On this day in 1890, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine. Do you know the men behind Dorian? For a visual summary, see The Diagram of Dorian Gray (PDF).
Why did Wilde name his character of ageless beauty and inner corruption Dorian Gray? Wilde was infatuated at the time with the poet John Gray, and naming the character after a young disciple may have been an homage and a means of seduction, as Richard Ellmann suggests in his biography of Wilde. John Gray’s friends took to calling him ‘Dorian’, and Gray signed letters to Wilde with this name.
As a young man Wilde had enjoyed the sentimental society novels of the politician, Benjamin Disraeli, including, notably, Vivian Grey. (Oscar and Constance Wilde named their second son Vyvyan, and Wilde used the name Vivian several times in his works.)
Wilde was an accomplished scholar of the classics and read the works of John Addington Symonds, whose A Problem in Greek Ethics discusses the homosexual Dorian tribe of ancient Greece. “The Dorians gave the earliest and most marked encouragement to Greek love”, Symonds wrote. Among highly literate Victorian men, the name ‘Dorian’ had implications that other readers may have missed.
Who was Henry Wotton?
People assumed that the hedonistic, witty and cynical character of Lord Henry Wotton was Wilde’s self-portrait, but the artist Frank Miles had introduced Wilde to another source of inspiration, Lord Ronald Gower, a wealthy, pleasure-seeking sculptor, connoisseur and homosexual.
Lord Henry may also have been an unflattering portrait of Walter Pater. Several passages in The Picture of Dorian Gray echo the 1873 edition of Oxford academic Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance, a book which had exerted a powerful influence over Wilde. (Unnerved by the condemnation aroused by its publication, Pater removed the Conclusion of the Renaissance from later editions.) Wilde referred to Pater’s Renaissance as “my golden book”.
Wilde later scorned his former mentor Pater for preaching homoerotic Epicureanism whilst living cautiously himself (“poor dear Pater has lived to disprove everything he has written”). In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry encourages Dorian to indulge all his senses, but Lord Henry only sins vicariously through his protégé. When Wilde was informed of Pater’s death, he asked “Was he ever alive?”
Which poisonous book?
Dorian Gray is a curious amalgam of styles: part Gothic horror tale, part Decadent affront to bourgeois values, part society comedy (particularly in Lord Henry’s repartee).
During Wilde’s trials, Edward Carson took Wilde to task over the book that influences the character Dorian, Le Secret de Raoul. Wasn’t it based on À Rebours, Carson demanded to know, and wasn’t that a “sodomitical book”? In court, Wilde denied a direct correlation between the two books, although Chapter 9 of the book version of The Picture of Dorian Gray borrows heavily from Joris-Karl Huysman’s Decadent novel À Rebours (Against Nature), which Wilde had read during his honeymoon.
À Rebours in turn had been partly inspired by the dandy, poet and aesthete Robert de Montesquiou, Comte de Montesquiou-Fézensac, upon whom Proust based the character Baron de Charlus for his novel, À la recherche du temps perdu.