Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, annotated & uncensored
by Dr. Ben Harvey
by Dr. Ben Harvey
Near the beginning of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, after Dorian has had his portrait painted, he mysteriously divides into two. While his body stops aging and appears unchanged, the miraculous portrait becomes a “mirror of the soul” and charts Dorian’s colourful physical and moral deterioration. There is no single Dorian Gray: there are multiple Dorian Grays.
This fact of division (and multiplication)—let us call it the Dorian principle—applies equally to the story that gave him life. In the early 1890s, the tale appeared in two different versions. The story appeared first in the July 1890 edition of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, a Philadelphia-based literary journal; then the following spring, Ward, Lock and Company published an expanded version of the story in book form.
The Lippincott's Dorian July 1890
Now comes a third Dorian Gray, an “annotated, uncensored edition,” edited by Nicholas Frankel, published by Harvard University (Belknap) Press in April 2011. This Dorian looks better than ever. He comes in a hardback cover, sports a large, square-ish format, and contains almost eighty illustrations, many in colour. Truth be known, he’s put on a bit of weight over the years, and now carries some extra padding: two introductory essays, copious explanatory notes, and two appendices. He’s also a bit paradoxical in nature, a bit of an upstart: although he’s now over 120 years old, and fairly scholarly in appearance, he’s making the claim that he’s the real McCoy, the original and best, the one and only Dorian. Dorian uncensored!
Ward, Lock and Company's Dorian April 1891
So now our line-up is complete, and these are our three candidates for consideration: the magazine version, the novel version, and the new version. For the sake of clarity and convenience, I will be calling them, respectively, Dorian 1890, Dorian 1891, and Dorian 2011.
- Dorian 1890: The thirteen-chapter version published in the July 1890 number of Lippincott’s Magazine.
- Dorian 1891: The twenty-chapter book published by Ward, Lock and Company (April 1891). Subsequent reprints of the novel are generally based on this version.
- Dorian 2011: The “annotated, uncensored edition” published by Harvard University Press. This is based on the typescript (with handwritten additions) that Wilde gave to Lippincott’s Magazine, prior to the publication of Dorian 1890.
Let me say at this point, that, if pressed, I wouldn’t want to choose just one of the three. Two Dorians—one might say—are always better than one. But as will become clear, Dorian 2011 has pretty effectively usurped Dorian 1890. I will happily add Dorian 2011 to my library and gratefully dip into it from time to time, delighting in all its arcane details and illustrations. Still, Dorian 2011 will have to learn to live next to Dorian 1891 on my bookshelf. The latter is the Dorian of my late adolescence, when I, like many, first met him. I refuse to get rid of him. Besides, he contains important material that is conspicuously absent from Dorian 2011 and he offers fewer distractions. If I simply want to immerse myself in rereading Wilde’s story rather than studying it, then Dorian 1891 will still be my companion of choice. Though he may not be a better book than Dorian 2011, he is still the better read.
Let us look more closely at the subject of this review. Dorian 2011, the new “annotated, uncensored edition,” seeks to return Wilde’s story to what might be considered its proper state, to the moment when it was just written. The claim that it’s uncensored features prominently in Harvard University Press’s promotional material. It makes for a persuasive sales pitch. When I first read Dorian 1891, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I was reading a censored text. And, before we get too enamoured with easy notions of artistic freedom, we may even wonder whether a censorious and sexually repressive culture made Wilde’s story of sin and secrecy imaginable in the first place. But Dorian 2011 certainly teaches us that there are different kinds and degrees of censorship. In his “General Introduction” and “Textural Introduction,” Frankel helpfully outlines two types that shaped the way Wilde’s story has reached us: censorship by others, and Wilde’s self-censorship.
The first kind shaped the version of the text that appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Upon receiving Wilde’s typescript, J. M. Stoddart, Lippincott’s editor, proceeded to make a number of changes to it, “including the excision of some 500 words that he feared would be objectionable—or worse” (21). In all likelihood, the changes were made without consulting Wilde and without his explicit approval. Lippincott’s was based in Philadelphia and “it was not then customary for American magazine editors to provide British authors with proofs” (41-42). Most of these changes “concern sexual matters” (40) and reveal not just the editor’s “anxieties about explicit homosexual references” but also “promiscuous or illicit heterosexuality” (47).
Napoleon Sarony's famous portrait photo of Wilde
One example will have to stand for many. In chapter VII of Dorian 1890, the artist Basil Hallward recalls the experience of painting his portrait: “One day”, he tells Dorian, “I determined to paint a wonderful portrait of you. It was to have been my masterpiece. It is my masterpiece. But, as I worked at it, every flake and film of colour seemed to me to reveal my secret.” We wonder, of course, what this secret might be. Wilde’s original intention was to be less ambiguous (if not entirely unambiguous). For Stoddart had removed the very next line of Wilde’s manuscript. Here it is: “There was love in every line, and in every touch there was passion.” The sentiment belongs to an established literary convention: the artistic process is being equated with sexual intimacy. Normally, however, the artist is male and his subject (or model) female. Wilde is adding an unmistakably homoerotic twist to this tradition.
