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The Triptych of Dorian Gray (1890–91): Reading Wilde’s Novel as Three Print Objects

Le triptyque de Dorian Gray (1890–91) : la lecture du roman de Wilde sous la forme de trois objets imprimés
Brett Beasley


Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has the rare distinction of having not only controversial content, but a controversial textual history as well. In fact, the two are inseparable. The prosecutors in Wilde’s trials made use of the fact that Wilde had changed—or ‘purged’, as they put it—many aspects of the novel after its first appearance in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. But neither they nor the majority of Wilde readers knew that his original typescript had already undergone a great deal of censorship without Wilde’s permission before the novel found its way into print. In this paper I investigate these three texts—the typescript, the magazine version, and the first edition—using both the methods of textual studies and the methods of social and literary history, showing that the various texts of The Picture of Dorian Gray actually embody different arguments about the status of material objects themselves. Wilde’s only novel has long been recognized as a critique of Victorian society, but only by understanding it as social in its material instantiations can we come to understand the full scale and shape of that critique today.

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  • 1 For an example of just how complex the editing and critical bibliography of late nineteenth-century (...)

1By late nineteenth-century standards, the publication history of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was relatively simple.1 The first version appeared complete in the July 1890 issue of the Philadelphia-based Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The original typescript used to prepare this version survives and is housed at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California, Los Angeles. After the Lippincott’s version appeared, Wilde prepared an expanded version of the novel, which was published by Ward, Lock & Company the following year. Most scholars agree that these two published versions, along with the typescript, represent the key moments in the novel’s creation and that one of them should be taken to represent the definitive work. But which one? Significant textual differences exist between each version. A number of editors have tried to lay the matter to rest by elevating one text over the other two, sometimes providing brilliant justifications of their choice based on a comprehensive study of all available documents. Yet every such choice has eventually been challenged by other scholars or editors who all provide different, equally convincing sets of justifications. Consequently, today there is less agreement than ever about which version of Dorian Gray best represents the work that Wilde created.

2A brief account of the textual history of the novel will help us see why choosing the definitive text is so difficult. First, the text of Dorian Gray was controversial even before it was published. After reading the typescript, J. M. Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott’s, found some of the novel’s sexually suggestive elements to be unacceptable reading for his magazine’s audience. He chose to censor many passages without Wilde’s knowledge. These changes notwithstanding, the magazine version of the novel was attacked in the popular press as poisonous and immoral. These attacks prompted W. H. Smith and Son, the English distributor of Lippincott’s, to pull the issue from its stalls (Guy and Small 56).

3While the controversy over the novel’s supposed immorality raged, Wilde began preparing the book version for Ward, Lock & Company, choosing not to restore the material that Stoddart had censored. He also made many new changes of his own. Most of these were additions—six new chapters (some 28,000 words) in all. Perhaps the most significant of all the additions is Wilde’s famous aphoristic ‘Preface’, which asserts, ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all’ (Dorian Gray 167). But far from allaying the controversy, these changes contributed to intensifying it in critical ways. Most importantly, the mere fact that Wilde changed his novel at all functioned as evidence against Wilde’s cause in his 1895 libel trial against the Marquess of Queensberry. According to Queensberry’s counsel, the fact that Wilde ‘purged’ material was tantamount to an admission that the novel was indecent (Mason 132). In this atmosphere of controversy, the typescript remained unpublished, and it would remain so until 2011.

  • 2 My description of Dorian Gray as an event is informed by the work of Joseph Grigely. See Grigely’s (...)

4In what follows, I want to explore the significance of the three versions of Dorian Gray that I have just described and the main arguments that have been made in favour of each. But I do not want to take a position in favour of one version to the exclusion or subordination of the other two. Rather, I want to explore what happens when we change the terms of the debate. Rather than seeking to understand the important differences as those occurring between texts, I want to analyze the important differences that exist between the versions as print objects. I will show that these differences are central to the event that Wilde created (and hoped to create) when he wrote, published, and revised the novel.2 This approach entails relinquishing the search for a definitive text. Instead, I suggest that, like a triptych painting, the versions—including both the texts and print objects that carry them—take on special meaning when we recognize their relationship with one another and the ways in which they depend upon that relationship for their meaning. We will proceed in the order of publication, starting with the first published version.

The Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine Version (Published July 1890)

5Nicholas Frankel writes, ‘What is really remarkable about the Lippincott’s text [of Dorian Gray], at least from a purely visual point of view, is that it is one of the least remarkable and most ‘Victorian’ of all Wilde’s major works’ (139). Indeed, the issue of Lippincott’s that contains Dorian Gray is not a visually arresting document. The issue is printed on machine-made paper in relatively small type with narrow margins and no illustrations, allowing the typesetters to cram the text of 50,000 words into just 98 pages. But these unremarkable visual elements bespeak something far more interesting: a set of major changes in the late nineteenth-century publishing industry. Without these changes and the cultural climate that gave rise to them, Dorian Gray and its attendant controversy would never have assumed such proportions. (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1: The July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s containing The Picture of Dorian Gray

Fig. 1: The July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s containing The Picture of Dorian Gray

