, a true labor of love, art most magical, capturing Dorian as a perfect specimen, a divine being. When Dorian looks upon the finished work, he utters some extremely foolish words:
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 of 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!
As any reader of fairy tales knows (and Wilde wrote a few), you should always be so very careful what you wish for. After an evening’s debauchery, Dorian realizes that the portrait has changed – for the worse – while his own face retains the blankness of innocence and youth. There is a dark power at work in the painting:
…worse than the corruption of death itself – something that would breed horrors and yet would never die. What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty and eat away its grace. They would defile it and make it shameful. And yet the thing would still live on.
Dorian figures out he just got the greatest free pass for bad behavior in history, and embarks on a depraved joyride ("all the sins you never had the courage to commit") that would normally corrupt a man’s face beyond recognition; cruel lines around the mouth from breaking hearts; bags under the eyes from narcotics and insomnia; grey hairs from gambling debts; deep scores in the forehead from concocting lies; the pox. As he wished, he is always young while the portrait, locked away in his old schoolroom, exhibits the ravages of each fresh iniquity, and endures all the horrors of the natural ageing process, “the leprosies of sin.”
This is a sinister, seductive premise. Dorian commits all manner of outrageousness – ruining maidens' reputations, indulging in opium, theft, fraud and murder – yet retains the fresh complexion of a milkmaid throughout every soul-shuddering exploit. As Patrick Bateman reminds us in American Psycho a century later, if you want to remain above suspicion, pay close attention to your skincare routine. Like Patrick, Dorian cares deeply about details of costume and interior design, about projecting an exterior of wealth, sophistication and ease while wrestling with the “mad hungers that grew more ravenous as he fed them”. For Wilde’s contemporary readers, it would have been all too easy to imagine what meat those hungers might feed on. It's not much of a stretch to visualize Dorian gathering surgical tools into a Gladstone bag, donning an opera cloak, disappearing down a dark alley and seeking relief in a dead woman’s entrails, confident that none of his polite acquaintance would suspect a thing.
Naturally, the serialized version of The Picture of Dorian Gray caused uproar and was slammed for its homoerotic overtones. The Daily Chronicle declared it
a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction… which might be horrible and fascinating but for its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophisings, and the contaminated trail of garish vulgarity which is over all Mr. Wilde’s elaborate Wardour St. aestheticism and obtrusively cheap scholarship.
Stung by the critical reaction, Wilde revised the magazine story for publication as a standalone book in 1891, toning down the homoerotic content, adding backstory for Sybil Vane, and more of the drawing room badinage he was becoming known for, plus a Preface. Subsequently, critics and scholars have come to prefer the shorter, more raw Lippincott’s version as truer to Wilde’s intent, and Nicholas Frankel’s 2011 annotated edition, derived from Wilde's original typescript, goes even further towards capturing the sinister spirit of the initial draft.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like Frankenstein, like Dracula, is one of those lurid classics that everyone thinks they know without reading. The premise – the man who beats age via a Faustian bargain – has been so parroted and hackneyed in subsequent works that we forget who did it first, and best. More than a century after its first publication, Wilde’s account of Dorian’s degradation still speaks to us, a delicious mixture of specific details (the ruination of Sybil Vane), vague hints about “those mysterious and prolonged absences that gave rise to such strange conjecture”, and the accumulation of rumor (“Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?”). It’s a story about transgression without repercussion, about untrammeled evil walking the earth, about dirty deeds done dirt cheap. What’s not to love?
Yet, as befits a story by the author of The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant, it’s also peculiarly hopeful about the human condition. Dorian, unlike Edward Hyde, finally confronts his wrongdoing, although the reader has to decide whether his final act is one of redemption or damnation. If you haven’t read it recently, you probably should.
If you want a quick refresher, try this lovely 8 minute animated version by Thomas Beg.
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