(OW to Ada Leverson: “Tell me, Sphinx, does he [Max Beerbohm] ever take off his face and reveal his mask?” )
The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s only novel, published first in Lippincott’s Magazine and then in innumerable editions ever since. It tells the story of a feckless young aristocrat, Dorian Gray, who strikes a Faustian pact with fate by which his portrait ages while he remains young and beautiful. For self-evident reasons, Dorian keeps this portrait hidden away in an attic. Thanks to the novel’s continuing popularity, the phrase “picture in the attic”, and variations of it, have passed into common usage. Anyone middle-aged who looks enviably and undeservedly youthful might be accused of having a “picture in the attic”, that bears the scars of their cunningly disguised dissolution and wickedness. Sometimes a youthful-looking older person might be referred to as the “Dorian Gray” of whatever racket they’re in. For instance, the British chef Ainsley Harriott has been called the Dorian Gray of cooking, and US senator Mitt Romney the Dorian Gray of the GOP, and so on.
There are many film and television adaptations of the book from 1916 onwards. None of them are uninteresting, and all have sparked much earnest debate as to their fidelity to or betrayal of Wilde’s original creation. One of my personal favourite is the actor Peter Firth’s 1976 Dorian, with Jeremy Brett as the artist Basil Hallward and John Gielgud as Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian’s mentor. I also like, though it is fashionable among purists to despise it, Massimo Dallamano’s 1970 extravaganza, set in the Swinging Sixties, with Helmut Berger as Dorian and Herbert Lom as Lord Henry.
By virtue of the undiluted plutocratic sleaze it relentlessly delivers, this film demonstrated that the Sixties as a setting was more than a match for the Belle Époque. Look out for Marie Liljedahl as the jilted actress, Sybil Vane. The film follows the book in recreating the harrowing scene where Sybil’s lovestruck bad acting in the role of Juliet causes Dorian to despise and reject her. It is not easy to act bad acting and she does it brilliantly. Berger, Lom and Todd are superb. The screenplay has been much criticised for not retaining a sufficiency of Wilde, but its occasional aberrations are incredibly and appropriately funny. Berger: “Why should I grow old and this stay for ever young?” Todd: “Don’t ask me. I’m not a bloody alchemist.” Here is the film.
Oscar Wilde’s letters are not as widely read as they should be. They give a wonderful picture of his ready engagement with an extraordinary variety of issues, as well as creating a vivid sense of the problems and preoccupations of his age. Here he is in 1885, apologising for not being able to attend a meeting in Leicester “in support of the principles of Funeral and Mourning Reform”, following the inauguration of the Church of England Funeral and Mourning Reform Association, under the joint presidency of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The Rev. John Page Hopps read the letter out loud at the meeting.
Dear Mr Hopps, I am very sorry to say that I am confined to the house with a severe cold, caught by lecturing in a Lincolnshire snowstorm, and am not allowed by my doctor to travel. It is with much regret that I find myself unable to join in the meeting tomorrow, as I sympathise most strongly with the object in question. The present style of burying and sorrowing for the dead seems to me to make grief grotesque, and to turn mourning to a mockery. Any reform you can bring about in these customs would be of value quite inestimable. The present ostentation and extravagance of burial rites seems to me to harmonise but ill with the real feeling of those at the doors of whose house the Angel of Death has knocked. The ceremony by which we part from those whom we have loved should not merely be noble in its meaning, but simple in its sincerity. The funeral of Ophelia does not seem to me “a maimed rite” when one thinks of the flowers strewn on her grave. I regret exceedingly that I cannot hear the actual suggestions on the matter which will be made at your meeting. I have always been of the opinion that the coffin should be privately conveyed at night-time to the churchyard chapel, and that there the mourners should next day meet. By these means the public procession through the streets would be avoided; and the publicity of funerals is surely the real cause of their expense. As regards dress, I consider that white and violet should be recognised as mourning, and not black merely, particularly in the case of children. The habit of bringing flowers to the grave is now almost universal, and is a custom beautiful in its symbolism; but I cannot help thinking that the elaborate and expensive designs made by the florist are often far less lovely than a few flowers held loose in the hand. There are many other points on which I should have liked to listen, and one point on which I had hoped to have the privilege of speaking. I mean the expression of sorrow in art. The urns, pyramids and sham sarcophagi – ugly legacies from the eighteenth century to us – are meaningless as long as we do not burn or embalm our dead. If we are to have funeral memorials at all, far better models are to be found in the beautiful crosses of Ireland, such as the cross at