It’s 2pm Australian Eastern Daylight savings time on the 27th of October 2018 which means The Frankenpod season two starts in just four days on the 31st of October!
Not really intentional it just seemed as good a time as any.
We have some amazing episodes coming with Melissa of The Brook Reading podcast on a particularly divisive and controversial book and I don my tinfoil hat with the ladies of Wives Tales to talk about a cinematic adaptation of one of the most popular conspiracies based novels of the 20th Century.
But for the first episode of season two Brent and I tackle a little true crime by examining a masterpiece of “literary non-fiction”, some of the controversies surrounding it and it’s cinematic adaptations.
We’ve recorded a short promo just to keep everyone in the loop and you can find the initial relaunch blog post here.
This season we will be featuring creepy stories submitted by listeners and some classic gothic short stories you may not have heard before. It doesn’t have to be frightening, it doesn’t have to be dramatic, just a little something that can be read in 5 minutes. If you like you can send it to us as the text for us to read or you can read it yourself and send us an audio file. If writing isn’t your thing we are also happy to accept music.
Make sure you let us know if you want us to promote your project, podcast, writing or anything. It is literally the least we could do.
If you want to come on the podcast and have a chat about your favourite gothic book, movie, television show, graphic novel, poem, character or author you can email us at email@example.com.
Image: A digitized image of the original painting American Gothic that Grant Wood, a master artist of the twentieth century, created in 1930 and sold to the Art Institute of Chicago in November of the same year.
This episode I’m joined by Meg from the fabulous pop-culture podcast Indoorswomen. We talked about the 2014 vampire spoof What we do in the Shadows. I love this movie and Meg took part in the Kickstarter to get a US theatrical release of this distinctly New Zealand gothic parody. We completely spoil this movie so if you haven’t seen it before and you plan on watching it, watch it before you listen.
John Keats was a brilliant poet and a darling of the Romantic age and whilst his legacy has been somewhat eclipsed by the formidable shadow of Lord Byron, many snippets from his works have slipped into common usage. For example “A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, that was his, it’s from a poem called Endymion. I’m not sure how many people are aware of its origin, I certainly wasn’t until I stumbled across the poem in a collection in my high school library.
In this post, I’m going to focus on the works of the Romantics and the place they have posthumously found within social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. The titular ‘#romanticism’ will immediately bring up results for an ocean of tweets of the work of the great romantic painters, including the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (pictured) generally tweeted by accounts that identify as the artist’s name such as John Everitt Millais @artistmillais.
Rebellious and subversive poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge & Percy Bysshe Shelley never lived to see their writing form become old hat. There was no possibility that they could comprehend moving from romanticism to modernism, modernism to postmodernism and so on. The likes of Shelley, Byron and Keats have drifted in and out of favour and in this age of social media we might expect that these tired authors might be firmly relegated to history. But then came social media and literature nerds like myself and countless others are consistently brushing off the metaphorical dusty pages, canvasses and plates to not only digitise but memorialise and adapt pieces of the Romantic movement. Below is one of my tweets using the #romaniticism hashtag to share an edited image from a literary annual featuring works of Romanticism for young ladies to promote my podcast that talks about a work of Romanticism by Mary Shelley, one of the great authors of the Romantic movement. And that my friend is convergence.
Vast quantities of books from the Romantic period have been digitised by libraries and archives, they have been transcribed by volunteers at Project Gutenberg and read by volunteers at Librivox. That information or the books they are derived from is then used by others to write blogs, record Youtube videos, make podcasts and create those very pretty and ambiguous inspirational quotes.
All or most of these creations are shared on social media. But none of this happens without the human desire to make mediums collide and take their experience of a text into a different realm. These sharable, likeable and Tweetable formats that we squeeze these often weighty, sometimes iconic texts and images may have the effect of diminishing the work, but it can also have the effect of adding to rather than subtracting from the narrative of the artefact; that is it can make a static piece of art into something that living, morphing and consistently reimagined. Ross & Sayers (2014) highlight the way that modernist texts can become alive through social media and other internet-mediated discourse and a similar argument could be applied to the preceding Romantic movement.
As Wright suggests in ‘Battle of the Books’ (2009) this new digitisation of literature means that ‘the book is becoming a fluid entity that can flow into a number of vessels’ and the same is true of poetry and art. The appeal of these particular works of the Romantic period is surely due in no small measure to their status in the public domain, leaving these iconic works that helped pave the way for western cultural heritage as we know it freely available for anyone to read, dissect and reimagine.
As Wright suggests in ‘Battle of the Books’ (2009) this new digitisation of literature means that ‘the book is becoming a fluid entity that can flow into a number of vessels’ and the same is true of poetry and art. The appeal of these particular works of the Romantic period is surely due in no small measure to their status in the public domain, leaving these iconic works that helped pave the way for western cultural heritage as we know it freely available for anyone to read, dissect and reimagine.
