This story is one of those stories where the background information is almost just as fascinating as the actual material, if not more so. And without it, it really would be diminished. The story itself revolves around 19th century London, and Mr Dorian Gray, a wealthy young gentleman with some ‘deviant behaviours’. He has his portrait taken, and then by some supernatural means, it is the portrait that takes on all his superficial defects, all his wrinkles, all his aging. Not just that, but it also exposes his inner temperament, his vices, his sins and his misdeeds. Predictably, it sends him nearly mad.
Now, I found the book a very strange mix of a Pride and Prejudice feel with some fantastical element (and actual drama). I say this because some parts were duller and really it’s probably just it was in London in an era of gentlemen and ladies and all that aristocracy, with their dinner parties and servants. So at times I was mildly bored. But then things took a much more exciting turn, with murder and intrigue and all things fascinating. And I found myself rejoicing that it wasn’t a dull, old, literary book.
But what I rejoiced about even more, was just how fascinating the context was, and the history this book has. My edition (Penguin Classics) had a number of notes (which are oh so handy at explaining random references that nobody these days is going to get), some of which highlighted some key edits in the story from the original version. Why these edits came about was also interesting. At the time of publication, there was some talk from critics about how filthy this book was, and that no respectable person should read it. When really, okay, there were homosexual relationship overtones, and some murder, and a bit of opium den hopping. But, from our modern perspective, this is PG at worst. Still Wilde made edits, and toned down the obsession between two male characters and make things more palatable.
Then there is Wilde’s own life which is just too interesting, and very sad. This story was quite a success for him, and was the beginning of a career with more plays to follow. But it also set the tone for his public opinion, and perhaps led to his conviction in court of ‘gross indecency’ with other men (of course it being true sealed the case, but it was read back to him in court). After that, he had to fade into hiding and obscurity.
And this led me to read about “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” as it was mentioned in one of the notes. It is a very early example of investigative journalism, which changed public opinion and then the law. It brought about change to stop child prostitution, though it ended up biting the journalist on the ass, when he got caught technically breaking a law to get the story. It makes for some fascinating and yet especially horrific reading. No wonder there was outrage.
Anyway back to the story, overall I actually found it really intriguing and enjoyable. Lord Henry had some very unusual ideas about the world, and I wonder how he was viewed at the time by readers compared to my modern take. The insight into 19th century London was actually quite interesting to see how the city was described, and the idea of the outer areas being like a labyrinth of shadiness. I’m now looking forward to reading some more Wilde in the future.