Possibly named after Florence Nightingale as her father Lieutenant-Colonel James Balcombe was involved in the Crimean War. Florence is talked about frequently as being just gorgeous but it is pretty clear that there is much more to Florence than the flowery and elaborate praise of her appearance. she was said to be tall at 5 foot 8, which is a perfectly reasonable height these days but apparently tall for the Victorian Era
There was widespread admiration of Florence’s intellect and wit and it came to pass that she would cross paths with another person who was renowned for his intellect and wit; Oscar Wilde. In fact, they two dated for two years, Oscar even gave her a gold cross which could be interpreted as a sort of promissory gesture. Once Wilde left for England, they began a long distance relationship that didn’t really work out.
Florence ended up crossing paths with another witty and intelligent young man with theatrical aspirations, Bram Stoker. Oscar Wilde was devastated when he learned of their engagement. Florence and Oscar eventually got to the point where they were able to maintain a friendship.
But life isn’t that simple and Bram still felt the danger of Oscar’s perceived threat to his marriage or reputation or morality or some combination of the three and that threat was exacerbated when Wilde was arrested for gross indecency. That this was the time at which Bram sat down to pen a story about a pervasive threat to the morality of good Christian people has been a subject of much discussion. Many see the depiction of Jonathan at the Castle Dracula as a subconscious expression of his own homosexuality. There is an excellent article “A Wilde Desire Took Me: The Homoerotic History of Dracula” by Talia Schaffer that I alluded to in my blog post about Oscar and Bram, which paints the picture of a man who was at once, very happy in his life with Florence and had very intense, almost entirely repressed, feelings for the actor Henry Irving who he worked closely with during his time as the Director of the Lyceum Theatre. There is also a much more complex and distant impassioned relationship with Wilde which abruptly ended when Bram proposed to Florence.
One of the articles I read for this included a segment from Bram Stoker’s relatively recently unearthed “Journal”. They assert that it seems to be an idea for an unwritten work:
Seaport. Two sailors love girl — one marries her, other swears revenge. Husbands goes out to sea soon after marriage & on return after some days sees in grey light of morning his young wife crucified on the great cross which stands at end of pier.
Bram certainly never quite got over his distrust of Wilde. The same article that I grabbed that quote from which was from the New Inquiry by Kaya Genc draws distinct parallels between Bram’s version of his courtship with Florence and his friendship with Oscar and the narrative of Dracula. The forces of corruption represented by Dracula attempt to seize Jonathan and then Mina, but they are defeated by Mina’s common sense and good judgement and Jonathan’s eventual courage and the help of some dudes. It’s not a perfect analogy but considering the timing of his writing, it seems to be a little more than coincidental.
Bram and Florence seemed to have had a pretty equal marriage by Victorian standards and they enjoyed a happy and successful partnership. Bram struggled with illness but felt bad for Florence who ran the household and looked after him in his infirmity. Which is quite sweet because you really didn’t see a lot of that level of awareness in the men of the time. Florence was quite a gifted businesswoman, a trait that would serve her well through Bram’s illness, (which I’ve read was syphilis, which opens a whole new avenue for questioning, how did that happen?) and would continue to assist her after his passing.
After Bram died Florence’s main income stream was through Dracula and she was determined to wrestle control of the Dracula narrative back from the film studios in Germany and America, where Dracula was very popular but the Stoker family received no remuneration for use of Bram’s intellectual property. She fought against the production of Nosferatu which borrowed ideas whole cloth from Dracula. Florence with the help of the Society of Authors sued the makers of the unauthorized film and won £5,000 and an order went out that every copy of Nosferatu would have to be destroyed. Obviously, that did not quite happen…
Sha also fought the Universal Studios production of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi (previously mentioned on this podcast). They didn’t ask for permission, so they had to deal with the full force of Florence Stoker.
“A Wilde Desire Took Me”: The Homoerotic History of Dracula by Talia Schaffer
Oscar Wilde was imprisoned gross indecency in May of 1895, and one month later Bram Stoker began to write his novel Dracula, a novel filled with transgressive sexual and a text which has been of great interest when applying queer theory to the Gothic English literary canon. Whilst correlation is not causation, this timing may not be entirely without meaning.