Listen to a quick podcast on Romantic Gothic literature, impermanence and Percy Bysshe Shelley
Jenkins, H 2006, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, NYU Press, New York, USA.
In this episode of The FrankenPod, we talk a little bit about one of Mary Shelley’s works written for the literary annual The Keepsake. We already covered the ‘Mortal Immortal’ and Shelley published 7 or 8 stories in The Keepsake.
The Keepsake was produced with a particular audience in mind, the relatively new reading demographic or young women. The increased literacy of women in the 19th century, despite the fact that their wandering wombs might be affected by scandalous novels and stories.
But basically, it was still considered relatively dangerous to be exposing women to literature, particularly literature that was scandalous, scary or not completely pious and religious.
Basically historically society has had a pretty dim view of educating women and allowing them to read. Because god knows what they might do if they gained an alternate world view from the ones prescribed by their husbands, fathers and brothers.
Back to keepsake. Because it was aimed at young women it was bound in red dress silk and had lots of pictures.
It was published between 1828, so 10 years after Frankenstein, until 1857, so 10 years after Sweeney Todd on The FrankenPod timeline
The publication was founded by Charles Heath who was actually an engraver, so those amazing pictures?
It took some work but he was able to get Hurst, Chance, & Co to publish the first volume in 1828. It was edited by William Ainsworth who created Dick Turpin the highwayman and very unhelpfully does not list the authors of the stories and poems. We do know that one of the contributions was made by Percy Shelley, William Ainsworth and Felicia Heman who wrote the poem ‘Casablanca’ which starts
The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead.
Which is this gut punch of a poem about a kid who dies on a burning ship, but that I encountered as a child by my eternally classy father teaching me this version:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Picking his nose like mad,
Rolling it into little balls
And throwing them at his dad.
Anyway there a good 10 or twenty stories and poems in the 1828 The Keepsake that don’t have clear authorship which is a shame. The engravings, however, are all attributed, mostly to Charles Heath.
The Percy Shelley contribution was published posthumously presumably by Mary Shelley, he had drowned 6 years previously.
We do have the authors for the second edition in 1829.
They included Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge who wrote my favourite piece of Albatross inspired literature this is the last bit from Part 1 of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
But he hadn’t written that yet, that was 5 years away.
Other attributed authors included Felicia Hemon (Listed as Mrs Hemon) Wordsworth, Southey, so some pretty big names.
The 1829 edition also brings us the first 2 contributions by Mary Shelley – Ferdinando Eboli (pronunciation?) and The Sisters of Albano
There is much more information on Ferdinando Eboli.
It follows the story of Count Ferdinando Eboli who is saying farewell to his loved ones before leaving for the Napoleonic Wars.
At this point, I should probably tell you that the publication The Keepsake was said to showcase second-rate fiction from first-rate authors…
I’ve never felt more Like we need a prepared statement. We have seen the trailer for Mary Shelley! Thank you so much to everyone who emailed and a special thank you to Nick of Nick and Vince’s podcast on Twitter, I love that I’ve been fan girl enough about Frankenstein that people saw the movie come out and though, shit I wonder if The Frankenpod has seen this. I’ll be honest I’ve been nervous about the theatre release of this one since I heard about it being screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
I’ll be honest I saw some things included that made me happy, but a few that really made me concerned that I may not like this film. I’ve also seen some interviews that lead me to believe that there was a very passionate Mary Shelley enthusiast in Haifaa Al-Mansour and I looked up the pronunciation but I bet I’ve botched it anyway and that is entirely on me.
Early reviews do not seem to be favourable, and they do seem to have gone for a sensationalised approach, but at least it seems to be intended as a feminist reading of the events so even if it’s a bit outlandish, there might be some value to it. That being said there seem to be no definitive dates for an Australian release so if anyone gets to see it in late May in the U.S. and June in the U.K. you must tell me what it is like!
This actually ties in quite nicely with the story I’m going to tell you tonight actually, sort of…
This time we are going back to our origins, both the podcasts and my own with My Life as A Fake by Peter Carey an entry into the Australian gothic literary canon.
I was obsessed with a Bushranger, other countries read horse stealing, bank robbing outlaw type called Ned Kelly at about the age of 10 or twelve. During this time I read every book on the Kelly gang I could get my hands on, except one. There was one book that I was warned about, a book never to read, a book that crossed the line… IT EMBELLISHED THE FACTS. It is impossible to convey exactly how repulsive that book was to me as a result, creative nonfiction and historical fiction are two of my great genre loves, but back then I viewed the whole matter as a betrayal.
