‘Victorian literature had a very different feel’ after the publication of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, according to Richard Ellmann. The process of this publication tells us almost as much about the period as the book itself.
On 30 August 1889, J M Stoddart, managing editor of the Philadelphia-based Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, gave a dinner in London for Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. Stoddart’s plan had been to solicit stories, and in 1890 he published Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four. On the strength of a £200 advance for 30,000 words, Wilde sent the fairy tale ‘The Fisherman and his Soul’ in 1889. But when Stoddart asked for a piece twice as long, Wilde began work on The Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel tells the story of young Dorian’s descent into criminal excesses which distort the portrait his friend Basil Hallward has painted of him, but leave his distinctively beautiful body unmarked.
This is the first, 13-chapter version of the novel, published on both sides of the Atlantic on 20 July 1890. After consulting advisors, Stoddart had removed nearly 500 words from the book, in most cases to mute the homo- and heterosexual content. Despite these changes, Britain’s largest bookseller, W H Smith & Son, refused to stock the July edition of the magazine.
In 1891, Ward, Lock & Co published a 20-chapter version of the novel as a single-volume book, complete with a new ‘Preface’ by Wilde, arguing for the separation of artistic and moral judgements. The fact that this 1891 edition had been toned down even further was demonstrated in Wilde’s 1895 trial for gross indecency, when the prosecuting barrister referred to it as the ‘purged version’. In 2011, Nicholas Frankel published an ‘uncensored’ version.