Monasterboice, or in the delicate bas-reliefs on Greek tombs. Above all, such art, if we are to have it, should concern itself more with the living than the dead – should be rather a noble symbol for the guiding of life than an idle panegyric on those who are gone. If a man needs an elaborate tombstone in order to remain in the memory of his country, it is clear that his living at all was an act of absolute superfluity. Keats’s grave is a hillock of green grass with a plain headstone, and is to me the holiest place in Rome. There is in Westminster Abbey a periwigged admiral in a nightgown hurried off to heaven by two howling cherubs, which is one of the best examples I know of ostentatious obscurity. Pray offer to the committee of the society my sincere regrets at my inability to be present, and my sincere wishes for the success of your movement. Believe me, sincerely yours, OSCAR WILDE
I read with interest Luisa Zambrotta’s interesting post on Lionel Johnson. Johnson was Bosie’s cousin and a contemporary of his at Winchester College. He introduced him to Oscar Wilde, with fatal and well-recorded consequences. When I was at Winchester in the Seventies, there was precious little evidence of Johnson or Bosie. Unsurprisingly, no prizes were named in their honour, no tennis courts or cricket pitches hallowed in their memory. Yet many Wykehamists (this is what Winchester alumni are called, after the founder, William of Wykeham) are more than a little proud of Bosie, and I am no exception. I feel as though I knew him, which sounds incredibly pretentious given that he died long before I was born – so allow me to explain.
In London in the mid-Eighties I knew a delightful woman called Inez Nimmo-Smith. In her youth she had been a great beauty and was the former wife of Christopher Hill, sometime Master of Balliol College, Oxford. In her Oxford days she had, as she put it, “swung from the chandeliers” in Balliol and had been very much the life and soul of Common Room. Now, in genteel semi-retirement, she lived quietly in a tiny flat in Belgravia, from which she ran an elegant little business, planting and maintaining terrace gardens in Chelsea, Belgravia and South Kensington. The enterprise had grown by word of mouth. Her clients included a number of people in her circle who were distinguished thespians, among them Albert Finney and Dirk Bogarde. I sometimes helped Inez by trundling around Chelsea with her, laden with flowerpots and watering cans, she in a summer dress and broad-brimmed straw hat, I rather incongruously in tweeds and a panama.
We had a set conversational ritual that sustained us among the window boxes, lubricated by the occasional bottle of wine or vodka that Finney or Bogarde would leave out for us. “Well, Inez,” I would say, “tell me about life in the olden times.” At this she would invariably break into a kind of music hall, cockney vernacular. “I ain’t the old stick yer take me for! I’ll ‘ave yer know I turned a few ‘eads in me day…” and words to that effect. Then she would tell me stories, often of a ribald nature, about Tom Driberg, or the Duke of Windsor, or Guy Burgess, or various other notorieties with whom she had collided over the decades. One day she told me the following.
Inez grew up in Brighton and Hove in the Twenties and Thirties. As a teenager she had taken various part-time jobs, as a secretary, companion or general factotum. One day she answered a notice in the window of a local shop announcing that a “notable man of letters” required occasional accompaniment on afternoon outings. She found herself at the door of the now elderly Lord Alfred Douglas, who lived in Hove. They agreed a routine where she would collect him from his flat and wheel him to and fro on the Hove promenade, in a large and ornate bath chair. During these outings, Bosie would often expatiate on his life and achievements, the general drift being literary or artistic, more often than not sharpened with the carefully distilled venom he reserved for his many enemies.
One afternoon, he asked Inez to stop for while on the promenade. “Do you know, my dear child,” he mused, “who is the greatest writer of sonnets in this or any other language?” Inez thought for a moment. “No, Lord Alfred. I’m sure I don’t. Might it perhaps be Shakespeare?” “No, my child,” replied Bosie, as he gazed out over the Channel, the remains of his great beauty still evident in his haggard face and intense eyes. “No, my child. It is I.” Then once more, his voice falling to a whisper, “It is I.” Inez observed that this was said not in petulance, but with a kind of resigned fatalism, as though he now knew once and for all that the tide was against him, that the world was not yet ready or able to embrace his genius.
Some years later, in the Nineties, I found myself working as a “creative director” in London. Once I was called on to help design and organise a trade event, at which the most opulent vintage clothing dealers in Britain were to gather for a grand exhibition in the West End. For the opening I had got as far as hiring a pair of enormous, three-metre-high, mock-baroque fifty-branch candelabra. I had also hired half a dozen black waiters who were prepared to serve champagne and canapes wearing nothing but gold lamé turbans and loincloths. What more could I do to gild this already monstrous lily? An idea quickly suggested itself.
