THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




Why Read Teleny?


Aaron Ho



There are, according to John Sutherland, 60,000 works by 7,000 writers published from 1837 to 1901. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) emerges victorious in the canon war, making regular appearances on college courses. Professors justify the novel’s reason d’être with its intricate prose and its epitomical representation of the movement, Decadence. Why then should we read Teleny when there are 59,999 other contenders, among which there are Charles Dickens’, George Eliot’s, and the Brontë sisters’ books? Has it any value? Will it change the way we read or think of the Victorian period? Has it any desirable function in our society today?

These questions, Mary Poovey has also asked in an attempt to recover women writers into the canon. She concludes that not all obscure female authors are worth bringing into critical limelight since their novels do not contribute to what we do not already know and serve only ‘to test our critical tools’ and enable ‘us to be more confident about the conclusions we reach about Jane Eyre and Mary Barton’ (449-50). Both Jill Campbell and Margaret Homans repudiate Poovey’s position; they stress on the historical significance of even a third-rate writer and argue that there is a difference between a pedagogical text in a classroom and a furthering of research. 

Following Campbell and Homans, I want to examine Teleny for its historicity and its stance in the pedagogical and research divide. Many articles on Teleny give an introduction of its genesis and its authorship. Legend has it that Oscar Wilde left a sealed manuscript at a bookshop to be picked up by a young man who, in turn, left it for another man. This was done three more times. Charles Hirsch, the bookshop keeper, could hardly resist opening the Pandora’s box and telling it in his introduction to the French translation of 1934 edition of Teleny. The authenticity of this apocryphal story is perhaps not as important as its literary history and multivocality. Even though the manuscript is lost, the inconsistent quality and style of writing indicate that there are several authors. The collective effort in writing a male homosexual pornography is one of the earliest ‘moves [to] athwart those ideologies that sought to ‘naturalize’ male heterosexuality’ (Cohen 803). Furthermore, the multivocality of the novel—the myriad authors and its narrative on hetero- and homo-sex—underscores its aim for diversity.

Without a doubt, Teleny holds a pivotal position in literary history. But to claim everyone should read the novel because of its historical significance is simplistic and naïve. Teleny’s literary history belongs merely to a specific group of people, white Anglo-Saxon gay male. Compared to Poovey et al’s project of recovering little known women writers, a history that involves at least half of the Caucasian race, Teleny’s bid for the canon seems relatively feeble. Since the criteria for canonical books, or books even busy people should read, are literary excellence, relevance to majority of the people in today’s society, and exemplarity of its age, Teleny is hardly a major competitor. The quality of its prose is uneven, sometimes lucid, sometimes lurid. Although its narrative has a central love development between Teleny and Des Grieux, many parts of the book digress into unoriginal descriptions of heterosex, reminiscent of the anonymously written, My Secret Life (1888). Teleny’s limited circulation—it was published thrice from 1893 to 1934 with a total of only 700 copies—means that the novel did not reach into the consciousness of the public, gay or straight, unlike, say for example, Dracula (1897). Its small circulation also signifies that later gay tragedies evolve independently of Teleny; it did not influence gay writings. 

The best reason for everyone to read Teleny is perhaps that it is an exemplar of its times. The furtive passing of the manuscript and its limited print reflect the repression that Victorian homosexuals had to suffer and the secret lives they led. Des Grieux internalizes homophobia, making forays into heterosexuality and delaying his love-making to Teleny. Des Grieux’s internalization is also the writers’: the lovers have to separate and die eventually. But surely we do not need to read Teleny to learn that Victorians abhorred differences; anyone with a sense of history will know that. Besides, since there are many novels that portrayed ‘Urnings’ (homosexuals) in the same period as Teleny (McRae 16), why should Teleny be the novel that represents the Victorian homosexual?

A second cause that Campbell and Homans bring up against Poovey’s unwillingness to recover unknown women writers is the difference between classroom and research material. Teleny isn’t a book to teach undergraduates because there is no suitable course to place it in: competition is much too stiff among Victorian novels and an introductory course on sexuality would hardly accommodate Teleny.

Neither is Teleny significant in research so far; a critique of two articles on Teleny will prove the point. Ed Cohen, in ‘Writing Gone Wilde,’ argues that Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘even in the absence of explicit homosexual terminology or activity…can subvert the normative standards of male same-sex behavior,’ continuing the work that Teleny does (803).  In Cohen’s 13-page article, his main argument (‘by juxtaposing male same-sex passion with a cultural concept of ‘manliness’ that seeks to exclude it, the novel deconstructs those definitions of human nature that deny the homoerotic as unnatural’ [804]) repeats in every paragraph in the two pages devoted to Teleny as he gives a summary and history of the novel. Similarly, in Robert Gray and Christopher Keep’s 15-page ‘An Uninterrupted Current,’ two entire pages are given to the conception of the novel. Analysis too is superficial. Both articles apply a Foucauldian theory but neither questions the framework it uses. If they have substituted another novel for their articles, it would not have made a difference: the argument Cohen makes could have easily used another anti-feminine novel with a gay theme; Gray and Keep make could easily be applicable to any gay novels with multiple authors. 

Clearly, Teleny does not tell us things we do not already know. What is most interesting is its multiple authors. It has no place in a classroom. It is, however, a good read for scholars who are interested in the period or genre.


Works Cited


Campbell, Jill. ‘A Response to Mary Poovey’s ‘Recovering Ellen Pickering.’’ The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000): 461–5.

Cohen, Ed. ‘Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation.’ PMLA 102.5 (1987): 801-13.

Gray, Robert and Christopher Keep. ‘‘An Uninterrupted Current’: Homoeroticism and Collaborative Authorship in Teleny.’ Literary Couplings. Ed. Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson. USA: U of Wisconsim P, 2006. 193-208.

Homans, Margaret. ‘A Response to Mary Poovey’s ‘Recovering Ellen Pickering.’’ The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000): 453–60.

McRae, John. ‘Introduction.’ Teleny. London: GMP, 1986.

Poovey, Mary. ‘Recovering Ellen Pickering.’ The Yale Journal of Criticism 13.2 (2000): 437–52.

Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. USA: Stanford UP, 1989.


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