With some new context, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891) for the third time. Three times is a lot for me, especially for a second-rate books like Wilde’s only novel, or collage fiction, or whatever it is. But I had new information to bring to the book – Wilde’s criticism, his letters, especially some amusing sparring with newspaper reviewers which is instantly identifiable as what some of us now call “clickbait,” and finally J.-K. Huysmans’s À rebours (1884), a novel that is alluded to at tedious length.
The book does look quite a bit different to me now, so I suppose this exercise has been a success.
The parts of the collage are as follows:
1. The two page “Preface,” a prose poem in aphorism form. “All art is quite useless,” etc. I used to think the Preface was meant sincerely, an error on my part.
2. A penny dreadful horror story, a good one, with a murder and so on.
3. Passages stolen pretty cleanly from Huysmans, mostly in the hilarious Chapter 11, declared unreadable by many good readers, in which young, beautiful Dorian, given license to live a life of pure, consequence-free pleasure, vice and evil, spends his time as follows:
And so he would now study perfumes, and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils, and burning odorous gums from the East…
At another time, he devoted himself to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts in which mad gypsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums, and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass, and charmed, or feigned to charm, great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders…
Then he turned his attention to embroideries…
And so on. “Then he became obsessed with quilting, and won several ribbons at the county fair. Next, it was canning, especially spicy bread-and-butter pickles.” Terrifying, the depths of Dorian Gray’s evil.
4. Prose versions of the paradox and banter that will soon, beginning with Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), form the core of an extraordinary series of plays. Although often hilarious in the novel, this kind of dialogue is set free in the plays. Wilde frequently loots his own novel, stealing the best jokes, and also some other jokes, and distributing them among the plays. E.g. from Dorian Gray,
“Men have educated us.”
“But not explained you.”
“Describe us as a sex,” was her challenge.
“Sphinxes without secrets.” (Ch. 17)
And from A Woman of No Importance (1893):
Lord Illingworth: What do you call a bad man?
Mrs. Allonby: The sort of man who admires innocence.
Lord Illingworth: And a bad woman?
Mrs. Allonby: Oh! the sort of woman a man never gets tired of.
Lord Illingworth: You are severe – on yourself.
Mrs. Allonby: Define us as a sex.
Lord Illingworth: Sphinxes without secrets. (Act I)
Apparently that line is so good it counts as a scored point in the banter duel.
It is to Wilde’s credit that he recognized that #4 was his great innovation but belonged in another form. A couple of years later, the plays would make Wilde rich and (even more) famous. A couple of years later than that, he was breaking rocks in prison.