The Wildes and the Stokers were friends when Oscar and Bram were young. But that implies the families were part of a confined social group, this is not quite true. Oscar’s mother Jane threw lavish parties and had a wide circle of friends, it was probably at one of these parties that the two met. Oscar’s parents were incredibly fond of the young Bram, and this may have sparked competition between them. There is no doubt there was a tense relationship between the two, with Stoker outstripping Wilde academically in their youth. Then they both fell for the same woman Florence Balcombe who deserves her own article and will get one so I’m just going to skip ahead a little. Suffice to say it was Stoker and Balcombe who married
We don’t know much about Stoker’s life (due to his own Charlotte Brontë style curation), but an overwhelming number of scholars assert his role as a “gay observer” (Schaffer, 1994). This is has something to do with close textual interpretations and some of the more blatant homoeroticism in his most acclaimed work, Dracula, and with writings that have been discovered as part of a recently recovered “Journal”
Homoeroticism in Dracula
The Count is similar to the caricature of Oscar Wilde that developed during his trials and some of the other narrative similarities I will save for the Florence Balcombe article. Suffice to say that Dracula and vampirism are a direct threat to the moral fibre of 19th century Christian British moral fibre, in much the same way as many saw Wilde and “transgressive” sexuality. This idea that you can catch homosexuality has never quite gone away sadly.
Many read Jonathan Harker’s time in the Castle Dracula as a homoerotic experience of temptation. In the end, Jonathan has reconciled this time of imprisonment with his life with Mina, which seems almost sexless. He is able to exist in London with his male friends and his family life existing in harmony, without the looming presence of The Count. This duality of domestic sphere of the heteronormative family and homosocial/homosexual social spheres This might sound familiar from our exploration of Dorian Gray. This duality was very much of its time, and the 1890s proved to be a period of transition between this dualism and devastating persecution that accompanied public awareness of queer communities and individuals.
Reading Dracula as a reactionary work to the trials of Oscar Wilde is an interesting and fruitful exercise. The view is that perhaps Stoker felt extremely vulnerable and embarrassed by his friend’s public shaming during his trial, and feeling his own sexuality called into question by association he panicked and began the erasure of their association.
Stoker systematically removed Wilde, or any allusions to Wilde in his works and documentation, replacing them with angry condemnations of degeneracy, thinly veiled references to Wilde’s arrest and other similar moral “transgressions”.
For more on the link between Wilde, Stoker and Homoeroticism in Dracula read:
The poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is a subtle yet insistent condemnation of the society that allowed for the prosecution of Wilde. In depicting the final moments before Wilde’s arrest Sir John Betjeman talks of The Yellow Book.
“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.
-Sir John Betjeman
To unpack this passage we need to know a little about the aforementioned Yellow book. The Yellow Book was a yellow clothbound publication that featured salacious and subversive stories, many of them French. Many note that a yellow book, similar to the future periodical was given to Dorian Gray by Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde in 1891.
Is it possible this could be part of the inspiration for the name of the periodical?
Well kind of. The phenomenon of the illicit French narrative was very much alive during the time Oscar Wilde was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the yellow bound book is not an invention of Wilde’s but rather a common mode of publication for these transgressive tales. It follows that if Lord Henry was to procure such a corrupting, violent and heavily sexualized book it would more than likely have been presented in this yellow bound format. The periodical The Yellow Book is named after this publication presentation phenomenon that preceded The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It was also known as “The Yellow Nineties” due to its decade of publication.
The quarterly publication is cited as running from 1894 to 1897 and came under heat when Oscar Wilde was seen to be carrying a similar book, leading to outraged crowds throwing stones at the office of the publication. That gives you a bit of a clue as to the kind of societal outrage Oscar Wilde was facing. In this time of crisis in Wilde’s life, his arrest for gross indecency, surely seeing the publication whose name could have been inspired by his prose, give way to a style of writing so distanced from his own aesthetic style would be another blow to the great author.
The implications that this has for the poem is that these tales that challenge social mores are being supplanted by John Buchan’s more tame prose.
I am not entirely sure what Wilde’s opinion of Buchan’s writing really was but Wilde, as written by Betjeman, positions himself and aestheticism as the unconventional to Buchan’s conventionally appealing writing. By the Yellow Book publishing the work of Buchan, Betjeman is implying that challenging works such as Wilde’s that have achieved hard-earned success have been pushed aside to make way for less groundbreaking potboilers. This is a gross simplification of the two author’s works but that is not a reflection on the beauty of the poem.
The poem is the essence of the societal rejection of Wilde, his fall from favour and the sense that the world of literature will continue on without him.
John Buchan and his brand of thriller are the future and Wilde’s aestheticism is the past. Literature may have suffered greatly from the loss of Wilde’s unwritten work, but what is done is done. And in 1937 when Betjeman is writing this poem the literary scene had undergone a massive transformation, he seems nostalgic but resigned to the change that sweeps through everything eventually.
As the poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is the creative property of Betjeman I will not be reproducing it in full but I am providing a link to the poem in full from Poetry By Heart who has permission to reproduce the poem.
