Literary Daybook, April 24

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published April 24, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On April 24, Nicola wanders Oxford looking for Rose.
-- "The Ready-Made Family" (1967)
by Antonia Forest

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1891, Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" was published. The novel had originally appeared in Lippincot's Monthly Magazine the previous summer, and caused an uproar for what one newspaper called "its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophizing, its contaminating trail of garish vulgarity." In revising for book publication, Wilde toned down some of the more overt homosexuality and the decadent theme, but added prefatory comments that late Victorian England found equally offensive, such as, "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all."

W. H. Smith refused to carry the book, but it sold well, making Wilde the focus of even more debate and finger-pointing. This had his wife complaining that "Since Oscar wrote Dorian Gray no one will speak to us," but Wilde had long-perfected the art of contempt, and was impervious:

"I think I may say without vanity -- though I do not wish to appear to run vanity down -- that of all men in England I am the one who requires least advertisement. I am tired to death of being advertised. I feel no thrill when I see my name in a paper ... I wrote this book entirely for my own pleasure ... Whether it becomes popular or not is a matter of absolute indifference to me."

Wilde's central character had taken his name from John Gray, a 25-year-old post office employee and budding poet described by George Bernard Shaw as "one of the more abject of Wilde's disciples." Whatever picture Gray had painted for himself of his relationship to Wilde, he had barely begun to sign his letters "Dorian" when he was spectacularly replaced by Lord Alfred Douglas, who would become Wilde's most famous and fatal attraction. Not only was Douglas younger, richer and better looking than Gray, but having been given "Dorian Gray" by a mutual friend, he had read it "fourteen times running." By June of 1891 he had contrived his first meeting with the author; by June of 1896 their relationship would have Wilde behind bars; by June of 1900 Wilde would be in the last months of disgrace, exile and life, deserted by even Douglas.

While in prison, Wilde composed "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," the most famous line of which is, "For each man kills the thing he loves." Despite his 14 readings of Dorian Gray, and his experiences with its author, Douglas apparently did not get it; when asked to explain, Wilde replied, "You ought to know."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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