Courtesy of the British Library

6By the mid-1880s, Lippincott’s, like many other ‘family’ magazines produced for the average middle-class reader, was losing readership and consequently beginning to alter its format and practices. Some of the alterations were meant to help the magazine save money as profits declined. Thus, the magazine had ceased illustrating its fiction and had moved from a two-column to a one-column format (Lawrence 247). At the same time, the magazine began to take a number of risks to try to gain a broader readership, some of which set the publication apart from most other late-Victorian magazines. In 1886, J. M. Stoddart announced that, unlike other magazines that published long novels in short, serialized increments, Lippincott’s would begin publishing ‘a complete novel, of a popular size . . . [in] every issue of the magazine’ (Lawrence 247). Although Lippincott’s, an American magazine, originally competed with Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, under Stoddart’s direction in 1889 it negotiated a deal for English distribution, intending to attract writers and readers on both sides of the Atlantic (Lorang 20). Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle were among the first authors whom Stoddart recruited as part of this new plan. (fig. 2)

Fig. 2: The beginning of chapter VIII of Dorian Gray as printed in Lippincott’s

Fig. 2: The beginning of chapter VIII of Dorian Gray as printed in Lippincott’s

Courtesy of the British Library

7If Lippincott’s had concerns about its material interests in the changing world of 1890s publishing, Wilde had concerns of his own. At first it might seem as if those concerns were in opposition to one another. While Lippincott’s attempted to increase its popularity, Wilde sought a place among England’s literary elites. But by 1890, he had had only modest success. His Poems, published in 1881 at his own expense, had fared poorly in sales and even more poorly with reviewers. His only fiction collection, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), had enjoyed more popularity, but since it was clearly marketed for a children’s audience it did not bring Wilde the acclaim or elite readership that he desired (Guy and Small 54–56). Constantly under financial pressure, Wilde had needed to work as a reviewer and as the editor of the magazine Woman’s World. In these endeavours, he had produced more than a hundred pieces of journalism by the end of 1889. As the 1890s began, Wilde attempted desperately to negotiate his way out of journalism and to reinvent himself as a critic and writer of serious fiction.

8But transitioning from a career as a journalist to that of a respected man of letters was a complex undertaking in the 1890s, a period that was undergoing a crisis of literary authority. As Peter D. McDonald explains,

Education Acts passed between 1870 and 1891 . . . had created a new culturally aspiring ‘mass’ readership. This also coincided with university extension schemes and other changes like the rise of the lower middle classes, the professional advancement of women, and the advent of the ‘New Journalism’, which combined to challenge the pre-eminence of the mid-Victorian ‘gentleman scholar’. (7)

9Some writers with government appointments (for example, Matthew Arnold) or university fellowships (for example, Walter Pater) could avoid journalism altogether, publishing lengthy essays in serious journals such as Macmillan’s Magazine. But working writers like Wilde who needed to earn a regular income from their writing did not enjoy that luxury. In this position, it often became necessary for aspiring men of letters to pursue a paradoxical strategy whereby they denounced the values of the popular press while at the same time drawing their income from it. In one characteristic review in the Pall Mall Gazette from 1887, Wilde laments, ‘Formerly we used to canonize our great men [when they died], now-a-days we vulgarize them’ (The Artist as Critic 49). He went on to denounce those who ‘rushed [books] into print’ when Dante Gabriel Rossetti died along with the ‘usual mob of magazine hacks’ who offered their views on the poet (The Artist as Critic 49). Wilde sets himself up as the true appreciator of ‘the poet of the Blessed Damozel, the painter of Dante’s Dream’, despite the fact that he, too, writing in the Pall Mall Gazette, was speaking to a mass audience (The Artist as Critic 49).

  • 3 For an account of the origins of Wilde’s celebrity persona, see David M. Friedman’s Wilde in Americ (...)

10When Wilde attempted to achieve the status of a great man of letters, he had a unique set of tools at his disposal that both set him apart from his peers and made him an obvious target for their attacks: he understood the power of celebrity. As Sharon Marcus explains, in the late nineteenth century there was no stable distinction between merited fame and celebrity (being famous for being famous). She writes, ‘fame had begun to succumb to celebrity, and celebrity was absorbing fame, becoming a complex concept that encompassed virtue and vice, representativeness and uniqueness, conformity and transgression’ (Marcus 1010–11). Thus two different forms of celebrity emerge that sharply contrast with one another. On the one hand, there is the kind of person who is famous as an example for others, a ‘celebrity of exemplarity’ (1011). This kind of person particularly excels at embodying the normative values and virtues of his or her culture, those that are healthy, beneficial, and advantageous to the public good when imitated by a mass audience. Wilde, on the other hand, was a master at casting himself as what Marcus calls a ‘celebrity of impudence’ (1011). These figures ‘presented themselves as inimitable, though they often inspired emulation’ (1011).3 As Usha Wilbers points out, the response of many critics to the crisis in late nineteenth-century literary authority was to create an ‘image of the ideal critic, who was imagined to be a morally, ethically, and intellectually superior being’ (396). Thus this newly professionalized critic, credentialed by careful study and dedication to truth and universal meaning, could help the public reap the humanizing benefits of fine art. In contrast, Wilde acted not as a guide but as a seducer. Rather than provide stable meanings, he offered subjective ones. In short, he refused to accept that either he or the literature he discussed should be expected to set a good example. Read in this context, Dorian Gray shows itself to be a work that, like many of Wilde’s other works from this period, straddles the genres of fiction and criticism. The entire tale is a recounting of the effects of artistic (and especially literary) influence. But that influence turns out to be anything but what a middle-class reader might expect. It shows itself as neither morally nor intellectually uplifting but rather ‘poison[ous]’ and possibly even fatal.