So with that, we say goodbye to Wilde for now. The world of mystery and espionage that Buchan’s work forms part of could be in our future.
The passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray which introduces the nature of the yellow book:
“His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed. It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.”
The Canterville Ghostis a very silly Victorian Ghost story that Oscar Wilde released in two parts, in 1887. It was the prolific author’s first published story. It sets the tone for a huge swathe of horror comedies that feature a very ineffectual haunting. The humorous ghost story is a strange literary creature that subverts expectations and has become somewhat of a cliche. But in a time when the supernatural was given more mainstream credence this disarming use of humour would have had a very different effect on the reader.
Not only did Oscar Wilde release his first story during the final gasps of the romantic movement and at the birth of modernity, but he released the story during the rapid spread of the spiritualism movement. Ghostly spectres and powerful intangible phantoms were actively sought out by interested parties, and it was terribly fashionable to hold seances and be informed of the symbolism of the spiritual realm. It is a story that perfectly encapsulates the way in which Wilde’s work is transitional between the romantic and modern literary movements.
Who is the Canterville Ghost?
The American Otis family are told upon buying Canterville Chase in England, that the estate is haunted. The ghost has terrified the Canterville family for decades and is often an omen that appears before the death of a member of the family. The Otis family refuse to believe that there is anything supernatural about their new home.
They are of course wrong.
Sir Simon, the former occupant of the house who killed his wife then disappeared makes his presence felt through a blood stain that will not fade and physical apparitions. He has a huge variety of haunting tools and visages at his disposal, such as representing himself as a headless spectre, he has also been previously known to physically injure his victims. Even scaring some to death.
But the new inhabitants of the chase, however, turn this terrifying phantom into a grumpy, exhausted and battered creature who no longer stalks the corridors, rather shuffles along in slippers and warm clothes to combat the chill from drafts.
I’m unsure as to whether Sir Simon is the first of his kind, in being a formerly formidable spectre who is rendered impotent by the materialism and pragmaticism of modernity.
What is different about the Otis family?
Through the oiling of noisy chains and the cleaning of ominous, reappearing “blood” stains, the Otis family undermines every artifice of haunting that the ghost has at his disposal. Even the hauntings that he manages to pull off are laughed at by the twins or entirely backfire due to the twin’s concerted efforts to torture the ghostly spectre of Sir Simon who has haunted generations of British nobility and their servants. It seems to be their dissociation from the realm of English folklore which grants them immunity from the ill effects of the spiritual realm.
Virginia is the only member of the family who comes even close to a classical gothic character of the human realm. She is vulnerable to the haunting similar to the British characters, however, her link to her modern American family seems to have kept her safe from the more horrific aspects of the haunting. Her strength of character and depth of understanding makes her the ultimate foil to Sir Simon’s legacy of terror. Sir Simon confides in the young girl, giving her the tools to stop the haunting and free the dead nobleman once and for all.
Perhaps the ghost realises that he is no longer relevant as he beholds the modern American family, which, let’s face it, Wilde portrays as grotesque in their own way. Is Wilde bemoaning the loss of gothic romanticism and folkloric tradition and the hands of the crude family? Or is he celebrating the modern thinking of the American people who are untethered to the restrictive tradition of the British Isles?
How on earth are you going to connect this one to Frankenstein?
I have had a bit of a think about this and maybe the strongest of the tangential threads that connect Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus to the Canterville Ghost is the collision between the romanticism of the 19th-century horror story and the critical thinking and scientific reasoning that was emerging before Mary Shelley put pen to paper. Shelley’s narrative is still firmly entrenched in the lore of ages past, but her Doctor is a man of science and the spectre of her novel is a being of undead science. Conversely, Wilde’s spectre Sir Simon is still firmly placed in traditional gothic ideas of the ghost, but the narrative is a distinctly modern one.
In short, I’m going to go ahead and say that both narratives deal with the juxtaposition of the romantic gothic novel and an increasingly pragmatic and modern reality.
If you have read the 1891 book or even watched the first season of Penny Dreadful you will be asking… Hey Dorian what’s with all the weird flower sniffing?
In his gothic masterpiece The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde is pretty blatant in his symbolism, he basically hits us over the head with a laburnum branch (symbolic of forsaken, pensive beauty apparently). That doesn’t mean that the symbolism is worthless by virtue of its visibility. There is something charming in Wilde’s insistence that we acknowledge the collective symbolic weight of flowers. It is what makes Wilde easy for students to dissect for meaning and also what upsets those who like their literary motifs and themes more artfully hidden.
