Perversion and degeneracy

March 11, 2017

Almost as soon as it was published (Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) in Lippincott’s, reviewers expressed their disgust. It was called ‘effeminate’, ‘unmanly’, ‘leprous’, and full of ‘esoteric prurience’ . Worst of all, it was openly French – written under the influence of naughty French decadence. Very recently, the translator of an Emile Zola novel had been prosecuted for obscenity, for daring to issue an English edition of Zola’s vile Parisian filth. The book that corrupts Dorian Gray, an unnamed ‘yellow book’, was self-evidently the weird and perverse French novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (1884), about a decadent last scion of a degenerate aristocratic house pleasuring himself and defying boredom with a series of increasingly perverse investigations.

The most famous review of Dorian Gray was in the conservative Scots Observer (edited by the poet W E Henley), which came very close to accusing Wilde of the crime of gross indecency that had been made illegal in the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act. Dorian Gray, the review said, was fit ‘for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys.’ This was a reference to the recent ‘Cleveland Street Affair’, the discovery that a male brothel had been used by aristocrats to pay telegraph boys for sex. In the novel, Dorian Gray is openly asked by Basil Hallward, ‘Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?’ There is a litany of suggestive rumours listed about Dorian that imply blackmail, ruin, exile or shameful suicide. Dorian’s portrait is completed by an artist who openly expresses ‘that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly’

Roger Luckhurst
Perversion and degeneracy in The Picture of Dorian Gray

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