That book was Peter Carey’s True Story of the Kelly Gang. I still haven’t read it, I kind of still fear that I might turn to dust or explode if I tried.
A little more recently I was introduced to the novel discussed today, My Life as a fake. Still incensed by the horror of his Kelly gang book I assumed it was an autobiography. I am not joking.
I was glad he was admitting to his transgressions.
Then I found out it took inspiration from both Frankenstein and one of my favourite literary scandals, yes I have a favourite literary scandal (Welcome to The Frankenpod) the publishing of the posthumous works of Ern Malley
To explain the book in any real way you need to know about Ern Malley
And to tell the tale of Ern Malley you need to know about Angry Penguins
Angry Penguins was an artsy experimental Avante Garde literary publication started by Max Harris in 1940 in Adelaide Australia. He was just 18. The magazine flourished and took submissions, art, prose and poetry. The publication had been going for 4 years when Ethel Malley contacted him via letter, offering up her brother Ernest’s Poetry as a submission to Angry Penguins.
Max Harris was very excited by the works and even commissioned artwork by Sidney Nolan for the front of a special edition featuring Ernest’s poetry.
Sadly Ernest had passed away in 1943, so he would never see his work published. Would you like to hear a little of one of his poems?
Opening of Perspective Lovesong
It was a night when the planets
Were wreathed in dying garlands.
It seemed we had substituted
The abattoirs for the guillotine.
I shall not forget how you invented
Then, the conventions of faithfulness.
It seemed that we were submerged
Under a reef of coral to tantalize
The wise-grinning shark. The waters flashed
With Blue Angels and Moorish Idols.
And if I mistook your dark hair for weed
Was it not floating upon my tides?
The poetry was fresh, new and exciting and the poet was completely oblivious of his own talent, coming from working-class roots. A real diamond in the rough, and Max Harris was determined to give this underdog poet his moment to shine. Ernest, known as Ern to his friends was born in Liverpool in 1918 and migrated to Sydney Australia with his mother and sister just after his father’s passing in 1920. They lived in Perth until his mother’s death in 1933, after which the Young Ern Malley dropped out of school to become an auto mechanic, then moved to Melbourne at the age of 17. In Melbourne, he held a series of jobs before being diagnosed with Graves disease. He moved back to Sydney to be with his sister and died at the very young age of 25, refusing to get treatment for his illness. It seems that unbeknownst to those closest to him the young man had been writing a compilation of poetry called the Darkening Ecliptic. His sister had found his poetry in his belongings and sent it to the magazine.
Except she hadn’t.
Ern Malley wasn’t dead,
No one dies of graves disease
In fact he never existed
He was a hoax by two quite conservative modernist poets named Stewart and McAuley who met during military service, they thought that Angry Penguins and Harris published ridiculous rubbish and put together the most ludicrous submission they could come up with.
And the editor bought it, hook, line and sinker. would you like to hear part of one of the poems?
This is the opening verse of Culture as Exhibit
“Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other Areas of stagnant water serve As breeding-grounds …” Now Have I found you, my Anopheles! (There is a meaning for the circumspect) Come, we will dance sedate quadrilles, A pallid polka or a yelping shimmy Over these sunken sodden breeding-grounds! We will be wraiths and wreaths of tissue-paper To clog the Town Council in their plans. Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun.
The opening lines are from an Army Directorate on mosquitoes, called Anopheles.
The scandal destroyed the magazine
The press had a field day and then the fuss died down and the incident became a bizarre part of Australian literary history.
Except not quite… in Peter Carey’s version of events, with names and details changed subtly. The hoaxer, by creating this tragic poet out of whole cloth creates an actual person, like Victor Frankenstein creating his creature Christopher Chubb has conjured up Bob McCorkle with words alone, and the man has been rendered flesh and blood by the publisher Jack Slater through the simple act of printing the works, and like any act of tremendous hubris in a gothic setting, disaster ensues.
This is another one of those books that I would loathe ruining the story.
However we do have unnatural creation, a crazed creator, the resurrectionists are name-checked, there is murder, kidnapping and aloof hyper-sexualized poets galore. Sound familiar?
Also, this clearly falls in with our theme the gothic city as the bulk of the early action takes place in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia which is depicted from a self consciously post-imperialist British viewpoint. Kuala Lumpur is depicted as a gritty monsoonal labyrinth that smells mainly of fish and tries to reject the visiting Brits, making them ill. There is racism within these pages, and the brutality of the 1969 race riots, is not long past when the books take place, as our narrator Sarah reflects on as she sees a resident using a machete during harvesting.