So what is with all the flowers?
The flowers can be read as a representation of sensory temptation as in this passage from the very first meeting between Dorian and Lord Henry:
“Lord Henry went out to the garden and found Dorian Gray burying his face in the great cool lilac-blossoms, feverishly drinking in their perfume as if it had been wine. He came close to him and put his hand upon his shoulder. “You are quite right to do that,” he murmured. “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”
Lord Henry is using Dorian’s little sensory indulgences as a gateway to more lascivious behaviour. Henry is the ultimate voyeur, his corruption of Dorian Gray is purely experimental, creating a spectacle to observe. Is it possible Lord Henry is a sociopath?
Henry also uses flowers to open the door to paranoia, fear of the passing of time and the advent of old age. Flowers are temporary and wilt and wither like youth. But flowers renew seasonally Dorian will not.
“The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty, becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!”
This passage of Lord Henry’s evangelism is followed by an important visual representation of Dorian’s naivety surrounding the rapid loss of youth in which he drops “a spray of lilacs” (lilacs being symbolic of purity and innocence) discarding the first protective layer of his innocence. Then there is a weird bit of action with a bee and a flower that some read to be sexual, and it is a bit weird but I think it might have to do with pollination and the beginning of Lord Henry’s corruption of Dorian. But what do I know?
On the subject of Lord Henry’s manipulation here is a weird flower laden passage in which creepy Henry is creepy.
“Lord Henry watched him with a subtle sense of pleasure. How different he was now from the shy, frightened boy he had met in Basil Hallward’s studio! His nature had developed like a flower, had borne blossoms of scarlet flame.”
Basil, however, establishes the flower as Symbolic of the soul very early on in the novel as he describes his relationship with Dorian:
“Then I feel, Harry, that I have given away my whole soul to someone who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day”
In the final confrontation between Dorian and Basil, Dorian crushes a flower which could signify Basil’s soul or Dorian’s innocence or both as he is about to murder his friend who was completely besotted with him from the outset. Later as Dorian has resolved to murder his friend he crushes the flower which could be a stand-in for Basil’s soul as alluded to previously. Or it could be Dorian crushing his last semblance of innocence or humanity:
“Years ago, when I was a boy,” said Dorian Gray, crushing the flower in his hand, “you met me, flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks. One day you introduced me to a friend of yours, who explained to me the wonder of youth, and you finished the portrait of me that revealed to me the wonder of beauty. In a mad moment, that, even now, I don’t know whether I regret or not, I made a wish, perhaps you would call it a prayer….
Flowers as Symbolic of Innocence and Virginity
The flowers can also be interpreted as a symbol of innocence with the three key players, Basil, Dorian and Lord Henry practically engulfed by flowers as the story opens, perhaps signifying the innocence that would gradually disappear as we go deeper into Dorian’s downward spiral.
There is also a great deal of floral imagery surrounding the innocent Sybil, with Sybil being explicitly likened to a flower;
A low moan broke from her, and she flung herself at his feet, and lay there like a trampled flower. “Dorian, Dorian, don’t leave me!” she whispered. “I am so sorry I didn’t act well. I was thinking of you all the time. But I will try—indeed, I will try.
Particular features of Sybil are also referred to in floral terms such as her lips being like petals. However late we find that not all flowers can be considered innocent and pure, there is one flower that is given monstrous connotations.
The Monstrosity of Orchids
Orchids are traditionally symbolic of beauty, luxury and love, they also have associations with sexuality, virility and lust depending on the colour. The potential of orchids to represent qualities of than innocence depending on their colour becomes apparent during the corruption of Dorian as he reads the Yellow Book that was given to him by Lord Henry:
There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour
The orchid as a monstrosity and the relevance of its colour is relevant when we consider this interchange between Dorian and Francis after the death of Basil:
“Yes,” said Dorian. “And I am afraid, Francis, that I have another errand for you. What is the name of the man at Richmond who supplies Selby with orchids?”
“Harden, sir.” “Yes—Harden. You must go down to Richmond at once, see Harden personally, and tell him to send twice as many orchids as I ordered, and to have as few white ones as possible. In fact, I don’t want any white ones. It is a lovely day, Francis, and Richmond is a very pretty place, otherwise I wouldn’t bother you about it.”
The absence or removal of white orchids (traditionally symbolic of innocence) is perhaps symbolic of the removal of the last of Dorian’s humanity, now he only wants what is seen as dark and monstrous.
I am aware that the above image is of an upper-class quadrille, but I figure that they led a charmed existence compared with the Victorian sex workers referred to in Wilde’s deathly quadrille, so I think they can take the hit on this one.
