Hello! Here is another article that continues the themes and texts we are exploring in The FrankenPod.
This is an extra something-something to go with our exploration of Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. It could be easy to dismiss Wilde’s contribution to the gothic literary canon as being somewhat of a one-hit-wonder situation. But there is this little story that as a Shakespeare conspiracy enthusiast (as a spectator, not necessarily as a subscriber to those theories) has a very dear place in my heart. There are a few features of The Portrait of Mr W.H. that will be familiar to readers of the exploits of Mr Gray.
Not many people consider it gothic, and that is fair, I can definitely see that argument. However, The Portrait of Mr W.H. features death, a potential curse, mystery and obsession; certainly traits we would ascribe to the gothic.
So what does this Victorian story have to do with Shakespeare?
There are two people believed to be explicitly addressed in Shakespeare’s Sonnets; “The Fair Youth” and “The Dark Lady”. There are many theories as to the identities of these two, and it is “The Fair Youth” who is the preoccupation of the characters and potentially the author of The Portrait of Mr W.H. The sonnets are dedicated to a Mr W.H. who many theorists believe is “The Fair Youth” of the sonnets
It is widely believed that Shakespeare was either in some kind of romantic relationship with ‘The Fair Youth”, or at the very least infatuated with him. So if you could discover the identity of Mr W.H. it follows that you would have discovered the identity of the elusive writer’s love interest. There are two main theories as to who he might be William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. However, there are literary theorists who have posited more humble origins for Shakespeare’s muse. A young poor man would not necessarily have had the means to create lasting documentation, such as a grand portrait or written proof of his existence, and therein lies the issue, you can’t possibly prove that this ignoble young man who might have been the object of the great bard’s affections exists, but you have no way to categorically prove he didn’t. It seems this meant a great deal to Wilde, or at the very least Lord Alfred Douglas, the latter of whom explicitly stated that he believed the theory that is posited by Wilde in this story. The theory put forward by Wilde in the text, or rather put forward by Cyril Graham, was that Mr W.H. was, in fact, Willie Hughes, a player in Shakespeare’s company. Willie Hughes is thought to have played the young female parts in Shakespeare’s theatre company, or so the theory states.
But did Willie Hughes ever even exist?
The actor’s existence and the nature of belief are at the heart of The Portrait of Mr W.H.
Erskine relays the story, very close to his heart about a young man who he was particularly fond of, a young man who is described in similar terms to Dorian Gray. Wilde does love to include very handsome young men in his books, and these young men occasionally descend into madness and despair. Wilde constructs his young men in crisis in much the same way as the spectacle of the damsel in distress is constructed. They are something to behold, Dorian Gray when we first meet him is serving as an artist’s model and the enchanting Cyril Graham is an aspiring actor. They are men being subject to the male gaze in a way that is similar to the righteous Mathilda and virginal Isabella in The Castle of Otranto or Lucy Westenra of Dracula with her multiple suitors and just about every young woman in Lewis’s The Monk.
However, less like the examples from The Monk and Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and more like Stoker’s Lucy Westenra, Dorian’s story takes a sinister turn when a destructive supernatural desire seizes him. Cyril Graham is a little different, he fashions himself as a Christ-like literary figure much like Walpole’s Mathilda.
When we are exploring the similarities between these two stories penned by Oscar Wilde there is also the use of a portrait as representative of a dangerous idea; for Dorian, it is eternal youth and beauty, for Cyril, it is the identity of Mr W.H. Suicide comes up a fair bit, as does the idea of the muse. As Dorian was Basil’s muse, so was Willie Hughes Shakespeare’s muse.
Let’s get into the story… It’s not a long tale and I would recommend reading it in its entirety. It is part of Lord Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.