Sydney and Melbourne also get the Gothic treatment, the gravesites, bleak working-class residences and bohemian multistory abodes. Not quite as vibrant as Kuala Lumpur, or maybe I just don’t find the description of Melbourne that gothic and outlandish, bare in mind I spent about a third of my goth phase passing the time broke and stupid in the alleyways of Melbourne. The book is rife with depictions of the cultural cringe, from Australian ex-pats wanting to deny their heritage to an artist called Noisette actually being Mary Moriss from Wangaratta. We also get a British character saying that an Australia has a tiny antipodean brain.
There are lots of grim gothic allusions, webs, blood, the man upon the stair, a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost and the stitching together of the visage of Ern Malley.
There are still those who see something remarkable about the poems. In fact, the work of Ern Malley inspired postmodern poetry overseas, particularly in America where the context of the hoax was easier to disassociate from the work itself. The conservative poets McAuley and Stewart accidentally wrote a pivotal piece of experimental poetry and helped inspire poets and painters for years to come.
Sidney Nolan cited the Ern Malley hoax as the inspiration for his Ned Kelly paintings… see what I did there.
Here is a talk about why we shouldn’t let the story of Ern Malley die.
“But in our family, if you cannot write an epic or novel, that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging”
Claire Clairmont to Jane Williams
Claire was born Clara, was nicknamed Jane as a child, and then adopted Claire in her teenage years. She was a wild teenager, and it sounds like she would have been a lot of fun until she got bogged down by Byron and all his drama.
It is quite possible she had some kind of affair with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to Harriet and already having an affair with Mary. Some of his poems are thought to be about her and their affair may have resulted in a baby called Elena. A baby by that name was registered as being born to Shelley and “Maria” but Mary could not have been the mother. If Claire was the mother she went up Mount Vesuvius just before she gave birth which is a weird call.
Whoever Elena was, she had a short life in foster care and died age one.
This brings us to Byron.
See Villa Diodati for more details on that mess. After her affair with Byron, she realized she was pregnant with his child. She wrote lengthy letters to the poet beseeching him to help her, financially and emotionally. But we’ve discussed how awful Byron was so you can probably guess how that went.
She had a daughter Allegra with no support whatsoever from Byron. Then in an effort to provide the best possible opportunities for her daughter, she sent Allegra to him in Italy.
I get it, a single mother, in Regency England, she didn’t have many options. She also had no way of knowing how little the poet would have to do with little Allegra once she arrived in Italy. Allegra was placed in a convent, alone. Byron never visited her.
Claire was furious! Byron had promised her that Allegra would at least be able to see him, not directly under his care, but at least in his house. Byron was unresponsive to her letters and requests to get Allegra back. So she formed a cunning plan.
The Kidnap Plot
Claire was intensely unhappy and worried about her daughter’s wellbeing in the convent. Her living conditions were unknown to Claire, but she did not hold out much hope for the suitability and safety of her accommodations. She was just a little kid, and if her father was going to neglect her she should be with her mother. Claire began to plan to get her daughter back. She tried to convince Percy Bysshe Shelley to forge a letter from Byron allowing Claire to remove Allegra from the convent. But before she could put her plan into action little Allegra died of typhus or a malarial like fever aged just 5. The only person to visit Allegra during her time in the Italian convent was Percy. Claire blamed Byron, understandably so, and ferociously hated the poet beyond his death saying that he had ‘given her only a few minutes of pleasure but a lifetime of trouble’.
After Allegra, then Shelley’s death, Claire’s desire in life seemed to be finding some semblance of peace and normalcy. It seems a though the rollercoaster of Claire’s early adult years had quenched whatever desire for turbulent romantic entanglements she had had. She spent time as a music teacher, a governess and a few other respectable and consistent jobs. She kept in touch with her stepsister Mary, and while their old rivalry and competitiveness occasionally caused a ripple, they stayed in correspondence until Mary’s death. Mary for her part said that she thought that is was impossible that Percy and Claire had a physical relationship. No matter what the truth is in regard to the nature of their relationship, it is clear they cared a great deal for each other.
Claire never married, an unusual choice at the time, but when taken in the context of what she endured at the hands of Lord Byron, it is not surprising. She had her fair share of suitors, including Trelawny who was part of the Shelley circle towards the end of Shelley and Byron’s lives. But Claire was fine without the drama.
She outlived all of her companions who were there at the Villa Diodati on the fateful night of the ghost story challenge. I find Claire the most relatable out of the bunch. Her life didn’t go exactly how she planned and she was not some inaccessible gothic romantic heroine.
In 1816 the after-effects of a devastating eruption of Mount Tambora the year beforehand were seriously messing with weather patterns and consequently the harvest. Farmers across the globe were struggling to make ends meet and cost of food and produce skyrocketed. Byron was still travelling. He left England in disgrace and he would never go back until they transported his cold lifeless corpse back to England against his wishes. Mary, her husband Percy and her stepsister Claire were travelling too. Referred to as the Shelley Party, or Shelley and his two little wives. The two parties would cross paths between 10 June to 1 November 1816 at Lake Geneva that would be intensely documented and scrutinised.
