Saturday, October 27, 2007

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (cont.)

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 3: The Picture of Dorian Gray: the 1890 and 1891 texts. Ed. by Joseph Bristow. Oxford University Press, 2003. 0198187726. lxxvii + 465 pp.

[Continued from Part 1.]

New chapters in the 1891 text

The main difference between the 1890 and 1891 texts is that the latter has six new chapters. First there's chapter 3, where Lord Henry goes to visit his uncle and talks to him about Dorian's mother; then he goes to dinner at the house of his aunt Agatha. This chapter is pleasant enough, but it seems pretty isolated — one could omit it and not change anything else, and nobody would notice that anything is missing.

Then there's chapter 5, with the scenes involving Sibyl Vane and her mother and brother. Her brother is a completely new character in the 1891 text and, if I'm not mistaken, isn't mentioned at all in the 1890 text. Otherwise, this chapter generally made me as a reader less sympathetic towards Sibyl and her mother than I would have been from the 1890 text where this chapter was missing. Sibyl is so much in love with Dorian and expresses herself in such saccharine terms that she is quite unbearable. Her mother, on the other hand, is an old former actress who, now that she cannot act much on the stage any more, compensates this by behaving theatrically in her ordinary life, which is also very annoying. Sibyl's brother James makes a much more favourable impression, although he is almost too earnest and serious. It's as if Wilde deliberately made him so very down-to-earth, to provide a contrast with Sibyl and their mother.

A major new addition, a whole subplot really, are chapters 15–18, coming soon after Dorian murders Basil, the artist who had painted his portrait all those years ago, and blackmails an old acquaintance into disposing of the corpse. Dorian then goes to a dinner-party at one Lady Narborough's, which is of course yet another opportunity for a few pages of clever conversation and witty epigrams. But Dorian doesn't feel too well; apparently the murder has been getting on his nerves somewhat; so he leaves early and to go to an opium-den in some sleazy part of London (and apparently he also keeps opium at home, p. 322, “green paste waxy in hue”; and see the editor's introduction, p. lv). This opium habit of his was not so prominent in the 1890 text (I'm not even sure if it was mentioned at all).

In ch. 16, Dorian meets, in an opium den, Adrian Singleton, a young man whose life he had apparently ruined (though it is not quite clear how — perhaps by introducing him to drugs? — anyway, in the 1890 text, Adrian is mentioned only once, in the conversation between Basil and Dorian shortly before the murder; Basil mentions the rumours that are circulating about Dorian, how many people he had associated with are now in disgrace etc., and Adrian is mentioned once among the others, p. 129). This chapter ends with the encounter between Dorian and Sibyl's brother James, who tries to kill him for causing the suicide of his sister at the beginning of the novel. However, this was almost twenty years ago and Dorian hasn't aged since then, so he manages to convince James that he cannot be that man, who would have to be almost forty years old now.

Most of ch. 17 consists of a conversation among Dorian, Lord Henry and a Duchess of Monmouth; a conversation in which clever epigrams are flying back and forth like lightning-bolts and the whole scene reminded me somewhat of swordfights in old swashbuckling movies (Scaramouche comes to mind). But at the end of the chapter, Dorian sees James Vane's face peering at him through a window, and faints. In ch. 18, there's a hunt and a man is accidentally shot by one of Dorian's guests; it turns out that the victim is none other than James Vane.

Wilde also inserted a couple of pages of text (pp. 349–50) into the conversation between Dorian and Lord Henry in ch. 13 of the 1890 edition and then split this chapter into two, resulting in chs. 19 and 20 of the 1891 edition.

So the main differences betwen the 1890 and the 1891 texts can be summarized thus: a couple of chapters of witty conversation in Wilde's trademark style, plus the whole James Vane part of the story. I must say that I didn't really miss these things when reading the 1890 text, but at the same time, adding them probably does improve the novel. They make it seem as if fate was playing a cat-and-mouse game with Dorian, first giving him a good fright when James Vane comes on his trail, and then an immense relief when Vane ends up being shot a few days later (and, in a further twist of irony, this wouldn't have happened if Sir Geoffrey had listened when Dorian asked him not to shoot!). This also provides a better motivation for Dorian's last (and unsuccessful) effort to become good (by not seducing the country-girl Hetty). The James Vane episode is also helpful because it further underscores that Dorian led a charmed life; he could get away with murder and with driving people to suicide, even in the face of such a dogged pursuer as James. It was only his own conscience, rather than any external human agency, that finally brought Dorian's morally bankrupt life to an end.