I knew that Bosie had bequeathed some of his belongings to a few close friends in Hove who had helped him in his final years. Among the effects was some clothing. The beneficiaries were not sure what to do with it, so eventually they sent the relics to Madame Tussaud’s, the London waxworks, where one day they might be put to good use, should an effigy of Bosie ever be created. At that point it had not. So I telephoned Tussaud’s saying I was interested in hiring the Douglas bequest for an event, and that I wished to dress a tailor’s mannequin in Bosie’s finery and make it the centerpiece of an exhibition. The exquisite-sounding gentleman at the waxworks seemed glad to encourage this, so an appointment for viewing was made.
I was met at Baker Street by a charming young woman, one of the assistant curators. The storerooms were at the top of the building, so we first climbed the grand staircase to the upper chambers. After that, the flights of stairs became narrower and darker until finally we reached the attics by way of a creaking final flight, lit by a single dim and shadeless bulb. The attics were extraordinary, eerily illuminated by skylights letting in the charactistically dead, late-afternoon autumn light of London. They were piled from floor to ceiling with carefully labeled hatboxes, cabin trunks, chests, armoires, mannequins. Eventually we came to a small room, where a hatbox and a leather suitcase were waiting on a table. “These are Lord Alfred’s things,” said my companion, with a beautifully anachronistic Edwardian deference. “Thank you, my child,” I might have said, but didn’t. She left me to my inspection of the treasures.
What I found was sparse to say the least. There were, among numerous carefully folded handkerchiefs and socks, two sets of cream silk pyjamas made by Sulka of Piccadilly, the epitome of luxury in their day but now visibly frayed and worn. A tear in one set had been mended with snow-white cotton, leaving a livid cicatrice of painstaking needlework. The white hatbox bore the grand name of Lock, with the Royal Warrant embossed beneath it. Bosie’s name appeared on a label on the side. “Lord Alfred Douglas, for collection”. The bowler hat inside was a little battered, the original inky black having given way in parts to a rusty brown. This must have been one of the hats he had worn on blustery afternoons on the promenade with Inez all those decades ago. These, then, were the sartorial remains of Oscar Wilde’s “golden boy”, whose “slim gilt soul walked between passion and poetry”. I folded the pyjamas with due reverence and returned them to the suitcase. On impulse I tried on the bowler hat, which fitted me perfectly. “It is I,” I murmured softly, crowning myself the new King of Neglected Poets in the dying light of the attic. God knows what fury this impertinence might have provoked in Bosie, but I’d like to think he’d forgive me, because at that moment I decided to leave his things to the decent obscurity they deserved. Abandoning the mannequin idea once and for all, I thanked the curators, and eventually found my way out into a darkening Baker Street.
There was little point in going back to the office, so I took a cab to the Savoy, where I ordered the first of a long series of hocks and seltzers in an improvised act of Remembrance. As I drank them I called to mind my favourite poem of Bosie’s, which seems to me to give him an unchallengable place among the masters. Here it is.
He swallowed an Ambien capsule,
And gazed at the Washington skies.
He pouted, characteristically,
And narrowed his gimlet eyes,
For the Resolute Desk had been cleared now,
Melania’s photo, and all;
And “The Bronco Buster” by Remington
Left a reproachful gap on the wall.
“I got to remember my Cestrol.
Kayleigh, just see it’s in hand —
How could they have been so nasty?
Help me to understand.
“And you’ve brought me the latest Fake News:
All Harris bullshit and stuff…
Know what? They betrayed the people,
And they’ll pay for it soon enough.
“There’s my best set of clubs in the West Wing —
My Titleists are back in Trump Tower,
With the balls sent by Vladimir Pooting,
During my first month in power…”
“More Ambien — where is my water?
Can’t you ring for the goddam staff!”
(His continuing zest for denial
Caused Kayleigh to stifle a laugh.)
A thump, and a murmur of voices —
”Can they do this to me? This is weird…”
As the door of the Office swung open
And TWO MILITARY POLICEMEN appeared:
“Mr. Trump, we are here to escort you
From the Office denied you by Law:
We must ask you to leave with us quietly,
By the Jackson Place janitor’s door.”
He rose, and he put down the Fake News.
He staggered — and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past a bust of Lincoln,
And was helped to a limo outside.