Whilst Mary and her novel may be our primary point of interest, she is not the driving force behind the gathering of these remarkable people. No, it is her persistent and enamoured 18-year-old step sister, who had organised for the two parties to meet up using the kind of Machiavellian manipulation that only a strong-willed 18-year-old woman can orchestrate. Claire Clairmont had, through written correspondence, pursued Lord Byron and, he, exhausted from the constant scandal was absolutely willing to have an affair with a pretty, chaperone-less young lady who was the stepdaughter of one of the most esteemed thinkers of his age.
Their affair was short-lived and Byron unceremoniously ditched her. Claire, however, was not done with him and she began to utilize all the social capital she had at her disposal. If you haven’t caught on yet Byron is an arse. He was accused of all sorts of adulterous and licentious behaviour including a rumoured affair with his half-sister. He spent his time hopping from scandal to scandal, leaving a path of destruction in his wake. His behaviour was particularly devastating to the women he had affairs with as the scandal could ruin their lives. He was very assured of his own genius and place in the world and he thought nothing of dismissing the affections of this young woman until she introduced Percy and Mary into the mix.
Byron, like Percy and numerous other young writers of the time, was fascinated by Mary. This daughter of two literary greats must be special indeed. And Percy had previously sent Byron a copy of Queen Mab in which the older poet saw a budding poetic voice emerging. Plus Byron had dealt with his fair share of public scandal so he felt a certain affinity with the young unwed couple.
However, Byron was leaving for Geneva and Claire was not going to give up just yet. She asked for the address.
He said no.
She asked again but this time she offered to bring Mary and Percy along.
This idea appealed to Byron and an invitation was extended to the Shelley party who by this stage was essentially on the run from Percy’s creditors and the scandalous reputation they had acquired in England.
Byron was not travelling alone, his laudanum addiction provoked him to retain the services of a doctor to accompany him in his travels, one Doctor John Polidori. Literary lore and Polidori’s own account of his time with the genius poet depicts a Byron as a potential sociopath who would constantly berate and belittle his paid companion, whilst demonstrating an easy charm and playfulness with others. He enjoyed toying with the young doctor, delighting in his failures and missteps. But Polidori had a secret; he had been paid quite a large sum of money by publisher John Murray to document the trip for publication. Byron gossip was a high priced commodity, and though his motives were far from pure, it is Polidori’s notes to which we owe a large portion of what we know of the events that transpired at the on the holiday…
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 ofOtranto 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.
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Oscar Wilde is one of the greatest literary icons, from his poetry to his plays, his essays to his novels and everything in between. Oscar Wilde oozes charisma and charm, he delights and entertains, but just below the surface, there is a deep sadness and sorrow.
His life has been documented in great detail and I will not be able to go into his life in the depths that many others have. Similar to my summary of Mary Shelley’s life it will be an overview of his life and the impact of his works rather than a deep dive.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on the 16th October 1854 in Dublin. Similar to Shelley he grew up around theorists, academics and writers. His mother, Jane Wilde, was an Irish patriot and his father, William Wilde was an esteemed surgeon with at best a scandalous and at worst a darkly criminal sexual past. During his Dublin and Oxford years, he became a classicist of some note and was there at the beginning of the popularisation of aestheticism lead by Walter Paton and John Ruskin. There is a lot to unpack when talking about the emergence of the philosophy of aestheticism so I won’t go into that.
Wilde is perceived to be part of the transition between Romanticism and Modernism.
Wilde is modern in the sense that he breaks apart the Victorian and Romantic idealism using wit and witticism. Like Mary Shelley, Wilde stitches together bits of preceding literature, mythology and academic theory and fashions these disparate parts into something that is at once new exciting and familiar on a deep subconscious level. His work deals in Doppelgangers and duality, both in style and in the characters he creates.
The guiding principle of the aestheticism that Wilde would be renowned for is Art for Art’s sake which was proposed by Gautier. This ideology allowed Wilde to interact with the budding consumerism of the late Victorian period effectively gaining sponsorship for wearing the bohemian he was renowned for. As his plays Salome, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband and the Importance of Being Earnest became both popular and critically acclaimed he achieved a celebrity status which would be a key factor in his devastating fall from grace.