The new edition restores the line. It is thus “uncensored” in that it sticks to Wilde’s original document, reversing the magazine’s editorial interventions. This scholarly approach is worthy and interesting but not really as radical as it claims, and more a matter of emphasis than anything else. To say that Dorian 2011 is “a more daring and scandalous version of Wilde’s novel than either of the two subsequent published versions” is perhaps true (38). But it is also true, as well as logically consistent, that the other two published versions were also daring and scandalous. Dorian’s polymorphous perversity, the artist Basil Hallward’s implied homosexuality, and the love triangle formed by Dorian, Basil and a third character (the devilish Lord Henry Wotton)—these crucial aspects of the story are not revealed for the first time in the “uncensored” text. They were there all along and, as Stoddart correctly predicted, provoked strong, even panicky responses from the magazine’s readership.
Questions of censorship, or rather self-censorship, become more complicated when we bring Dorian 1891 into the discussion. When Wilde revisited his story, adapting it into a “stand-alone” novel, he tacitly accepted many of Stoddart’s changes. (He did not, for example, restore the sentence discussed above.) This may have been partly a matter of practicality—Wilde relied on the printed sheets provided by Lippincott’s—but also reflects the strong public reception to Dorian 1890. For example, “Britain’s largest bookseller, W. H. Smith & Son, removed all copies of the July number of Lippincott’s from its bookstalls days after its publication” (43). Recognizing this situation, and presumably responding to pressure exerted by his publisher, Wilde not only accepted most of Stoddart’s interventions but in some cases went further still and made additional changes.
Again, Frankel does an excellent job drawing attention to some of these textual differences, which are generally minor but often telling. To take the very first of them, in the opening chapter of the story, Wilde has Lord Henry casually touching Basil, “laying his hand upon his shoulder”. Upon reflection, Wilde considered it to be a touch too much—perhaps especially within the context of a conversation about romance and “married life”. The touch appears in Dorian 1890, but not in Dorian 1891. This pattern repeats itself later in the same chapter. In Dorian 1891, we no longer find Basil’s description of his walking with Dorian “home together from the club arm in arm”.
How strange the change from Dorian 1890 to Dorian 1891! Stranger still, and oddly downplayed in Dorian 2011, is the fact that Wilde greatly expanded his magazine article, adding six chapters of entirely new material. (And Wilde created a twentieth chapter for Dorian 1891 when he divided his final chapter into two). Most notably, these additional chapters provide a lot more background to the character of Sibyl Vane, the doomed Shakespearean actress who plays the Echo to Dorian’s Narcissus. Wilde added chapters dealing with Sibyl’s home-life and an entire subplot involving her sailor brother, James Vane. Towards the end of the book, James unsuccessfully tries to avenge his sister’s suicide, for which he blames Dorian.
The Ivan Albright painting for the 1945 film adaptation
In another important addition, Wilde included an account of Dorian’s ancestry, and of his parents’ doomed marriage, to the novel. But none of these changes will be apparent to the reader of Dorian 2011. For while often minor differences of language between the typescript, magazine and book versions are tracked meticulously, these major additions are almost entirely ignored. The exception is the important (and oft reprinted) preface to the book, which Dorian 2011 includes as an appendix. It takes the form of a list of aphorisms. (An example: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”) While Dorian 1890 may be a leaner, meaner text that Dorian 1891, it’s hard to say that it’s definitively better, rather than just different. So why weren’t these six chapters included in Dorian 2011?
Perhaps the best explanation for their absence can be found by looking at the likely market for the text. Dorian 1891 is a cheap Dorian. He is in the public domain and can be bought for tuppence ha’penny or, like Dorian 1890, downloaded for free. (Recent scholarly editions have dealt with the differences between Dorian 1890 and Dorian 1891 simply by including both versions.) So what Dorian 2011 offers is the promise of truth to Wilde’s original intentions, rather than a simple reprint of the “censored” Dorian 1890. In addition, it provides new textual material (copyrightable annotations and introductions) and a lot of reproductions. Its envisaged market, I assume, would include libraries, academics, Wilde completists, and consumers of gay and queer literature. (More troublingly, the book will also be bought by general readers who assume they are adding the complete and truthful version of Wilde’s story to their collection.) Dorian 2011 is more affordable than many comparable scholarly texts, but including these additional six chapters (as, say, an appendix) would have greatly expanded an already bulky text, especially if the chapters were also accompanied by extensive annotations and reproductions. This approach, in other words, would have made the book more expensive and narrowed its likely market.
