‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’: An Uncensored Version of a Scandalous Classic

Oscar Wilde’s novella The Picture of Dorian Gray was one of my favorite books as a young adolescent. I loved Wilde’s clever use of language, of course, but also the science fiction aspect of the story and most of all its vague sense of a forbidden (and very adult) evil which was never quite stated but was clearly driving the plot. I knew Oscar Wilde was gay and spent two years in prison doing hard labor, so I figured that the evil in question must have something to do with persecution of his sexual preference, and that it was just expressed in a code which I didn’t understand.

Little did I know that I was reading a censored version of this work. Wilde first published The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890 and it met with swift, stern condemnation. The Daily Chronicle denounced it as “a poisonous book…heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction” and “a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French decadents” while the Scots Observer opined that it was “false to morality” because the author failed to sufficiently denounce the title character’s preference for “a course of unnatural iniquity” over “a life of cleanliness, health, and sanity.” As a result, when Dorian Gray was published as a book Wilde’s editors cut out quite a bit which made explicit what was only implied in the text I had read. So explicit, in fact, that portions of the 1890 version of Dorian Gray were cited as evidence against Wilde in his 1895 trial for indecency.

There’s no longer any need to content yourself with guessing at what Wilde meant or what his first readers found so upsetting. Instead, you need only acquire a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition, edited by Nicholas Frankel and published by Harvard University Press. This new edition is based on the typescript, with emendations by Wilde himself, which he submitted to Lippincott’s in March or April of 1890. It therefore represents Wilde’s text as he intended it to be published, because even the version published by Lippincott’s was somewhat censored. In addition to providing this text, Frankel’s copious annotations (including 78 illustrations) and scholarly introduction help clarify the meaning of particular words and passages and place the story within its Victorian context.

The changes run from the alteration or omission of single words to the removal of entire passages, not all of them referring to homosexuality. For instance, lines which described Sybil Vane as Dorian’s “mistress” were removed before publication in Lippincott’s, and passages concerning his relationship with Hettie Merton were similarly censored. Some of the missing passages, however, would have made clear that Dorian’s relationships were not confined to women. Consider for instance the following sentence, removed from the 1890 publication, describing one of Dorian’s nighttime rambles through London: “A man with curious eyes had suddenly peered into his face, and then dogged him with stealthy footsteps, passing and repassing him many times.”

Frankel also provides background information concerning many allusions in Dorian Gray and historical context which helps explain why many Victorians reacted so strongly to it. For instance, when Basil confronts Dorian with the question “Why is it, Dorian, that a man like the Duke of Berwick leaves the room of a club when you enter it?” it is helpful for the modern reader to know that to the Victorians the Duke of Berwick “signified aristocratic masculinity at its most upright and traditional” (Frankel’s annotation).

Similarly, Basil reproaches Dorian with: “Why is it that every young man that you take up seems to come to grief, to go to the bad at once? There was that wretched boy in the Guards who committed suicide. You were his great friend. There was Sir Henry Ashton, who had to leave England, with a tarnished name.” This may not ring a bell with modern readers but any Victorian would have caught the allusion to the Cleveland Street Scandal, in which a number of aristocratic and military men were discovered to be patronizing a male brothel on London’s Cleveland Street and many, like the fictional Sir Henry Ashton, fled the country rather than face prosecution.

Equally useful are the annotations which connect Dorian Gray with other Victorian literature. For instance Frankel notes that the portrait which plays so key a role in the plot draws on a convention of “magic portraits” in Victorian novels and short stories, from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Oval Portrait” to E.J. Weir Mitchell’s Portrait and the Ghost and Elizabeth Lysaught’s Veiled Portrait. Similarly, Frankel notes that at Wilde’s trial Edward Carson, attorney for the Marquis of Queensberry, went to some lengths to establish that the “novel without a plot” in Dorian’s possession was in fact A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, in which the central character is an aesthete and a homosexual.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition is printed in an almost square format (9.4″ by 8.9″) which accommodates the many annotations appearing in the outer columns of each page while Wilde’s text occupies the center columns. A textual introduction discusses the different editions of Dorian Gray while the general introduction reviews Wilde’s life and work and places it cultural context. Most importantly, this edition gives us a chance to read Wilde’s text in a form as close as possible to the way he meant it to appear.

RATING 8 / 10