A New Picture of Dorian Gray
2:05 PM, Apr 2, 2011 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
When he died at 46 in a shabby Paris hotel room, disgraced, exiled, and out of print, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is unlikely to have guessed that, a century later, he would not just have regained the literary stature he had once enjoyed in England, but would become a cult figure as well, his tomb at Pere Lachaise a destination for pilgrims. Much of this, of course, has to do with his status as a gay martyr: Wilde's flamboyant aestheticism undoubtedly contributed to his success as a playwright, poet, and public wit of the Yellow Nineties; but it also led, at the close of the Victorian era, to nemesis. Wilde's unsuccessful libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry not only exposed the clandestine homosexual world he inhabited, but led to prosecution and imprisonment under the laws of the day.
These words, from his "Ballad of Reading Gaol," are inscribed on Wilde's tomb: And alien tears will fill for him / Pity's long-broken urn / For his mourners will be outcast men / And outcasts always mourn.
Well, that was then. Yet it is very much to Wilde's credit that the revival of his fortunes as a writer is grounded in substance as well as spirit. Wilde's wit and poetry endure, his elegant essays retain their interest, his comedies--notably The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband--hold up well, and his short novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), survives not only as a document of its time and place but an allegory with meaning now as then. The beautiful young man whose decadent existence is recorded on a portrait he keeps hidden away, while he retains his youthful good looks, haunts and intrigues as much today as in the Victorian/Edwardian era in which it was written.
It so happens that Dorian Gray, like many novels of the time, was published in serial form; and so hostile was the critical reaction to some of its decadent themes--most especially, of course, its ill-disguised homoerotic subtext--that Wilde and his publisher amended the manuscript before it appeared in book form. The relationship between Dorian Gray and the amusingly malicious Lord Henry Wotton, as well as the painter Basil Hallward's cordial obsession with Dorian, were taken down a notch, along with some of Wilde's less subtle language. And this published version of Dorian Gray remained standard--until now.
Of course, this is not exactly "censorship," as the subtitle of the present edition suggests; it is the old reliable editorial process of making literature commercially viable. But there is a good argument that the published version of the novel is not quite true to its author's intent or achievement, and Nicholas Frankel, who teaches English at Virginia Commonwealth University, has now set things right--and in handsome fashion. He has skillfully restored Wilde's original version, and in the manner of other great annotated editions, supplied readers with everything anyone would need to know about Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and their lives and times. Having read both versions, I am not so sure that the new text necessarily improves the novel. But surely the "outcast" Wilde deserves the courtesy, and the entire product--novel and critical/biographical material--makes fascinating reading.