"We live in an age that reads too much to be wise, and that thinks too much to be beautiful."
—Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
On this day in 1891 Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published as a book. 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 which 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 twenty-five year-old post office employee and budding poet described by George Bernard Shaw as “one of the more abject of Wilde’s disciples.”