  • 4 The one exception is the St. James Gazette, which is remarkable precisely because it makes a jarrin (...)

11The contrast between the documents described in the text and the documents that they held must have seemed rather jarring to the average readers of Lippincott’s. Again and again the story emphasizes its literary pretensions by showcasing literary taste of the utmost refinement. The novel’s literary world is one of lavish West-End home libraries filled with fine literary artefacts. Dorian reads imported and richly illustrated books, and rare first editions, with Wilde’s descriptions constantly drawing attention to the books as material artefacts.4 For example, the narrative describes one encounter with a book as follows: ‘When he had stretched himself on the sofa, he looked at the title-page of the book. It was Gautier’s Émaux et Camées, Charpentier’s Japanese-paper edition, with the Jacquemart etching. The binding was of citron-green leather, with a design of gilt trellis-work and dotted with pomegranates’ (142–43). Just before he reads the book that ‘poison[s]’ him, Dorian is drawn to its cover and the way it is positioned on ‘the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver’ (Dorian Gray 102). As the book’s influence over his life grows, so does Dorian’s obsession with it as a material object. Wilde writes, ‘He procured from Paris no less than nine large-paper copies of the first edition, and had them bound in different colours, so that they might suit his various moods and the changing fancies of a nature over which he seemed, at times, to have almost entirely lost control’ (105). As these passages highlight, Dorian Gray creates a set of puzzles for the culturally aspiring middle-class reader of Lippincott’s. The novel provides ‘culture’ in the sense of representing fine objects and the tastes that select them. But these objects and tastes turn out to be intransitive. Taste, the novel suggests, consists of continual refinement with no meaning or aim outside itself.

12The same aspects of Dorian Gray that were liable to confuse readers were liable to provoke the ire of critics. By presenting literary taste as something much more like taste in decorative art than as part of moral and social development, Wilde was rejecting the criteria that most critics held dear. But if critics rejected the novel, they in turn ran the risk of appearing too vulgar themselves to appreciate Dorian Gray’s cultivated meaning. This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that Wilde’s critics tended to have only the popular press at their disposal as a vehicle by which to attack his book. Wilde, having become deeply aware of the unstable and contradictory place of a critic writing in the popular press in the 1890s, was only too happy to pull the rug out from under these critics’ feet, so to speak, exposing them as the same ‘usual mob of magazine hacks’ who fail to recognize true art when they see it.

13With this set of issues in mind, we can understand why Wilde was eager to defend—but not to over-defend—the magazine version of his novel when it was attacked in the periodical press. His responses often emphasize just how unwilling or uninterested he was in responding at all. For example, when the St James’s Gazette condemned the novel, Wilde wrote a letter to the editor explaining, ‘I feel no thrill when I see my name in a paper . . . I wrote this book entirely for my own pleasure, and it gave me very great pleasure to write it’ (The Artist as Critic 238). He often writes, as he says, to ‘correct’ misapprehensions, often rejecting the criteria or premises that his critics assume to be universal. (He denies, for example, that a book can be moral or immoral.) He makes all of these claims while simultaneously denying that he seeks fame or fortune, claiming, ‘Whether it becomes popular or not is a matter of absolute indifference to me’ (The Artist as Critic 238). And he also denies that he has any interest in even continuing the debate. Nevertheless, he continued to discourse with three prominent newspapers for several months after his novel was published. His responses often combine a plea to be left alone with a new provocation. In one letter, for example, he pleads, ‘sir, let me ask you not to force on me this continued correspondence, by daily attacks. It is a trouble and nuisance’ only to end with the parting shot, ‘leave my book, I beg you, to the immortality that it deserves’ (The Artist as Critic 245).

14Some of Wilde’s more brilliant moments in his exchanges with newspapers turn on his keen awareness of how the medium of the newspaper itself shapes the debate. To one paper he writes, ‘Your réclame will, I have no doubt, largely increase the sale of the magazine; in which sale, I may mention with some regret, I have no pecuniary interest’ (The Artist as Critic 238). Wilde understands that this debate in the popular press is carried out before a mass audience. Here, he suggests that any newspaper attack will be self-defeating; by denouncing the book as immoral, the newspaper will only, in the end, advertise it. At other times, Wilde makes reference to the material ephemerality of the newspaper itself, using this against his critics. To the St James’s Gazette Wilde writes, ‘To say that such a book as mine should be “chucked into the fire” is silly. That is what one does with newspapers’ (The Artist as Critic 239). But Wilde also betrays some anxieties about the insubstantiality of his own work, even as he maintains his attitude of correcting vulgar misconceptions, when he objects to Dorian Gray being called a ‘novelette’. He writes, ‘There is no such word in the English language as novelette. It should never be used. It is merely part of the slang of Fleet Street’ (The Artist as Critic 244).