Minor changes from the 1890 to the 1891 text

In the other chapters, the ones that existed both in the 1890 and in the 1891 texts, most of the changes are small. Wilde often changes a word here or there, and sometimes adds or removes a sentence, but it isn't obvious to me that most of these changes really make much of a difference, neither improving the text nor making it worse. But I guess I haven't got a delicate enough sense for language to be able to really judge such things :)

One well-known change between the 1890 and 1891 editions (I remember it mentioned e.g. in Hesketh Pearson's biography of Wilde) is that the frame-maker whom Dorian asks for help in moving the portrait is named Ashton in the 1890 edition but Hubbard in the 1891, because Wilde felt that “Ashton is a gentleman's name” while “Hubbard positively smells of the tradesman”. The editor's note on p. 441 says that these comments by Wilde were reported in the 1917 memoir In Good Company by Coulson Kernahan (Wilde's editor for the 1891 edition of Dorian Gray; p. li).

Another change is in ch. 10 (or ch. 8 of the 1890 text), where Dorian's old housekeeper, Mrs. Leaf, is described more affectionately in the 1890 text (“Mrs. Leaf, a dear old lady in a black silk dress”), while in the 1891 text the conversation between her and Dorian is shorter and colder. See the textual notes to 268.13, 268.14 and 269.8–10; Wilde removed four short paragraphs of the conversation. I wonder why he thought these changes necessary. He basically went out of his way to kill a pleasant and perfecly sympathetic minor character and turn her into little more than a theatrical prop.

Near the end of ch. 10 (ch. 8 in the 1890 ed.), when discussing the style of the book that Dorian receives as a present, the 1890 text refers to “the French school of Décadents” (p. 103), but in 1891 Wilde replaced this by “Symbolistes” (p. 274). See also the editor's note on p. 442.

At the beginning of ch. 11 (1891 text; p. 276, l. 4), Dorian buys “no less than nine large-paper copies of the first edition” of the book that Lord Henry had given him as a present. But in 1890 (ch. 9, p. 105), he was satisfied with a mere five copies :)

Near the beginning of ch. 4 (1891 text; p. 208, ll. 26–8), Lord Henry's wife says that he has seventeen or eighteen photographs of Dorian; but in the corresponding place of the 1890 text (ch. 3; p. 35, ll. 25–6 and p. 36, l. 1) he has as many as twenty-six or twenty-seven.

In ch. 12 (1891 text, p. 293), Wilde added a couple of paragraphs to the conversation between Basil and Dorian (starting with “ ‘Stop, Basil. You are talking about things of which you know nothing,’ ”); I think this is a welcome addition and tells the reader a bit more about the scandals and rumours with which Dorian has become associated.


I used to think that Caligula had appointed his horse to the position of consul, but now I see that I got these things slightly mixed up: Caligula only “meant to make him consul” (p. 413, the quote is from Suetonius, Caligula 55), while it was Elagabalus that had really “raised his horse to the honours of the consulship” (p. 414; the quote is from Gibbon, ch. 6).

There are two interesting passages, one in ch. 3 (1891 ed.), and one in ch. 4 (1891 ed., or ch. 3 of the 1890 ed.), about aristocrats not being able to afford things. The Duchess of Harley says of the Americans: “I must confess that most of them are extremely pretty. And they dress well, too. They get all their dresses in Paris. I wish I could afford to do the same.” (P. 201.) And Lord Henry's wife Victoria says on p. 209: “You've never been to any of my parties, have you, Mr. Gray? You must come. I can't afford orchids, but I spare no expense in foreigners. They make one's rooms look so picturesque.” I know that these passages are meant to be humorous, but I wonder if Wilde wasn't also picking up on a real historical trend at the time, namely the slow but steady decline of the British aristocracy from their formerly undisputed position at the top of the political, social and economical hierarchies. In the late 19th century they were increasingly unable to compete with the much wealthier industrialists, the wealthiest of which were of course to be found in America. See David Cannadine's fascinating book, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.

