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Do we really need an ‘uncensored’ version of Dorian Gray?

April 28, 2011

Colin Firth as Lord Wotton, Ben Barnes as Dorian, in the 2009 movie version seen by 35 people, all of them film critics.

When I first read Oscar Wilde’s classic comic novel as a bookish boy in an East Tennessee Bible college (long story), even I could see that Dorian and his friends were at least partly what we used to call “queer.” So it comes as a surprise to learn that Wilde’s original manuscript was more explicitly homoerotic.

You remember the story, right? Dorian Gray is painted by the infatuated artist Basil Hallward, who thinks his friend’s beauty has inspired him to create a new kind of art. Dorian comes under the influence of the charming Lord Henry Wotton, who teaches him a kind of decadent Epicureanism in which the only things worthwhile are beauty and pleasure.

Soon Dorian discovers that the portrait is aging while he remains beautiful and young. He then embarks on a life of ruthless seduction and moral degeneracy, breaking hearts, abusing drugs and doing whatever he wants with impunity.

The published novel, in which all Dorian’s conquests are women, caused a scandal when it appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. The British press, according to the Guardian, condemned it as “vulgar”, “unclean”, “poisonous” and “discreditable.”

This reaction came, it turns out, after Wilde’s editor, JM Stoddart, had already “deleted a host of objectionable material.” Basil’s crush on Dorian, for example, is more clearly homosexual, and Dorian’s own bisexual nature is more explicitly rendered, in Wilde’s original text.

Stoddart also removed references to Dorian’s women as “mistresses,” and took out “a number of things which an innocent young woman would make an exception to.” Ah, ladies, don’t you long for those lost days when we took such good care of you?!?

Today, of course, no 12-year-old would blush to read Dorian Gray.

Nicholas Frankel, an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth Univesity, says, Stoddart cut “many passages that smacked of decadence more generally.”

Which is amazing, at least to me, because I thought the general smacking, which is to say, the point, of the novel as published, was already its air of decadence, plus the conflict between the aesthetic elevation of beauty and the senses on one hand, and the spiritual and human cost on the other. (Remember, I was in Bible college…)

But now we can soon read The Picture of Dorian Gray as Oscar Wilde intended, with the full measure of degeneracy restored, thanks to Prof. Frankel, who has edited a new edition for Harvard University Press.

“The time is ripe for the publication of Wilde’s novel in its uncensored form,” Frankel tells the Guardian. “It is the version of the novel that Wilde, I believe, would want us to be reading in the 21st century. I’m bringing it out of the closet a little more.”

I confess to misgivings about Frankel’s project. Who could object to publishing a book as its author intended? That’s not as simple a question as it first appears. Once a book becomes a classic, the canonical version takes on an authority that cannot be denied, even if it contained edits the author did not approve of.

Which of the three versions of Lady Chatterly’s Lover do we read? Would Hemingway’s stories really be better if we put back in all the vulgar words Max Perkins took out? Did The Stand really improve for the 400 pages Stephen King was eventually allowed to cram back in?

As any artist (and critic and scholar) should know,  often less is more. Too much of a good thing — dirty words in Hemingway, decadence in Dorian Gray — may dull rather than sharpen the point. I once read an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which several substantial passages Twain would have preffered to keep were restored. The effect diluted the novel’s impact.

I’m not the only one to harbor such reservations.: The Guardian quotes author Brooke Allen, writing at Barnes & Noble’s website: “[W]hether the original text is actually ‘better’ than the book version published in 1891 is a moot point…This annotated version, though a treasure for scholars and for anyone with a serious interest in Wilde, the 1890s, and Aestheticism, should serve as a supplement to the standard text rather than a replacement.”

In other words, the version expurgated by Stoddart is the one that has moved and delighted readers for 120 years, more than earning its priority over whatever we might imagine Wilde’s intent to have been. The author did, after all, agree to the edits.

And, after all, the original gave us some of Wilde’s greatest aphorisms, usually delivered in the languorous voice of Lord Wotton:

“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

“It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.”

“The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.”

My favorite: “To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.”

And to the point of today’s lesson: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

Each of these gems is to be found in the standard version bowdlerized by Stoddart — which is, by the way, not only a paen to art-for-art’s sake, but also a deeply moral book in which Dorian eventually gets his come-uppance. Some may say this is Wilde cynically playing to his Victorian audience. But for all his apparent hedonism, Wilde could never quite tame the essential religiosity of his Irish Catholic soul.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2011 8:38 pm

    Insightful article, Chauncey. I’ve read Wilde cover to cover and, frankly, in my humble opinion, Dorian Grey is one of his lesser and least interesting creations, right down there with The Ballad of Reading Gaol. That said, I can understand why they would want to do Dorian Grey the way Wilde wished he could write it–because finally they can! Wilde was a towering genius done in by his appetites & that little prick Bosie who abandoned the poor man when he sued Bosie’s father for libel (at Bosie’s request). Anyone who hasn’t read De Profundis (From the Depths) should take an hour and read it, one of the greatest essays in the English language. The grand (and somewhat self-pitying) soul of Wilde laid bare. I love the man this side idolatry.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 2, 2011 10:42 am

      He is a great one, no doubt, and in the dictionary next to the entry for “hubris” should be a photo of his face. But what a great writer, what a great forerunner of the 20th century and its emphasis on style and celebrity. Of course, with Wilde there is enormous talent and intellect undergirding the surface flippancy, the focus on style and beauty and art for art’s sake. I love the story about how he visited rough-and-tumble mining camps during his American tour, places where you’d expect he’d be jeered and mocked off stage (or worse) and instead one over his audiences completely. Which for some reason makes me think of “Brokeback Mountain”…

      By the way, the closest thing to a latter-day Wilde that I know of, at least in terms of with and mental acuity, is the sadly neglected Quentin Crisp. I heartily recommend his memoirs and essay collections, beginning with The Naked Civil Servant (1968).

  2. May 2, 2011 11:49 am

    Quentin Crisp. I’ll look him up. If he’s half the wit Wilde was I’ve been missing out. Sometimes I go to Wilde just because his clever word play will make me smile or laugh outloud.

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