15When Wilde did eventually give up the newspaper correspondence, he did not abandon the controversy per se but rather channelled his efforts differently and altered his medium. Some of the results from this time of extensive output (the most prodigious in Wilde’s life) appear in ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, which was published in the Fortnightly Review in the months between Dorian Gray’s appearances in magazine and book forms. In this work, Wilde’s subject is ostensibly a political one, but the essay gives him an opportunity to revisit the controversy that Dorian Gray launched. In order to demonstrate what he means by ‘Individualism’ Wilde turns to the sphere of art. He argues that art is perverted from its true purpose when it attempts to be popular. He sees the force of ‘Public Opinion’ exercising control over art through the popular press. Wilde launches into a diatribe against the whole of journalism that reiterates and extends the arguments he made in his defences of Dorian Gray. He writes, ‘In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising’ (The Artist as Critic 276). Nevertheless, an interesting moment arises in ‘The Soul of Man’ in which Wilde seems to step outside the polemic and take a more comprehensive view, recognizing the attacks as conceivably productive. He admits, ‘On the whole, an artist in England gains something by being attacked. His individuality is intensified. He becomes more completely himself’ (The Artist as Critic 274). It is as if in this moment Wilde recognizes that his critics have functioned as collaborators. His terms are those of self-discovery. The reality, for Wilde, was more akin to self-invention, but the distinction is not an important one for the writer of ‘The Truth of Masks’.

16Despite the clear importance of Dorian Gray’s appearance in a magazine, this format has often been cited as a reason for dismissing the Lippincott’s text as a compromised or lesser version. Some critics argue that it cannot be taken to represent Wilde’s original intentions due to Stoddart’s censorship. Nor, of course, can it be taken to represent Wilde’s final intentions for the novel since it does not include the six chapters that he would add to the first book version in 1891. And yet if we recall the tensions in celebrity culture and in publishing, we can conclude that without this text, Dorian Gray would not have emerged as an important event in the culture industry of the 1890s. The popularity it gained for Wilde was a necessary prerequisite to the claims for uniqueness suggested in the novel itself and asserted in Wilde’s debates about the novel.

17In the end, we must also see J. M. Stoddart, like the reviewers with whom Wilde interacted in the periodical press, as a kind of collaborator. His censorship of the novel was to be expected. As James West points out, ‘Writers who wanted to publish in mass-circulation magazines and enjoy the financial rewards and wide exposure of such publication had to be ready to tailor their work for those markets. That usually meant turning out a relatively bland product’ (104). Any expectation of seeing a ‘pure’ work, not subject to suggestion, censorship, or revision, is simply at odds with the realities of publishing in the late nineteenth century. In fact, seen within this context, Stoddart’s removal of 500 words from a 50,000-word novel does not appear excessively harsh. Stoddart did more than enable the publication, also playing an active role in commissioning the novel. Moreover, it is likely that he commissioned Wilde in particular because he had a unique understanding of Wilde’s appeal and celebrity power. (He had hosted Wilde in Philadelphia during Wilde’s 1882 American tour and was responsible for introducing Wilde to Walt Whitman; see Friedman 107–09.) Stoddart believed in Wilde enough to take a significant risk, without which the novel might never have existed, by paying Wilde, who had never published a novel, the very healthy sum of £200 as an ‘honorarium’ for Dorian Gray (Guy and Small 57).

18Wilde probably aimed at achieving many different goals with the publication of Dorian Gray—fame, money, and no doubt literary achievement as well. But Wilde’s strategy for achieving all of these was the same: he had to make Dorian Gray a great event. Without its appearance in the form it took in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, this particular novel might not have become that event. Thus, to return to my metaphor of a triptych, I would argue that far from being a secondary or compromised version, the magazine version of the novel is central. The other texts, as we will soon see, find their meaning in relation to it.

The Ward, Lock & Company First Edition (Published April 1891)

19In the summer of 1890, Ward, Lock & Company was anxious about the publication of the first book version of Dorian Gray. But the company’s anxieties were not due to reservations about the book’s ‘immoral’ content. Instead, the publisher was concerned that the cheap price of the Lippincott’s version and its large sales would have exhausted demand for the novel. So George Lock wrote to Wilde asking him to ‘add to the story so as to counteract any damage [that] may be done by it being always on sale at I/- [one shilling] as it first appeared in Lippincott’ (qtd. in Guy and Small 59). This may seem a rather mundane or mercenary reason to expand a book. And Wilde’s decision to comply with it seems to run counter to common notions of artistic integrity. As Guy and Small put it, ‘Ironically what appears to be the most substantial recasting [of Dorian Gray], the addition of whole new chapters, may be the most difficult to reconcile with the notion of Wilde the aesthetic purist, because we know that he carried out this work principally in order to sell the book version’ (236). (fig. 3)

Fig. 3: The cover of the Ward, Lock & Company 1891 first edition of Dorian Gray

Fig. 3: The cover of the Ward, Lock & Company 1891 first edition of Dorian Gray

Courtesy of the Houghton Library at Harvard University

20Although this business decision is difficult to reconcile with aesthetic aims, editors and scholars have nevertheless attempted, often brilliantly, to do just that. In fact, the notion that the Ward, Lock & Company text must represent Wilde’s final and most highly developed aesthetic achievement has driven many scholars’ understandings of the revisions. Donald L. Lawler’s 1988 Norton edition of the novel was the first to include both the 1890 Lippincott’s version text and the 1891 first-edition text alongside one another (see Lawler, ‘A Note on the Texts’ x). But Lawler made this choice mainly to provide evidence for ‘the primacy of the revised edition of the novel as the more complete and more mature expression of the author’s intentions for his novel’ (x). According to Lawler’s account, ‘the Lippincott’s version has its own character and integrity’, but the 1891 version is the ‘more subtle, complex, and artistic’ of the two.