A curious passage from ch. 11 (1891 text, p. 114): “In Lodge's strange romance ‘A Margarite of America’ it was stated that in the chamber of the queen one could behold ‘all the chaste ladies of the world, inchased out of silver [. . .]’ ” I suppose this is a joke (if a slightly misogynyst one), right? If all the chaste women can be portrayed in a single room, then there clearly can't be very many of them...

The obligatory bit of grumbling: it's great that in the commentary, the page headers tell you to which page of the text the commentary there refers to; but I wish that the headers of the text itself told you which chapter you're in, but they don't; they just tell you whether it's the 1890 or 1891 text. I noticed just a handful of typos: “one fo the grooms” (p. 344, l. 40); “Jean-Baptise Poquelin” (p. 453, note to 335.18); and the critical note to p. 348, l. 35 mentions “p. 348” instead of “p. 350”. Well, that's still three mistakes too many for a book that costs as much as this one :)


I won't write much about the literary aspects of the novel, because so much has been written about it already by people who can do it better than I could ever hope to anyway. I found that I enjoyed re-reading it after all these years, but I also got a feeling that all these delightful and outrageous epigrams and witticisms for which Wilde is so famous and with which The Picture of Dorian Gray is peppered as densely as perhaps any other of his works start to eventually get slightly tedious. “Ah, yes, yet another epigram by the ever-witty Lord Henry, just the sort of thing he is always saying (and very likely the sort of thing that has been said by three other characters in other works by Wilde), oh, how very clever, what utterly delightful cynicism, yawn, yawn, yawn.” It all starts to feel somewhat predictable and overly familiar, but of course this complaint of mine should not be taken seriously — it isn't fair to Wilde. None of these things bothered me when I read Dorian Gray for the first few times; they were fresh and delightful to me then. And they are still enjoyable now, it's just that they aren't new any more, they are all familiar and they are things that I've heard so many times before; so that although the charm is still there, the novelty is all gone, and consequently reading Dorian Gray for the eighth time wasn't quite so delightful as hitherto. But I must say that I was mostly annoyed by this in the beginning of the book; later, as the story gathers up pace, Lord Henry's epigrams are no longer so prominent as in the beginning of the book, and so they didn't really annoy me any longer at all (especially in the 1890 text; in the 1891 text, some of the new chapters, 15, 17 and partly 18, are chock-full of epigrammy goodness :)).

But, as I said, please disregard my grumbling. Wilde, after all, had an answer for it as well: when a man says he has exhausted life, one knows that life has exhausted him (ch. 15, p. 319). Now admittedly I haven't exactly lived yet, nor am I likely to in the foreseeable future, but I cannot help feeling that there's a kind of exhaustion at work here just the same :) Anyway, to anyone who enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray, I recommend this edition very highly. Between the editor's introduction, his extensive commentary, and the critical apparatus with its delightful possibilities for comparing the 1890 and 1891 editions (and the manuscripts), there's so much fascinating material here, besides the text of the novel itself, that it's definitely worth the price.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your review was extremely helpful to me, a student trying to make her way through AP English IV. I'm going to start reading Dorian Gray on Monday, and it was great that I could read up on some background information about both editions of the novel from you and your own studies.

Thanks so much for your post. :) It was an interesting read.

Monday, February 04, 2008 4:00:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thank you for your comment, I'm very glad to hear that you found my posts helpful! I hope you'll enjoy The Picture of Dorian Gray as much as I have :)

Monday, February 04, 2008 8:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

of course your review is quite useful and well written . but i think you neglected some minor changes between the two versions. the old version contained some material that enhanced the homoerotic theme , which WILDE delibratly changed it into more evasive sentences .some phrases assured the non straight nature of Basil and what opposes it in Dorian's nature .
About the inserted chapters that you do not know why they are added ,this novel was considered unclean one at the victorian age . Wilde wanted to modify it and enlarge it , to reduce the concentration of the romance feelings of Basil , and to shift the attention of readers from the subtle meanings of Henry's scenario to an exciting sub plot .
hope you understand my point of view , and modify it if i am mistaken at any point . forgive my spelling and linguistic mistakes as i do not speak English .

Friday, August 24, 2012 8:23:00 PM  

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