Wilde had quite a number of girlfriend’s before he married Constance Lloyd, they had two children together and Wilde is commonly thought to have been a devoted father, and potentially even a good husband. He was a poet, essayist, novelist and playwright, he also held a position as editor of Lady’s World during which he strongly advocated for dress reform. It cannot be emphasized how key dress reform was in the early days of feminism. It allowed women to forgo the corsets and prohibitive crinoline hoops for clothing that allowed them to move freely and didn’t cause the dramatic health issues of the earlier period of Victorian dress. Whilst it is thought he only took the position as a means of regular income as freelance writing was not covering Wilde’s somewhat lavish lifestyle, he certainly was a force for good and progressive voice advocating for female independence. I’ve written a little about the dress reform movement before so here’s the link to that.
There was a sort of Social doubling happening in the England into which Wilde released The Picture of Dorian Gray published in 1890. Being openly gay was not considered as immoral as we might think, looking back on the repression of the Victorian era. Oscar Wilde was among the men who maintained a heteronormative family life whilst also engaging in homosexual relationships that were not so much hidden as relatively unspoken of outside of those social spheres. But the tides were changing and a law had been passed that would allow gay men to prosecuted under gross indecency laws. These laws weren’t really taken very seriously but all that was about to change.
It was during this time that our Protagonist met Lord Alfred Bosie who regularly frequented sex workers and brought out a particularly indulgent and decadent side in Wilde.
It was Bosie’s father who sent the inflammatory and misspelt note to Wilde saying that he was “posing as a somdomite” yes… somdomite. Which was the genesis of what was to be an almost complete social rejection of Wilde.
Wilde, encouraged by Bosie, sued Bosie’s father the hyper-masculine Marquess of Queensbury for liable. This move backfired dramatically with the suit for liable being dismissed and Wilde was arrested for gross indecency.
Here is a passage describing the events leading to the trial from the Trials of Oscar Wilde, please bear in mind when reading this that it was published in 1906 and there is a fair amount of insulting language directed at Wilde and homosexuality in general. Obviously, I am not okay with this kind of attitude and bigotry, but this will give you a bit of an insight into how Wilde’s reputation would be damaged for decades and decades:
He was addicted to the vice and crime of sodomy long before he formed a “friendship” which was destined to involve him in irretrievable ruin. In London, he met a younger son of the eccentric Marquis of Queensbury, Lord Alfred Douglas by name. This youth was being educated at [Pg 8]Cambridge. He was of peculiar temperament and talented in a strong, frothy style. He was good-looking in an effeminate, lady-like way. He wrote verse. His poems not being of a manner which could be acceptable to a self-respecting publication, his efforts appeared in an eccentric and erratic magazine which was called “The Chameleon.” In this precious serial appeared a “poem” from the pen of Lord Alfred dedicated to his father in these filial words: “To the Man I Hate.”
Oscar Wilde at once developed an extraordinary and dangerous interest in this immature literary egg. A being of his own stamp, after his own heart, was Lord Alfred Douglas. The love of women delighted him not. The possession of a young girl’s person had no charm for him. He yearned for higher flights in the realms of love! He sought unnatural affection. Wilde, experienced in all the symptoms of a disordered sexual fancy, contrived to exercise a remarkable and sinister influence over this youth. Again and again and again did his father implore Lord Alfred Douglas to separate himself from the tempter. Lord Queensberry threatened, persuaded, bribed, urged, cajoled: all to no purpose. Wilde and his son were constantly together. The nature of their friendship became the talk of the [Pg 9]town. It was proclaimed from the housetops. The Marquis, determined to rescue him if it were humanly possible, horsewhipped his son in a public thoroughfare and was threatened with a summons for assault. On one occasion—it was the opening night of one of the Wilde plays—he sent the author a bouquet of choice—vegetables! Three or four times he wrote to him begging him to cancel his friendship with Lord Alfred. Once he called at the house in Tite Street and there was a terrible scene. The Marquis fumed; Wilde laughed. He assured his Lordship that only at his son’s own request would he break off the association which existed between them. The Marquis, driven to desperation, called Wilde a disgusting name. The latter, with a show of wrath, ordered the peer from his door and he was obliged to leave.
At all costs and hazards, at the risk of any pain and grief to himself, Lord Queensberry was determined to break off the disgraceful liaison. He stopped his son’s allowance, but Wilde had, at that time, plenty of money and his purse was his friend’s. At last the father went to the length of leaving an insulting message for Oscar Wilde at that gentleman’s club. He called there and asked for Wilde. The clerk at the enquiry office stated that Mr. Wilde was[Pg 10] not on the premises. The Marquis then produced a card and wrote upon it in pencil these words, “Oscar Wilde is a Bugger.” This elegant missive he directed to be handed to the author when he should next appear at the club.
From this card—Lord Queensberry’s last resource—grew the whole great case, which amazed and horrified the world in 1895. Oscar Wilde was compelled, however reluctantly, to take the matter up. Had he remained quiescent under such a public affront, his career in England would have been at an end. He bowed to the inevitable and a libel action was prepared.