21Lawler’s approach was based on a comprehensive study of all archival material available concerning Wilde’s revisions and resulted in the groundbreaking work An Inquiry into the Revisions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lawler’s investigations had been spurred by a number of off-hand comments that had been made by Wilde’s biographers and repeated over the decades after Wilde’s death. Leonard Ingleby, for example, suggested that the 1891 edition was ‘more or less a piece of hack work’. Ingleby claimed, ‘whole pages were written in at the behest of the publisher who, like a customer at the baker’s demanding the make-weight which the law allows him, was clamouring for more copy’ (qtd. in Lawler, An Inquiry 2). In response, Lawler develops what we might call the ‘evolutionary theory’ of Dorian Gray. For Lawler, the revisions ‘reveal a consistency of purpose and of execution which can be explained only by assuming a conscious intention on the part of the author’ (An Inquiry 1). This purpose, according to Lawler, has everything to do with the ‘moral’ of the book. Lawler claims that there was an unbroken line of development whereby Wilde made the moral less and less overt, a process that began in early manuscripts (and ideas contained in at least two earlier stories) and only reached its full culmination in the 1891 edition. Thus for Lawler, the work we call The Picture of Dorian Gray does not represent separate acts or moments of re-creation and re-purposing; rather, it is one long act of creation that incorporates many diverse elements. Michael Patrick Gillespie took up Lawler’s mantle both as editor of the Norton Dorian Gray and as the chief expositor of an evolutionary theory of the novel’s development. In his Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity, Gillespie reads Wilde’s entire career as displaying ‘a continual refinement of aesthetic standards and artistic skills’ (33). Gillespie, like Lawler, sees in the revisions of Dorian Gray a process of evolution by which Wilde moves away from narrow, moralistic meanings and invites a more rich and diverse set of possible interpretations.

22Indeed, many of the changes to the 1891 version of the novel seem to support the evolutionary theory that Lawler and Gillespie put forward. Wilde removed many passages that emphasized the homoerotic subtext of the novel, arguably making Dorian’s moral status more ambiguous and open to debate. In addition, the added chapters offer new levels of access to Dorian’s psychology and history. Wilde also added a subplot with additional characters to the novel, which could be interpreted as lending a richness and breadth to Dorian’s metamorphosis. Above all, though, Lawler and Gillespie’s theory depends largely upon the preface that Wilde added to the 1891 edition as a key interpretive guide for the entire novel. As Gillespie puts it, the preface ‘offers a gloss on the creative forces, both internal and external, that shaped Wilde’s imagination as he composed the work’. Gillespie also contends, ‘Because it was published twice, the preface is that much more authoritative in the interpretations of The Picture of Dorian Gray it promotes’ (What the World Thinks Me 93).

23But this last statement is a dubious one. What it fails to consider is that the preface appeared in the context of struggle, with many of its aphorisms appearing in one form or another in Wilde’s correspondence with the newspapers that had denounced Dorian Gray. By removing these statements and publishing them first as a set of aphorisms in the Fortnightly Review as ‘A Preface to Dorian Gray’ and then later at the beginning of the novel under the heading ‘Preface’, Wilde obscures the fact that the novel had ever appeared in the popular press or been the subject of a debate. The aphoristic quality of the statements in the preface further removes them from the context of the controversy. They are self-sealing and often paradoxical, as in the following example: ‘We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely’ (Dorian Gray 168). Statements like this one present themselves as authoritative truisms that invite no response. (fig. 4)

Fig. 4: Two pages of the Ward, Lock & Company edition of Dorian Gray containing the Preface

Fig. 4: Two pages of the Ward, Lock & Company edition of Dorian Gray containing the Preface

Courtesy of the British Library

24The erasure of the popular-press context is enacted in the design of the printed preface and other elements as well. The design by Charles Ricketts provides a specially designed section heading as well as script-like text for Wilde’s name, printed at the conclusion of the preface as though it were a signature. The effect is that the book in general and the preface in particular feel like pristine aesthetic objects, created expressly for this and no other purpose, when in fact we know they were created, at least partly, in response to the sense that the novel was too popular, too cheap, and too widely available. Similar to the attitude Wilde attempted to develop and maintain during his exchanges with newspapers, these details are partly defensive, partly provocative, even if their pose is one of aloofness.

25In the end, the defences of the 1891 Dorian Gray offered by Lawler and Gillespie err by allowing criticisms like Ingleby’s to dictate the terms of the debate. Ingleby claimed that the 1891 Dorian Gray was ‘a piece of hack work’ because the added text was demanded by the publisher in order to introduce a set quantity of new material. Ingleby clearly sees it as worth nothing more than the new pages required to print it. The new material functions as filler, stuffing, or padding. But we should seriously question whether a sharp distinction between mere material and literary text is one that holds up to scrutiny—for us as readers as well as for Wilde as an author. Indeed, Wilde was deeply interested in maximizing the meanings that book decoration and design could bring to his works. An anecdote from Wilde’s friend and fellow writer Ada Leverson helps illustrate the acuteness of Wilde’s awareness of these non-textual material elements. She writes:

There was more margin; margin in every sense of the word was in demand, and I remember looking at the poems of John Gray (then considered the incomparable poet of the age), when I saw the tiniest rivulet of text meandering through the very largest meadow of margin, I suggested to Oscar Wilde that he should go a step further than these minor poets; that he should publish a book all margin; full of beautiful unwritten thoughts, and have his blank volume bound in some Nile-green skin powdered with gilt nenuphars and smoothed with hard ivory, decorated with gold by [Charles] Ricketts and printed on Japanese paper, each volume must be a collector’s piece, a numbered one of a limited ‘first’ (and last) edition: ‘very rare.’
He approved.
‘It shall be dedicated to you, and the unwritten text illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. There must be five hundred signed copies for particular friends, six for the general public, and one for America.’ (Qtd. in Frankel 1)

26In this anecdote, Wilde and Leverson imagine a scenario where the book as book does all of the work of making meaning without reference to any text whatsoever. Its print runs, paper, design, and illustrations speak a language of their own with many recognizable social meanings. If even margins have a meaning, there is no such thing as mere ‘filler’ added to pad the novel out.

27We can understand, then, why Wilde was pleased with the Ward, Lock & Company edition of Dorian Gray: it reflected his aims in revision in key ways, helping him to erase the previous popular context of the work and recast it as an imitable art object, at once rich and idiosyncratic (Letters 276). On the most basic level, it followed the avant-garde trend of including ‘more margin’; the 78,000-word text stretches to over 300 pages. And it included many other even more remarkable innovations. The cover was embossed with fifty-five gilt shapes that are themselves radically open to interpretation, described alternately as daisies, marigolds, and butterflies (see Wilde, Letters 276, and Bristow, ‘Introduction’ xxvi). This design originally came protected under a specially designed wrapper similar to dust jackets of today, though rare in the 1890s. Ricketts was able to create a version of Dorian Gray that was as perversely decorative as the books described within the text. Nicholas Frankel writes, ‘What is striking about Ricketts’s design . . . is not simply that it is the physical embodiment of a changed text, but that it makes the absence it presupposes so visible. It turns the usual order of the book on its head calling attention to what appears unwritten, and assigning to the visual and material features of the book a prominence we would normally reserve to language alone’ (147).

28Despite often-repeated claims that Dorian Gray developed a more ambiguous moral meaning in the 1891 edition, the issue is difficult to decide on the basis of the text alone. What we do know is that the 1891 edition provoked continued controversy. Much of this effect was brought about and encouraged by the book’s material properties. Its deluxe cover design, more substantial size, and increased length, along with the stylistically printed aphoristic preface, all combined to place the novel above the ‘vulgar’ world of mass readership and critical debate about what mass readership ought to be for. But insofar as we see the novel as just a text, these meanings that are so richly displayed in material forms remain invisible to us.

The Typescript (Unpublished until 2011)

  • 5 Another important edition to mention as part of this shift in editorial theory is Joseph Bristow’s (...)

29As discussed above, the 1891 Ward, Lock & Company text has often been presented as Wilde’s final intention for Dorian Gray. But over the years a significant number of scholars have expressed reservations about this idea. As early as 1908, Christopher Sclater Millard (who used the pseudonym ‘Stuart Mason’) developed a complete list of passages that appeared in the 1890 Lippincott’s text but did not appear in the Ward, Lock & Company version. Although, as Millard knew, these changes were made by Wilde himself, Millard implied that this act of self-censorship was imposed by the controversy surrounding the novel and for that reason was more of a deviation from Wilde’s intentions than a reflection of them. (Millard was probably not aware of the extent to which the Lippincott’s version itself involved censorship of Wilde’s typescript, and if he had been, perhaps he would have preferred that even earlier text to the magazine version.) In 1976, John Espey suggested that the typescript represented Wilde’s original intentions and thus might merit publication in its own right (35). But this idea was not carried out until 2011, when Nicholas Frankel’s uncensored annotated edition appeared.5 This was the first edition of Dorian Gray to present the typescript text as the primary (and in this case the only) reading text. For the first time, the public could read the novel ‘as Wilde envisioned it in the spring of 1890, before Stoddart began to work his way through the typescript with his pencil and before Wilde’s later self-censorship’ (‘General Introduction’ 21).

30From the perspective of the textual history of Dorian Gray, Frankel’s edition fulfils an important function: it demonstrates that the typescript is as valid as the magazine version and the first edition and should be read alongside them. But it does not follow from this that the typescript text should supersede or replace the other versions as the standard text. (Indeed, Frankel never makes such a claim on its behalf.) The typescript, as Frankel notes, represents just one moment in the evolution of Wilde’s intentions for the novel. This moment is part of an ongoing process and cannot be said to be absolutely ‘pure’ or ‘original’. In fact, critics and textual scholars who have traced the origins of Dorian Gray have found it difficult to pinpoint a specific inspiration for the novel. Even in its earliest stages, the novel was something of an assemblage of pre-existing ideas. Lawler and Charles Knott show that Dorian Gray reworks major concepts and scenarios present in Wilde’s earlier short stories ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’ and ‘The Portrait of Mr. W. H.’ and that it reuses some of Wilde’s ‘stock expressions’ and borrows passages from his journalism (nearly an entire page from a piece he wrote as editor of Woman’s World). In short, Dorian Gray was recycled from the beginning.

