New Dorian Gray

Harvard University Press has released a new annotated version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, edited by Nicholas Frankel. It contains five hundred words that were edited out of the original published version without Wilde’s knowledge. Five hundred words. It’s not much. About half the length of this blog post. Yet as soon as I heard about it, I wanted it.

It’s almost impossible to read The Picture of Dorian Gray now without thinking about the book’s later impact on Wilde’s life and its place in evidence at his trial. It’s also impossible for me to read it the way I first read it when I was thirteen or fourteen.

It’s not a book I’ve reread for a long time. It’s one of those books that I, and I suspect many others, have a memory of reading. A memory mixed and corrupted by other things including Wilde’s life, and television and movie renditions of both the book and Wilde himself.

I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell which bits of text were deleted. In fact, when I took another look at the book recently I found it hard to read. It felt florid and overdone. It was like some beautiful piece of lacquer work or embroidery from another age. I could appreciate the beauty of it, but it wasn’t to my taste and what I really wanted was to push those adjectives out of the way and get on with the story.

By the time I was halfway through, I was wishing Wilde’s editor had taken out a lot more than 500 words.

Read in the age of Twitter and a time of the fetish of ‘crisp, clear, prose’, Dorian Gray makes hard going. Wilde was making a particular point with the style, but thanks to the legacy of Raymond Carver and others (or perhaps, more properly, Carver’s editor Gordon Lish, who is credited with reducing some of his stories to less than a third of their original length), we are less attuned to the highly worked, discursive prose Wilde uses in the book.

The restored version of Dorian Gray comes out at a time when a partial manuscript of an unfinished Jane Austen work, The Watsons, sold to the Bodleian Library for nearly a million pounds. One of the pleasures of looking at manuscripts, particularly handwritten manuscripts, is the glimpse we get into the writing process. We can see the author’s scratching out and restorations – the changes to phrases, structure and words.

This is largely something that will be lost in the future as more and more authors create their first and subsequent drafts on a computer. The paper trail that once revealed the removal of a word fourteen times and its replacement fifteen times is gone.

It’s as unlikely that publishing houses will shift old edited drafts into new technological formats as it was that they kept old print versions on file when they moved premises. How many manuscripts are already languishing in the almost forgotten floppy disk format?

Thomas Keneally recently announced the donation of his collection of more than 2500 books and memorabilia to the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts. Keneally says the collection contains amongst ‘serious volumes of research some semi-guilty pleasures such as P. D. James and books by Graham Greene’. It helps to draw a picture of the author and his work.

It will be interesting to see what will happen in 20 or 50 years time. What will be the legacy of today’s young writers when they come to retirement? What will scholars sit down to ponder? An iPad 70.0 containing all the works the author downloaded? A link to pages they’ve visited and books they’ve read?

In some ways less of the private self will be exposed and more of the public self. Perhaps less the actual books read and more the list of books one ought to have read. On the other hand, while the author’s drafts may not remain, much other auxiliary material will.

When Wilde aficionado and champion twitterer Stephen Fry moves to a higher plane, there will be an accumulation of his tweets, photos, books, documentaries, television shows, interviews, films, poetry and much more for scholars to sift through. But unless he chooses to write his first drafts by hand, we’re unlikely to have the kind of intimate record of his thought processes that is a handwritten draft. (On second thoughts, Stephen Fry may be a bad example to choose – for all I know, he writes his first drafts in ink on handmade paper using a fountain pen.)

In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, the historian Beverly Kingston is quoted talking about the contribution hoarders make to history. It’s often simply because people have kept things that they provide a record of life for later centuries – the manuscript found in Grandma’s trunk, the newspapers revealed beneath the floor.

Many manuscripts have survived because paper is a reasonably robust way to store information. But how will this change now that we’re entrusting so much to the cloud? How much will remain once Facebook and Twitter have been superseded and our pcs and iPads have become obsolete?

In a hundred years time will someone be able to pull an old USB drive from Grandma’s bottom draw and read her lost manuscript? Will the text messages she and Grandpa sent to one another still be accessible? Or will searching for her in whatever new search device exists bring up more information than we might care to know? Like Dorian Gray’s portrait, will too much be revealed?

When I first read The Picture of Dorian Gray the thing that most excited me was that Dorian is corrupted by a book. Both Dorian and his mentor Lord Henry Wotten cite a book as the main cause of their downfall. Dorian reads the book, and nothing is ever the same again.

When I was fourteen I wanted desperately to read that book. More than that, I wanted to write it. Not because I had a particular wish to corrupt others or be corrupted myself, but there is something seductive in the notion of a book that will so totally changes the mindset of the reader.

Books may no longer have the same seductive and corruptive power they had in Wilde’s day, but in every era our view of ourselves and how we are viewed by history and the trail we leave behind is changed by each new technology. And like Dorian Gray, the portrait it reveals will never be the same again.

Catherine Moffat

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. De Profundis was sheer torture to read and anything but profound (no-one tell Stephen Fry – it’d break his heart to hear it.)

    I still print my drafts. Not that it’s likely anyone will ever want to read them, but there’s something about doing it that reassures me the work is evolving.

  2. Thanks Clare, really enjoyed your post.

    It does seem a shame that handwritten manuscripts, which are so often a window into the writer’s search for the perfect word or sentence, are unlikely to be around for too much longer.

    Although not quite the same, some writers courageously share early drafts of published works such as Christos Tsiolkas, and Toni Jordan who shared an early draft of the first chapter of her novel ‘Addition’ with a creative writing class.

    I’ve not long finished a first draft of my manuscript and after reading it, know the kindest thing to do will be to make sure no copies are left lying around for others to read… now or ever.

  3. I was fascinated by the ideas here too, Catherine. Thanks.

    Part of me suspects this erasure of the writing process will reinforce notions of genius – the book the reader sees is how it appeared on the page (forget the editing, drafting, planning and scratched-out bits).

    On the other hand, many writers still use the drafting process, albeit electronically. Personally, I have many, many versions of everything I’ve written, even blog posts. I suspect authors work similarly. So perhaps in future we’ll have access to their blogs, where they’ll post their works-in-progress, or they (or their estates) will publish drafts of their Great Works at a later date. Who knows, maybe track changes will prove useful after all!

    Re our collections of eliterature: it’s an intriguing notion, and yet, we have no way of knowing now what books authors have read. Sometimes we see their libraries, but for all we know, half those books are unread, and some are likely to be secondhand or gifts. (As an aside, I wonder what insights these author insights give us.)

    Btw, the idea of future generations reading their grandparents’ text messages? Horrifying.

  4. Very interesting post – feel sorry for the historians of the future who will have to negotiate electronic records (and probably make more errors in interpretation than they do now with paper records).

  5. Did you ever get around to reading that book? They assume (and Wilde hinted) that it was Huysman’s À rebours. If you haven’t, and if you still want it, then it shouldn’t be too hard to find — it’s been republished several times, and I’ve seen it in a couple of secondhand shops. Last time I visited the book fair at Federation Square, one of the stallholders had a copy for six dollars.

    Otherwise you can find it online:

    1. Thanks. I never did track it down, but will take a look now. I’ve always liked the idea that there is this almost magical dangerous book out there somewhere, waiting.

      1. It’s a sweet thought — this hiding, secret thing, waiting to be picked up and detonated. I think you’re right about the “seductive and corruptive power” of books not working as well as it used to. The part of me that likes animals gave a twinge when Huysmans’ Decadent hero decides to doctor his ennui by gilding a turtle, but I think that twinge was closer to “Poor turtle” than “I am corrupted.”

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