The nineteenth century was a great period for both the closeting and the uncloseting of sexual themes. We like to suppose that the reaction against Victorianism was a phenomenon of this century, not of that one. But it was of course well under way before Victoria died. In those days writers could make their slight breakthroughs with considerable subtlety. Today writers have to content themselves with bare forked creatures for characters, but then a penumbra surrounded erotic events, and writers of fiction could manipulate that penumbra like a figleaf.
What needed to be disclosed in literature about sexual appetites and maneuvers had in fact been presented in the writings of the Marquis de Sade at the end of the eighteenth century. But these were not widely circulated, and they confused the case for candor and for what Sade called nature by insisting on the need for cruelty. Swinburne and Wilde were among those who had read Sade, and recognized his value as an extreme pole of human expression. When in De Profundis Wilde wished to characterize his future reputation, he said that posterity would place him somewhere between the Marquis de Sade and the celebrated killer of boys Gilles de Retz. This grim prediction was composed out of self-pity, since a sadist was what Wilde was not. He really wrote De Profundis with the object of placing himself somewhere between Sacher-Masoch and Jesus Christ.
Wilde’s temperament was not in fact flagrant, even if his behavior may have been. His personal pageantry was different from that of the great confessional writers, Rousseau or Henry Miller for example; he ranked himself rather with Gautier and Swinburne. These writers and others like them taunted the world by suggesting that the sunset hues of decadence were more noble than the black and white of moral uplift. They hinted also at the possibility that the future lay in their hands rather than in the hands of conventional people. Their method was to offer tantalizing bits. Gautier took the whole of his novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, to undress his hero and make it clear that he was she. (Sade practiced no such patience.) Halfway houses suited Swinburne as well. The defense used by writers of this persuasion, especially from Gautier on, was that they were espousing the freedom of art to deal with whatever it chose. Wilde had in mind not only Gautier and Swinburne, but also Balzac, who took up homosexuality in La Fille aux yeux d’or, and in Illusions perdues, without bothering to give it a name. That is, Vautrin, the archcriminal, seduces the ingenuous Lucien de Rubempré as they sit in a coach bound for Paris, although nothing is said beyond the repeated offer of a cigar and Lucien’s eventual acceptance of it.
Lucien de Rubempré became in fact the nineteenth-century type of the homosexual beloved, as Antinoös, Hadrian’s lover, was for classical times. Such figures function in the à rebours tradition as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra do in the more conventional one. So a character in Wilde’s The Decay of Lying declares, “The greatest tragedy of my life was the death of Lucien de Rubempre.” This sentence in turn aroused the indignation of Proust, for whom it was bookridden aestheticism, duly punished in Wilde’s case outside the covers of a book. But it was really part of Wilde’s subtle effort to bring to light and so gain countenance for sexual feelings like his own, an effort that involved small yet continual affronts to conventional moral expectations. Under cover of aestheticism, Wilde was claiming that there could be a homosexual as well as a heterosexual gallery of lovers.
Wilde was in a line of succession that in the nineteenth century had its principal spokesman in Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass, published forty-five years before Wilde’s dialogue, had a language and style grand enough to pass off homosexual friendship as just male bonding. When the first edition found favor, Whitman went a few steps farther in his Calamus poems. But when asked by John Addington Symonds if his proclivities were not in fact homosexual, Whitman denied the idea vigorously, as Wilde was to do at his trial a few years later, and to prove his case said he had begotten ten illegitimate children. The reply shows at least the relative acceptability of fornication and sodomy. None of Whitman’s illegitimate offspring has ever surfaced.
Although in the late nineteenth century homosexuality remained largely undiscussable in England and the United States, there was pressure to acknowledge its existence not only from such writers as Whitman and Wilde but also from French writers. The affair of Verlaine and Rimbaud had led spectacularly to a pistol shot and a prison sentence, but that was in another country, and didn’t prevent Verlaine from being invited to lecture at Oxford and London in 1892. French poets were too exotic to be corrupting. In England, during the 1870s and 1880s, that is, when Wilde was beginning to find his theme, the most overt expressions of homosexual feeling were those shrouded in the folds of Walter Pater’s prose. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance described Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Winckelmann in such a way as to seduce young readers by the wiles of culture and the nuances of style. When his underlying intention threatened to become too clear, he modified parts of the book for a second edition. Yet having done so he dared to write Marius the Epicurean, in which Marius and Flavian attain a summit of idealized friendship, consecrated by Flavian’s death. And in the book he was writing at the time he died, in 1894, Gaston de Latour, the surviving manuscript (much of it still unpublished) is known to offer a much more open account of homoerotic friendship.