Dorian 2011 is, in other words, a bit of a compromise, and I can’t help but lament the missing material, especially since Frankel’s fascinating marginal notes succeed in explicating and illuminating the restored text of Dorian 1890. These notes sometimes take on a life of their own and turn into delightful vignettes on various intriguing aspects of Victorian culture. Some sample topics: the Peacock Room (Whistler’s famous interior), Piccadilly (a good place to pick up boys), and patchouli (the preferred perfume of London’s prostitutes). It’s also fascinating to learn precisely which passages of the novel were turned against their author during Wilde’s unsuccessful 1895 libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry. Tellingly, in an attempt to impose maximum damage, Queensberry’s barrister quoted from the magazine version of the story, not the book. All these copious notes sometimes threaten to overwhelm Wilde’s text, and also inevitably slow down the reading experience, but I could happily have read many more of them.
Admittedly, it’s sometimes hard to understand why one aspect of the story receives a note while another does not. After Dorian has killed Basil Hallward, for example, he is faced with the old problem of disposing of a body, and coerces an acquaintance, Alan Campbell, into doing so for him. But before Campbell can begin, Dorian needs to get his valet out of the house, and so sends him off to Richmond, a London suburb, to buy some orchids. While the mention of orchids prompts the insertion of a lengthy note about the flower, no explanation is provided for the intriguing list of materials Campbell requires for his grisly task: a “gas-fire”; “a mahogany chest of chemicals, with a small electric battery set on top of it”; “a long coil of steel and platinum wire and two rather curiously-shaped iron clamps.” I had to reach for Richard Ellman’s excellent biography of Wilde, to discover that the writer had learned from a “friendly surgeon” that it was possible to dispose of a body “using chemical means” (314).
An additional word might have been added to Dorian 2011’s subtitle: the edition is annotated, uncensored, and illustrated. For an art historian, the last is certainly not the least. The many reproductions included in the text fall into various categories. Some show the people, places, and objects mentioned in the text and notes; others, including many photographs, portraits, and caricatures, connect to Wilde’s life and legend; still more relate to the story itself and consists of book jackets, posters from various cinematic and theatrical adaptations, as well as a number of illustrations of scenes from the story. While each group offers food for thought, these illustrated scenes are particularly striking, if only because they point to a division between image and text in Dorian 2011. If one impulse in the book is to point backwards towards textual purity and origins, another points forwards towards visual expansion and to the rich “afterlife” of Wilde’s story.
In other works, Wilde collaborated with such talented illustrators as Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Shannon. But significantly he never made an illustrated version of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Shannon’s elegant cover design for Dorian 1891 stresses decorative patterning, rather than illustrative content. Most noticeably, it avoids the obvious option—that of including a picture of Dorian Gray himself. For Wilde, to show Dorian would be to limit him. As it is, we strain to imagine aesthetic extremes—both the beauty of Dorian and his increasingly repellent portrait. Dorian becomes a space for our projections. To repeat: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”
The invitation is for us to give Dorian a look and many of us have obliged. Though illustrations of Dorian can intrigue and impress us, they also, perhaps inevitably, largely disappoint. Wilde gives us some guidance as to what the character looks like. Dorian has “finely-curved scarlet lips… frank blue eyes” and “crisp gold hair.” As a type—the beautiful, aloof young man—he is constantly compared to Adonis and Narcissus. It is thus entirely appropriate that Dorian 2011 wears Caravaggio’s Narcissus on its dust jacket, even though this Narcissus has rich chestnut hair. A similar physical mismatch applies to film’s most recent Dorian Gray, played by Ben Barnes.
Ben Barnes in the 2009 film adaptation
The many visualizations of Dorian included in the text point to a fascinating book (or website) that still begs to be created—a visual and cultural history of Dorian Gray across the ages. Unlike Dorian 2011, such a project wouldn’t limit itself to illustrations made between 1908 and 1930, but would chart the changing face of Dorian up to the present. It would look at all the illustrated versions of the story, and also draw heavily on the Dorians found in films and on TV (around twenty of them), as well as those on stage, in video games, and in comics and graphic novels. It certainly wouldn’t ignore Dorians pictured by well-known artists (like Jim Dine); and it would assiduously track down those who have managed to escape from the confines of Wilde’s story, like the Dorian Gray of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the one captured by a video artist in Will Self’s novel, Dorian: An Imitation.
A satirical portrait of Wilde from Punch magazine
We can certainly learn a lot from an attempt to return Dorian Gray to the uncensored purity of Wilde’s first thoughts, but in a way it’s already much too late. The Dorian principle has long been in operation. He has escaped and is busily living multiple multimedia lives of his own. As Dorian 2011 repeatedly reminds us through its text and through its images, there is no single picture. There are only pictures of Dorian Gray.
Other works mentioned:
Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Dr. Ben Harvey is a British art historian presently working in the US. With a great passion for the intersecting themes of art, literature and film - he explores these and other topics at Emanata, a weblog uniquely facilitated by Mississippi State University College of Art, Architecture and Design(CAAD), where he is an Associate Professor.
Review copy supplied by Harvard University Press, with special thanks to Alexa and Natalie from Inbooks Australia.