One is often compelled to wonder if he foresaw the outcome. One asks oneself if he realized what defeat in this case would portend. The stakes were desperately high. He risked, in a Court of Law, his reputation, his position, his career and even his freedom. Did he know what the end to it all would be?
Whatever Wilde’s fears and expectations were, his opponent did not under-estimate the importance of the issue. If he could not induce a jury of twelve of his fellow-countrymen to believe that the plaintiff was what he had termed him, he, the Marquis of Queensberry, would be himself [Pg 11]disgraced. Furthermore, there would, in the event of failure, be heavy damages to pay and the poor man was not over rich. Wilde had many and powerful friends. For reasons which it is not necessary to enlarge upon, Lord Queensberry was not liked or respected by his own order. The ultimate knowledge that he was a father striving to save a loved son from infamy changed all that, and his Lordship met with nothing but sympathy from the general public in the latter stages of the great case.
Sir Edward Clarke was retained for the plaintiff. It is needless to refer to the high estimation in which this legal and political luminary is held by all classes of society. From first to last he devoted himself to the lost cause of Oscar Wilde with a whole-hearted devotion which was beyond praise. The upshot of the libel action must have pained and disgusted him; yet he refused to abandon his client, and, in the two criminal trials, defended him with a splendid loyalty and with the marked ability that might be expected from such a counsel. The acute, energetic, silver-spoken Mr. Carson led on the other side. It is not necessary to make more than passing mention of the conspicuous skill with which the able lawyer conducted the case for the [Pg 12]defendant. Even the gifted plaintiff himself cut a sorry figure when opposed to Mr. Carson.
Extraordinary interest was displayed in the action; and the courts were besieged on each day that the trial lasted. Remarkable revelations were expected and they were indeed forthcoming. Enormous pains had been taken to provide a strong defence and it was quite clear almost after the first day that Wilde’s case would infallibly break down. He made some astonishing admissions in the witness-box and even disgusted many of his friends by the flippancy and affected unconcern of his replies to questions of the most damaging nature. He, apparently, saw nothing indecorous in facts which must shock any other than the most depraved. He saw nothing disgusting in friendships of a kind to which only one construction could be put. He gave expensive dinners to ex-barmen and the like: ignorant, brutish young fools—because they amused him! He presented youths of questionable moral character with silver cigarette-cases because their society was pleasant! He took young men to share his bedroom at hotels and saw nothing remarkable in such proceedings. He gave sums of thirty pounds to ill-bred youths—accomplished blackmailers—because they were hard-up and he felt they [Pg 13]did not deserve poverty! He assisted other young men of a character equally undesirable, to go to America and received letters from them in which they addressed him as “Dear Oscar,” and sent him their love. In short, his own statements damned him. Out of his own mouth—and he posing all the time—was he convicted. The case could have but one ending. Sir Edward Clarke—pained, surprised, shocked—consented to a verdict for the Marquis of Queensberry and the great libel case was at an end. The defendant left the court proudly erect, conscious that he had been the means of saving his son and of eradicating from society a canker which had been rotting it unnoticed, except by a few, for a very long time. Oscar Wilde left the court a ruined and despised man. People—there were one or two left who were loyal to him—turned aside from him with loathing. He had nodded to six or seven friends in court on the last day of the trial and turned ashen pale when he observed their averted looks. All was over for him. The little supper-parties with a few choice wits; the glorious intoxication of first-night applause; the orgies in the infamous dens of his boon companions—all these were no more for him. Oscar Wilde, bon vivant, man of letters, arbiter[Pg 14] of literary fashion, stood at the bar of public opinion, a wretch guilty of crimes against which the body recoils and the mind revolts. Oh! what a falling-off was there!
Witnesses came forward, Wilde’s letters to Bosie were read aloud and Wilde’s sex life was dragged into the courtroom and paraded around for all to see.
Despite all this, Oscar Wilde sat poised in the witness box and even managed to elicit laughter. Playfully taunting the Prosecution Mr Gill. I highly recommend reading the transcripts on Project Gutenberg, who by the way I am not sponsored by, by the way, because the entire thing relies on volunteers and it is amazing and you should go to gutenberg.org right now.
Despite Wilde’s wit, he was unable to appeal sufficiently to the jury.
He was found guilty and sent to gaol.
That night there was an exodus of 6 hundred single, thought to be gay, men fled England for Paris.
Oscar Wilde was imprisoned from 1895 to 1897, During which time he wrote a letter to Bosie which was published as De Profundis.
He died 3 years after his release on the 30th November 1900 in Paris. The cause may have been syphilis, but most likely it seems to that is was meningitis. His accuser The Marquess of Queensbury died earlier that year from syphilis, Bosie would survive a further 45 years.