But quick summary would be something like…
We hear the story from an unnamed narrator who tells us of a visit he has with his friend Erskine. On this visit our narrator remarks on a portrait of a beautiful young man who is somewhat gender ambiguous in his beauty and has his hand on a book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
His friend Erskine tells him a story (how’s your framing narrative tracker going?) of a peculiarly beautiful young man called Cyril Graham who tried to convince him that Mr W.H. was a young effeminate actor called Willie Hughes who left Shakespeare’s The Blackfriars for another playhouse. Shakespeare was deeply in love with the young man and the sonnets express his desire, dismay and obsession.
Cyril, it must be noted, in his not too distant youth was a young man who played the women’s roles as an aspiring actor and thus may have felt a deep affinity for the hypothetical Willie Hughes. Erskine dismissed Cyril’s theory and in an endeavour to prove to his friend of what he believed wholeheartedly was true, Cyril commisioned Edward Merton to provide him with an excellent forgery of an end of the 16th-century painting featuring Willie Hughes. Cyril then passed it off to his friend Erskine as the genuine article. Erskine through an unfortunate or fortunate coincidence depending on your reading discovers Merton’s preliminary silverpoint of the painting and promptly confronts Cyril about the deception.
Cyril proclaims that he believes his theory absolutely and that the forgery was for Erskine’s benefit. Harsh words are exchanged and after Erskine leaves, Cyril shoots himself, leaving a note to the effect that he dies for the cause of advocating the Willie Hughes theory as the secret to the sonnets. His blood splatter across the words “Mr W.H.” on the painting. The efficacy of his martyrdom is completely undermined by Erskine’s desire to put the whole mess behind him and to simply remember the young man with the aid of the forgery that he still hangs in his house. But Erskine did not continue the work of Cyril or explain the motive behind his suicide to the public or indeed the Graham family.
Our narrator is mortified by Erskine’s lack of commitment to, what appears to his cursory glance, to be a genius theory of the sonnets that is too beautiful and poetic not to be true. There is a bit of a row and our narrator goes off in a huff to prove the theory of Willie Hughes. He examines the sonnets over and over again, working from the assumption that the eponymous Willie Hughes was a flesh and blood man, almost exactly as Cyril has envisioned him. Armed only with passion and circular reasoning our narrator writes was we must assume is one of the greatest pieces of persuasive writing, explaining to Erskine why the Willie Hughes theory is the only viable theory as to the identity of Mr W.H. and that he must reconsider his opinion.
And for some reason, Erskine does.
Erskine, renewed in his faith in Willie Hughes, begins his frantic search for definitive proof to show the world of the truth of the Willie Hughes theory. By this stage Our Narrator has lost interest and looks back on his impassioned theorizing, seeing its flaws. He no longer sees the truth in the Willie Hughes theory and desperately tries to dissuade his friend. It doesn’t work and Erskine leaves the country to ostensibly follow the trail of Willie Hughes.
Time passes and Our Narrator finally gets word from Erskine in the form of a suicide letter. Erskine says that by the time Our Narrator reads this he will have died for the cause of the Willie Hughes theory. This isn’t quite true, but Erskine does die and the portrait now resides in the house of our narrator. It sits in full view of guests, possibly still with traces of Cyril Graham’s blood on it and he does not tell a soul of its tragic origin.
There are a few readings of this ending;
Either there is nothing supernatural about the portrait or the idea it represents, it is just a particularly beautiful and powerful solution to a literary mystery. A theory it seems like it might fit if only you just tried a bit harder…
Or Our Narrator by not passing on the tragic story of the portrait of Mr W.H. has effectively broken the curse.
Or the mere existence of the portrait is a ticking time bomb
Or Our Narrator just passed on the curse of Mr W.H. by relating the story to us…
This short story has one of my favourite final lines of any book, and whilst I’ve spoilt everything else I refuse to spoil this.
Read the damn book. It’s amazing and slightly superior to The Picture of Dorian Gray in my opinion. It doesn’t have the padding and constant epigrams that are the chief downfall of the aforementioned full-length novel.
In obligatory links to Frankenstein, there is a similar thematic connection to the picture of Dorian Gray, Cyril Graham creates the identity of Willie Hughes and it consumes him.