Thursday, June 23, 2016

Then he turned his attention to embroideries - the collage of The Picture of Dorian Gray

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.


  1. Quite a few late Victorians and Edwardians turned their attention to embroideries for some reason: Saki and Lord Kitchener were two of them.

  2. I re-read this recently, only for the second time, though I remembered very little of my first reading 40 years ago. I was struck by the discord between the Preface and the novel itself, which seems as moralistic as any piece of Victorian fiction I can recall. I thought many of Wilde’s descriptions of objects had an air of the auction room about them, emphasizing materials and provenance. I too liked the penny dreadful horror story aspect, which mainly showed up in the last quarter or so; the visit to the opium den was particularly good.

  3. Ahahaha, embroideries and quilting. Hey, those are serious arts, I'll have you know! I spent part of my UK trip swooning over 17th century embroideries, but Victorians thought 17th century embroidery was hideous (it's an acquired taste, certainly), so Dorian wouldn't have been into it--he would have liked pseudo-medieval stuff maybe....

  4. Hm, is it a good idea to eat Dorian's evil bread-and-butter pickles? :)

  5. "Serious arts," exactly - seriously EVIL arts! Evil, evil embroidery. Dorian likes the 17th century, too - Louis XIV stuff. He's like me, he likes everything.

    Maybe I should have gone for Brooklyn Hipster Dorian Gray, who granted eternal youth spends it making artisanal soap, listening to Grizzly Bear, and growing organic kale and a long beard, while his portrait remains beardless. But I went with State Fair Dorian Gray which seemed funnier. "And then he really got into baking."

    I think I'm going to address Bill's comment with my post today, but I'll say here that the first time I read this novel I fell for the Preface like a sucker, the second time I was deeply confused by the discord Bill mentions - his description is exactly right - and this time I felt I finally had a sense of the game Wilde is playing.

    The auction room stuff is pure Huysmans, close to plagiarism.

  6. State Fair Dorian Gray is my favorite. Hipster Dorian would have been too obvious, and we quilters need the love. :)

  7. Evil chicken fluffing. Evil fried butter on a stick. Largest pumpkin (class: evil).

  8. What a terrific post! A reread of Dorian Gray with a much broader context is a wonderful idea - the years and gender realignment I have been through may shed an interesting new light on the text to say the least.

  9. As Cecily Cardew almost says: "I always take a corndog when I travel. I believe everyone ought to have something sensational to eat on the train."

  10. State Fair Earnest would make a good travesty.

    JM, thanks. The letters written "around" Dorian Gray are valuable. But even aside from them, the text revealed some new secrets.

  11. My theory on reading the novel is people read it first in their late teens or early twenties and wish they knew people who talked like those in the novel, then a few decades go by and they reread it and say "is this the book I fell in love with long ago?".

    1. That's my experience too. I won't be reading it a third time...

    2. Without the impetus of reading Wilde's criticism, I doubt I would have read it a third time myself. But the essays - and letters - opened the book up in a new way.

  12. I can only say that I did know such people, and that I have never really fallen in love with this novel.