31Here, it is helpful to understand just what kind of document a typescript is and what it, as a print object, would have represented for Wilde. Typewriting offices were a relatively novel phenomenon in 1890 (in May of 1885 the Pall Mall Budget had called them ‘The New Convenience of Civilization’). While Wilde was among the first writers who integrated typewriters into his work, he did not use them as a method of composition. Rather, he delivered his manuscripts to a typewriting office where they were copied by typists. Although the typescript was corrected in his hand, it is likely he would have understood it, as we should today, as a kind of partial publication or at least as a text at one remove from himself as author. As Christopher Keep remarks, ‘While the uniqueness of handwriting seems to mirror that of the writing subject, typewriting both de-individualizes the graphic mark and places it at a distance from the subject’ (153–54). Still, strictly speaking, the typescript is not by nature a published document, in the sense that the typewriter, making one document at a time (or perhaps two, if the paper is in duplicate), can hardly be said to make a document available for a reading public. In this sense, the typescript can never really be published, only approximated.

32In the end, the typescript matters, just as the other two versions we have been discussing do, as part of an event. It represents a key moment at the initiation of that event, but it matters to us retrospectively based on our knowledge of the controversy that Dorian Gray caused. To put it another way, an uncensored text depends upon the act of censorship for its identity and value. As we read the uncensored version today, it is crucial to keep this in mind. We could imagine a future edition of Dorian Gray that dropped ‘uncensored’ from its title and presented the text of the typescript without the scholarly apparatus of notes and the textual introduction that provides a sense of the history of the text and documents represented by the edition. But to imagine such a future edition would be an impoverishment, not an improvement. To do so would be to commit the same error that we have been protesting against in the editing and analysis of the other two editions by ignoring the typescript’s status as a particular kind of print object and treating it only as a text.


33In order to do the work of editing or criticism, a scholar requires at least a provisional definition of ‘the Work’. That is to say, he or she needs to determine the object of study and decide what kind of object that object represents. In the case of Dorian Gray, the most satisfying and productive definition of ‘the Work’ will be the broadest one, the one that is able to incorporate elements like revisions, editions, the author’s personality, the press, and so on. The necessity of this broad definition has to do with the fact that Wilde’s career incorporated so many different elements. As we have seen, working in a volatile literary and cultural marketplace, Wilde was able to move between the worlds of mass and elite culture like no other writer of the late-Victorian period.

34In previous decades, particularly when Wilde’s literary reputation was less secure, it made sense to limit our discussions of his achievement to the texts themselves in an effort to display his craftsmanship and creative power. But Wilde’s reputation is not in danger in the twenty-first century. He remains today one of the most celebrated and most widely discussed figures of his age. His plays are widely produced, his fiction is widely taught and anthologized, and his criticism is increasingly considered a serious contribution to intellectual history, ranking him with Nietzsche as one of the great luminaries of the late-nineteenth century. Moreover, our age is shaped by a celebrity culture of its own that bears important similarities to the milieu that Wilde shaped and in which he operated. By taking a broad view of his achievement, seeing it as a product of forces that are at once textual and material, we can begin to understand Wilde’s project and our investment in it more fully.

35I began by noting that, by late nineteenth-century standards, the textual history of Dorian Gray is rather simple. Despite the complexity of the above discussions, that statement remains true. Whereas other novels of the period might have long serialization periods and a long string of revised editions published during the author’s lifetime, Dorian Gray was the product of three major moments or situations, and it took the three discrete forms we have been exploring here. Thus the opportunity of reading the work as a triptych, with the magazine version as the central piece with an earlier typescript and a later first edition standing in relationship to it, is not one that would arise with most other works of late-Victorian literature. So far, no printed edition has been able to approach anything like the broad concept of Dorian Gray as triptych that I have suggested. And indeed, perhaps no printed volume could suffice. But as the tools of the digital humanities become more widely integrated into our study of Dorian Gray, there remains the possibility that digital projects might more closely approach this goal, helping the reader experience the work not just as one text, or even three texts, but as three distinct but interrelated print objects.

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Bristow, Joseph. Introduction. The Picture of Dorian Gray: The 1890 and 1891 Texts. Vol. 3. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Oxford: OUP, 2005. Print.

Espey, John. ‘Resources for Wilde Studies at the Clark Library’. Oscar Wilde: Two Approaches, Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, April 17, 1976. Ed. Richard Ellmann and John Espey. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1977. Print.

Frankel, Nicholas Raymond. Oscar Wilde’s Decorated Books. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000. Print.

Frankel, Nicholas Raymond. ‘General Introduction’. The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011. Print.

Friedman, David M. Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.

Gagnier, Regenia. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986. Print.

Gillespie, Michael Patrick. Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1996. Print.

Gillespie, Michael Patrick. The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘What the World Thinks Me’. New York: Twayne, 1995. Print.

Grigely, Joseph. Textualterity: Art, Theory, and Textual Criticism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995. Print.

Guy, Josephine M., and Ian Small. Oscar Wilde’s Profession: Writing and the Culture Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford: OUP, 2001. Print.

Keep, Christopher. ‘Blinded by the Type: Gender and Information Technology at the Turn of the Century’. Nineteenth-Century Contexts 23.1 (2001): 149–73. Print.

Lawler, Donald L. An Inquiry Into Oscar Wilde’s Revisions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Garland, 1988. Print.

Lawler, Donald L. ‘A Note on the Text.’ The Picture of Dorian Gray: Authoritative Texts, Backgrounds, Reviews and Reactions, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1988. Print.

Lawler, Donald L., and Charles E. Knott. ‘The Context of Invention: Suggested Origins of Dorian Gray.’ Modern Philology 73.4 (1976): 389–98. Print.