In this poem of Wilde’s, we get another dose of heady voyeurism, such as would delight Lord Henry himself. We have an unfortunately common example of Oscar Wilde fetishizing or othering the poor and underprivileged, potentially taking advantage of the terrible conditions force some of them into sex work, for the narrator’s own voyeuristic intentions. This poem seems to be moralizing in a way that, if you had read the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grayalone you would have thought he was entirely uninterested in.
The main reason to attribute morality to this poem is by way of the very clear link between the voyeurism of the couple beholding the spectacle of the brothel and the woman being tempted into joining the spectacle. The spectacle of the brothel is partially obscured to the casual observer who might find the scene tantalising and irresistible. But as soon as one passes over the threshold they find that there is nothing but corruption and death on offer in “The Harlot’s House”.
The sex workers, who are often interpreted as all female due to their shrill voices, and the description of one clutching “A phantom lover to her breast”, attempt to behave seductively and succeed on a surface level but they are simply going through the motions, they have become just another cog in the machinery of industrialised Victorian England. They attempt to play and dance like their heart is in it, but the implication (if we are to be generous to Wilde) is that they have become jaded. If we are less generous to Wilde then he is simply viewing the poor and underprivileged sex workers as mere objects that imitate human form. For all Wilde’s dress reform advocacy and beliefs about female independence, he is still a Victorian gentleman whose advocacy didn’t quite breach class divides.
I have a question, and I would love input so feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org :
Is the “tune” going “false” the corruption of the narrator’s partner or is it simply the discovery of the true nature of the brothel? It seems like the illusion is shattered, but also it seems like enough time has passed for the dawn to “with silver-sandalled feet, [creep] like a frightened girl.“. We are told it happens suddenly, but they appear to be there for quite some time, at least outside. So is it merely voyeurism and disappointment, or voyeurism and corruption?
Among other references, I used this as a springboard.
I think we can agree that this macabre spectacle of the brothel and the part human automatons therein is inherently a gothic spectacle with imagery such as skeletons, phantoms and ghostly apparitions used to paint the picture of the decadent and ostensibly lively Victorian brothel. The othering of the sex workers as the undead and unnatural makes them of the Creature’s kin in Mary Shelley‘s novel Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus.
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.”
Meet Basil Hallward, he enjoys painting on hilltops and painting in his studio. He just really likes painting and Dorian. Basil exudes warmth in the same way that Lord Henry can chill a person to the bone. Until Dorian came along, we get a distinct impression that Basil had friendships, but none that he was particularly invested in, to the point where they would interfere with his art. Then came Dorian Gray who became his art, and consequently his ruin.
It seems that Basil would love to be motivated by art for art’s sake and beauty for beauty’s sake, but something has gone terribly awry for the painter who wished to hold up the mirror to the world and has instead found his own reflection front and centre in his work. Henry is quick to point out that Basil is not as good looking as Dorian, and he is right, but the artist’s concern that he has painted himself into the picture has more depth than Henry seems capable of fathoming. It is Basil’s desire for Dorian and his utter worship, obsession and dependence upon him that Basil sees as he looks at the picture. It is these factors that motivate Basil at the beginning of the novel. However, as Dorian’s innocence and purity diminish, his hold on Basil appears to lessen somewhat and it is his old the desire to display his art that forms part of the events that will lead to his death.
Basil as the Victim
Every gothic tale needs a victim, and Dorian Gray has many.
Why does Dorian kill Basil? Is it because he is tired of keeping his secret? Do Basil’s horror and revulsion of the painting in its new monstrous form provoke his wrath? Or is it the simplest of all the answers, Basil is a threat to the painting, therefore Basil must be destroyed.
But why show Basil the painting at all? Yes, his constant questions were getting annoying, but surely Dorian could have said he destroyed it or it got damaged. I always got the impression that the murder of Basil was premeditated to an extent. Dorian was alert to the possibility when he walked his friend to the room where the painting lay. He may have acted on impulse, but he was acutely aware of that impulse and the ability to make good on it beforehand.
Why does Wilde kill Basil?
Basil is the last vestige of Dorian pre-Henry. Basil as the person who opened the door to vanity, left it open for corruption and Dorian blames him for that. Basil represents the last of Dorian’s virtue, and he must be destroyed for Wilde’s novel to begin the final stage of the narrative; the complete downfall of Mr Dorian Gray.
Basil in happier times:
“You know we poor artists have to show ourselves in society from time to time, just to remind the public that we are not savages. With an evening coat and a white tie, as you told me once, anybody, even a stock-broker, can gain a reputation for being civilized.”