The gathering pressure of this subject led to many near misses of disclosure, yet also provoked countermeasures from the authorities. There was no lack of laws against buggery, but lesser infractions could still go scot-free until the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885. Henry Labouchère proposed a seven-year maximum prison sentence, but the government reduced it to two. Queen Victoria, being asked whether the law should not apply also to women, made her famous Victorian pronouncement that no woman could or would do that sort of thing.
The widespread uneasiness about homosexuality needs no better testimony than this official attempt to stop it. The stage had been set. More than any other writer of his time in England, Wilde recognized that homosexuality was the great undercover subject. He relished belonging to an illegal confederation. He enjoyed its connections with aestheticism, which offered to liberate literature by cultivating unusual feelings, and with socialism, which in his version offered to liberate politics by a kind of self-indulgent generosity. To express his point of view as directly as he could, Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian, like Mademoiselle de Maupin, does not limit himself to one sex. He ruins young men offstage, and a young woman onstage. He kills the painter who loves him, and then blackmails a friend, presumably by threatening to disclose homosexual offenses, into disposing of the corpse, and thereby he causes that friend’s suicide, he has a seducer, Lord Henry Wotton, whose very name suggests, among other things, Balzac’s Vautrin as the name Dorian suggests Lucien. Wilde was attacked for immorality, but he had cagily left Dorian’s sin unspecified, while clearly implying involvements with both sexes; and he could point to Dorian’s punishment as evidence of moral retribution. The morality is exceedingly pat, and the punishment meted out to Dorian is so grandly symbolic as almost to lend the offenses themselves an additional savor.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has as part of its importance in history the fact that it comes closer than any other English novel of its time (apart from pornographic ones) to treating homosexuality overtly. (Today it seems muted enough.) Its daring led others to boldness, some being satellites of Wilde such as John Gray, Alfred Douglas, Olive Custance, others being French friends of his such as Pierre Louÿs and André Gide. Wilde had an immediate effect, beyond the vaguer ones of Whitman and Pater, on the exploitation of this literary theme. Dorian Gray was matched by only two works written in English in the Nineties that deal with the same theme just as indirectly (but more adroitly), one being Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896), and the other The Turn of the Screw (1897) by Henry James. Housman’s poems all have to do with lads, though lasses are thrown in for the sake of decorum. He sent a copy of the book to Wilde in prison, no doubt in recognition of their shared proclivity, and in sympathy for the man who had been forced to take the blame for it.
The Turn of the Screw veils and unveils sins like Dorian’s, but makes them much more monstrous by involving children in them. Like Dorian, the two children, Miles and Flora, are represented as perfectly beautiful; they look like angels even though they are totally corrupt. As if to point up the homosexual theme, rather than to offer a round robin of sexuality, James has Miles go off for hours with Peter Quint, and Flora with Miss Jessel. Miles corrupts other boys at his school just as Dorian corrupts other men. It is as the governess realizes something “against nature.” The preternatural theme is operated not through a magical portrait, but through equally magical ghosts, who at last manifest themselves as pure evil, like the portrait of Dorian and then Dorian himself, just as Miles is dying. (James dispenses with the artistic parable, that life and art cannot ultimately be severed from each other, as irrelevant.) Wilde read James’s story after he came out of prison, and thought it “a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale like an Elizabethan tragedy.” He complained, however, that James lacked passion, a complaint he had made also about Pater, and one which was perhaps his accustomed comment on repressed homosexuals. It did not fit Henry James.
Wilde did not lack passion; his characters are overwhelmed by it. He wanted a consuming passion, he got it and was consumed by it. Wilde and Alfred Douglas met in 1891. At the time Dorian Gray had only recently been published in book form, and Douglas’s astonishing youthfulness of expression made some suspect that he was the model for Dorian. Douglas specifically disclaimed being so in later letters to Rachilde: “Je ne suis pas un Dorian Gray pour avoir un portrait sur lequel se masqueraient les signes d’une âme corrompue…. Si à 27 ans j’ai la figure d’un enfant de 18 ans, c’est que mon âme est simple belle et serène, quoi’-qu’un peu fatiguée et martyrisée.” Wilde had written the book by the time they first met, and he had no need of models for Dorian, who was a stereo-type of desirable youth, but one that young men were glad to fit into. So John Gray signed himself Dorian, and Douglas did not mind Wilde’s nicknaming him Dorian. But Douglas had no need of literary prototypes to enhance his quite astonishing male beauty, his golden hair and deep blue eyes against a pale face.
Copyright © 1977 by The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles. Quotations from letters of Lord Alfred Douglas are included here with the kind permission of Edward Colman, owner of the copyright.