Lawrence, Lindsy M. ‘Seriality and Domesticity: The Victorian Serial and Domestic Ideology in the Family Literary Magazine’. Diss. Texas Christian University, 2008. Print.

Lorang, Elizabeth. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray in Context: Intertextuality and Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine’. Victorian Periodicals Review 43.1 (2010): 19–41. Project MUSE. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

Marcus, Sharon. ‘Salomé!! Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and the Drama of Celebrity’. PMLA 126.4 (2011): 999–1021. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

Mason, Stuart. Art and Morality: A Defense of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. London: J. Jacobs, 1908. Print.

McDonald, Peter D. British Literary Culture and PublisÒhing Practice, 1880–1914. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. Print.

McGann, Jerome. ‘The Case of The Ambassadors and the Textual Condition.’ Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities. Ed. George Bornstein and Ralph G. Williams. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 151–66. Print.

West, James L. American Authors and the Literary Marketplace since 1900. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1990. Print.

Wilbers, Usha. ‘“Who Are We to Judge?”: Issues of Identity and Cultural Authority in Late Victorian Metacritical Debate’. Victorian Periodicals Review 46.3 (2013): 383–400. Project MUSE. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.

Wilde, Oscar. The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Richard Ellman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. New York: Harcourt, 1962. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray: The 1890 and 1891 Texts. Vol. 3 of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Joseph Bristow. Oxford: OUP, 2005. Print.

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1 For an example of just how complex the editing and critical bibliography of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century texts can be, see Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903). Texts like The Ambassadors had long serializations, complex processes of proofing and revision, and variations between American and British book versions. For an account of The Ambassadors’s textual history, see McGann. In contrast, due to a number of circumstances, including his tragic imprisonment and subsequent early death, Wilde only oversaw the printing of two versions of Dorian Gray in his lifetime.

2 My description of Dorian Gray as an event is informed by the work of Joseph Grigely. See Grigely’s Textualterity: Art, Theory, and Textual Criticism, especially chapter three, ‘The Textual Event’ (89–120).

3 For an account of the origins of Wilde’s celebrity persona, see David M. Friedman’s Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity. Friedman argues that Wilde developed his understanding of the power of celebrity during his American tour of 1882. Wilde had been engaged as part of the publicity efforts for Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience, an operetta that mocked Aesthetes as frauds and self-promoters. But far from becoming complicit in his own humiliation, Wilde used the opportunity to assert his inimitability. For example, upon seeing the play performed in New York, Wilde commented, This is the comment mediocrity pays to those who are not mediocre’ (Friedman 65). Delivering hundreds of letters and sitting for hundreds more interviews, Wilde became by the end of the tour the most written-about Briton in the United States’ (Friedman 238).

4 The one exception is the St. James Gazette, which is remarkable precisely because it makes a jarring appearance when it is delivered to Dorian on a silver tray containing a report on the inquest of Sibyl Vane whom Dorian had betrayed and driven to suicide. Dorian almost immediately tears up the paper and flings the pieces into his ‘gilt basket’ (even his trash receptacle is a rare treasure, further highlighting the insignificance and vulgarity of the newspaper whose pieces it holds).

5 Another important edition to mention as part of this shift in editorial theory is Joseph Bristow’s volume of Dorian Gray prepared for Oxford University Press and published in 2005. This was the first edition to give equal weight to both the Lippincott’s and Ward, Lock & Company texts rather than subordinate one to the other. In his sizable introduction, Bristow argues that Wilde produced the two editions ‘with two different sets of aims in mind’, each valid in its own way (xxxi). Bristow demonstrates that different material conditions and editorial interventions gave rise to the texts, and he analyzes the details Wilde removed in the creation of the first edition. But although Bristow does include a fully lemmatized apparatus showing variations in the typescript, he presents no reading text of the typescript for the reader.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1: The July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s containing The Picture of Dorian Gray
Credits Courtesy of the British Library
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Title Fig. 2: The beginning of chapter VIII of Dorian Gray as printed in Lippincott’s
Credits Courtesy of the British Library
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Title Fig. 3: The cover of the Ward, Lock & Company 1891 first edition of Dorian Gray
Credits Courtesy of the Houghton Library at Harvard University
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Title Fig. 4: Two pages of the Ward, Lock & Company edition of Dorian Gray containing the Preface
Credits Courtesy of the British Library
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Electronic reference

Brett Beasley, « The Triptych of Dorian Gray (1890–91): Reading Wilde’s Novel as Three Print Objects », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 84 Automne | 2016, Online since 01 November 2016, connection on 24 March 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2978

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About the author

Brett Beasley

Brett Beasley is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where he teaches courses in writing and English literature. His research focuses on Victorian approaches to religion, aesthetics, and materiality, and he is currently at work on a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Hopkins Quarterly, the Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, the Public Domain Review, and elsewhere.
Brett Beasley est doctorant à l’Université Loyola de Chicago où il enseigne l’écriture et la littérature anglaise. Sa recherche porte essentiellement sur les conceptions victoriennes de la religion, de l’esthétique et de la matérialité. Il travaille actuellement à sa thèse de doctorat consacrée à la poésie de Gerard Manley Hopkins. Il a publié des articles et des comptes rendus dans le Hopkins Quarterly, le Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, la Public Domain Review, etc.

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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