There is a pivotal player in this story that is frequently overlooked and underestimated and we are going to spend a bit of time getting to know Constance Wilde. The woman who was as much a victim of the scandal that was to follow and her very deep suffering is often a mere footnote in the story both in its earlier incarnation as a scandalous tale of debauchery and our contemporary understanding of the story as one of sexual freedom versus Victorian repression.
“So sweet, so pretty and good, how came she by her outrageously intellectual husband? It was impossible not to predict suffering for a woman so domestic and simple mated with a mind so searching and so perverse, and a character so self-indulgent.” – Richard Le Gallienne.
This quote doesn’t do the brilliant woman justice
Constance Lloyd was also born in Ireland in 1859, she was an acclaimed writer of children’s stories and this legacy is almost entirely eclipsed by the looming shadow of Oscar.
There is speculation that maybe she delighted in her family’s disapproval of her choice in husband. There appears to be a meeting of minds, particularly in their early relationship with Constance embracing the dress reform movement and softer, more practical wear for women as a form of female independence. Constance is not the shy retiring woman at home that history wants to paint her as. While it is true that she was steadfast and supportive of Oscar, even when it seemed like he was ignorant and indifferent to her suffering. But this support and strength in the face of scandal and censure paint the picture of a woman whose strength of character is quite phenomenal. She had to flee England with her two children in a kind of exile to shelter her young family from aggressive societal disgrace. They changed their name to Holland and she tried to sustain a relationship with Wilde, visiting him in prison and kept a dialogue going between the father and his children. She died, possibly from spinal damage caused by a fall and possibly from syphilis contracted from her husband in 1898, in Italy.
There is a nude, pregnant statue of Constance in Merion Dublin.
The moral of the Story? Can there be a moral to this story? Or is it like any one of Wilde’s fictions that defies a moral. No one can know enough about the life of another person to provide a satisfactory moral conclusion.
If it was syphilis that claimed Wilde, then perhaps we could draw a moral conclusion about a life of decadence, but we will never know. If Constance had been rewarded for her strength and loyalty then we could claim a moral about the strength of spirit, but there is no clear reward for our heroine, in fact, it is her ‘goodness’ that leads to tragedy. Bosie outlived them all despite being the somewhat amoral catalyst of the Wilde’s undoing.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has a moralistic end but not moralistic intentions. He finalized his stories with a moral finish, tying up the ends in or to provide closure and satisfaction, but not to provide a morality or judgement. We get a satisfactory conclusion, which is more than can be said of the tragic story of Oscar Wilde.
Here is an excerpt from De Profundis, his extended letter to Bosie, which he wrote while serving his sentence for gross indecency to take us out. I’ll see you soon.
I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it. Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.
The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flâneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.
For a great account of Constance Wilde’s life check out Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle
Meet Dorian Gray. He enjoys just about everything and in copious amounts. Like any quality gothic anti-hero there is a whisper of a family history that involves passion, death, scandal and abuse. Whilst there is an idealised image of the guy there is something more damaged and vulnerable that is ripe for Lord Henry’s exploitation. As a muse for Basil, he has been the source of pure inspiration, but that is about to change.
Dorian seems to be motivated by curiosity, vanity and a diabolical indulgent streak. His lack of care for those around him begins with the flippant way he treats Basil’s affections and then plays out in the most devastating fashion in his treatment of Sybil Vane. The capacity for this cruelty was always within Dorian, Basil mentions it in the opening chapter, Lord Henry simply offers new possibilities. Lord Henry is still one of the most terrible and unfortunate influences a young man with Dorian’s particular flaws could come across. Appealing to Dorian’s curiosity and desire he exposes him to the seedy underbelly of London and deploys witty epigrams to stun him into believing that it is all perfectly acceptable. I’m not sure that Dorian is particularly intelligent. He does seem to be easily confused.
Dorian as the Destroyer
The guy seems impervious the damage he is doing. He does not seem to care that, whilst he has been given a free pass by swapping fates with the portrait, none of the people he corrupts or endangers has such a reprieve. He leaves a trail of ruined men and women, some who have become addicted to drugs that he introduced them to, or have a had to turn to sex work because he destroyed their reputations. He is not permitted into high society as he once was, excepting the society of those who tolerate Lord Henry gladly. His destruction and degradation of those around him only begin to gnaw away at him after Basil’s death, and it is largely for selfish reasons. He doesn’t like feeling guilty or being tied to the loathsome visage of the portrait so he tried to follow a path of redemption. When these attempt at redemption don’t yield immediate results he cannot handle it and throws a tantrum, stabbing the picture and bringing about his own demise.
To Lord Henry
“You know how a voice can stir one. Your voice and the voice of Sibyl Vane are two things that I shall never forget. When I close my eyes, I hear them, and each of them says something different. I don’t know which to follow.”