THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




Teleny, Étude psychologique

Dominique Leroy


Introduction by Dominique Leroy to the edition Teleny, Étude psychologique published by Le Pré aux Clercs, Paris 1996, and now available as an e-book from Translated from the French by D.C. Rose. We thank M. Leroy for granting permission for this translation.

Translator’s note: I have not of course retranslated from the French the citations from Wilde, but have copied the original English, using the Maine edition of the Complete Works and the McRae edition of Teleny.

Published for the first time in London in 1893 in an edition of two hundred copies, Teleny was originally published in France in 1934, when three hundred copies were printed.

This 1934 edition, produced for the Ganymede Club, was supplemented by a bibliographical notice composed by Charles-Henri Hirsch, a French bookseller who ran the Librairie Parisienne in Coventry Street, London.[1]  He revealed that he had met Oscar Wilde for the first time in 1889 when he, Hirsch, had just arrived in London, and was as yet au fait with neither ‘contemporary English literature’ nor ‘the people making their mark in society’.  Here is the description that he wrote of his customer: ‘Very much taken with our literature, which he knew thoroughly, he bought all the books by good writers: Zola, Maupassant, Bourget etc. It was only incidentally, when I came to be in his confidence, that he risked ordering from me certain licentious works, of a special character, which he described as “Socratic”, and I procured for him, not without difficulty,  a fair number of books on this subject by both ancient and modern authors,  It was in this manner that I furnished him with the translation from the Italian of Pallaviccini The Infant Alcibiades at School, the Letters of an Ignorantine Friar to his Pupil, and, in English, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain […] One day, I believe towards the end of 1890, he brought me a thin notebook, of the sort used in commerce, tied and careful wrapped up.  He told me “One of my friends will come to collect this for me, and will show you my visiting card,” and he gave me a name which I have forgotten.

‘As it turned out, a few days later one of the young gentlemen I had seen with him came to take possession of the package.  He kept it for a while, then brought it back to me, saying in his turn, “You will kindly give this to one of our friends, who will come for it on behalf of the same person.”  A similar ceremony was gone through three times.  The last time, however, the reader of the manuscript, less discreet and less careful than the other two, brought it back less well wrapped, tied with a simple ribbon, hardly closed up at all… The temptation was too strong, and I confess that I succumbed to it: I opened the packet and on the greyish paper which held together the bundle of manuscript pages, I read the simple title written in large letters, TELENY…’

From his reading, Charles-Henri Hirsch has left us his comments: “One detail struck me in course of the hasty reading that I gave it, namely the borrowings that the author had made from Holy Writ, from the Bible, from the Gospels.  With each chapter, quotations and passages from sacred writings had been adapted in accordance with the incidents of the novel… Add to that numerous reflections from classical literature, both Greek and Latin, examples taken from mythology or ancient religions, and finally, phrases borrowed from foreign languages: all that composed a veritable hotchpotch completely different from what one usually finds in modern erotic works.  In short, extensive learning, an elaborated style, a sustained dramatic interest – all the marks of manufacture by a professional writer.’

Later on, the bookseller discovered the identity of the author of the manuscript, which allowed him to make certain cross-checks. ‘… To go back to my customer himself, I subsequently saw him often at the bookshop, and even one day at his house when I took him a little provision of new publications when he was confined to bed in his house in Tite Street.  I thus had a chance to glance round the artistically disposed interior, very originally done, and I found there certain strange elements in furnishing, tapestries and ornaments which corresponded pretty well with description which I had read in Teleny…’

In his introduction to the English language edition of 1984, Winston Leyland reminds us that in Teleny one finds typically wildean phrasing, and gives two examples of aphorisms dear to Oscar Wilde, Sin is the only thing worth living for, and It is not hell that we dread, but the low company we might find there.

Some phrases to compare with these thrusts from the person of Des Grieux in Teleny:

·         If you have nothing to repent, what is the point of religion?

·         Virtue possesses the sweet savour of sin; but vice – that is the tiny drop of prussic acid, equally delicious.  Withou either one or the other, life would be insipid.

·         Gratitude is an insupportable burden for human nature.

Winston Leyland asks us to note likewise that one can read the same references in the work of Wilde, notably in Salomé:

Like the god-corpse of Antinoüs, seen by the silvery light of the opaline moon, floating on the lurid waters of the Nile…

The moon is always a real presence in both Teleny and Salomé, as much as the references to the ancient Greeks and ancient Egypt.

Oscar Wilde described London and the Thames in one of his poetic works, ‘Impression du Matin’:

The Thames nocturne of blue and gold

Changed to a Harmony in grey :

A barge with ochre-coloured hay

Dropt from the wharf : and chill and cold


The yellow fog came creeping down

The bridges, till the houses’ walls

Seemed changed to shadows, and St. Paul’s

Loomed like a bubble o’er the town. [CW p.730]


In Teleny, one reads a similar description:

The river, like a silvery thoroughfare, parted the town in two.  On either side, the huge shadowy houses rose out of the mist; blurred domes, dim towers, vaporous and gigantic spires soared, quivering up to the clouds, and faded away in the fog. [T p.109]

Alexandrian, in his History of Erotic Literature, narrows this down: ‘Oscar Wilde at this period reigned over the Café Royal in Regent Street, surrounded by a court of young admirers whom he enthralled with his “spoken tales”.  The novel Teleny was an intellectual and carnal game which he played with certain disciples. He declared what the subject would be, and kept certain episodes for himself.  Among those collaborating, doubtless, were Robert Ross, then aged nineteen, with whom Wilde had his first homosexual affaire; the designer Graham Robertson, the poet John Gray… In the preface, dated July 1892, Wilde was to announce ‘It is a true story: the dramatic adventure of two handsome human beings of refined sensibility, highly strung”. [T p.192]’

As an aside, it is not without significance that we owe the first London edition of Teleny to Leonard Smithers, who was also the publisher, in 1897, of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, printed for the first impression under the transparent pseudonym of C.3.3., the number of Oscar Wilde in Her Gracious Majesty’s prison).  Leonard Smithers was also the publisher of Alfred Douglas and of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde wrote to him on many occasions.

It was Maurice Girodias, the ‘demonic’ publisher of the 1950s, who in his English language edition for the Olympia Press in 1958, definitely ascribed this text to Oscar Wilde.

1996 brought to Paris the commemoration of the centenary of Oscar Wilde’s incarceration in Reading Gaol, after a remarkable trial where he was convicted for homosexuality.  First, there was the notable play C.3.3. by Robert Badinter, followed by the publication of the complete works in La Pléiade, the biography by Richard Ellmann brought out by Gallimard, the new extended edition of Robert Merle’s Oscar Wilde, and finally, on the Paris boards, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of being Earnest.  Nor must be forgotten the dramatic reading of De Profundis, the long letter written to Lord Alfred Douglas during his imprisonment at Reading, one of Oscar Wilde’s last works.

One should know that none of these biographies dating to 1996 mention Teleny (but then the biographers of Apollinaire did not always attribute to him his ‘accursed’ works), although the most serious H. Montgomery Hyde, in his last biography (London, 1975) as well as in his introduction to the edition of Teleny published by Icon Books in London in 1966, attributed the paternity of this book to Oscar Wilde.

Written shortly after The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Teleny (1891) states with great clarity the split of someone who makes his aim the life of a hedonist: ‘I have put my genius into my life, only my talent into my work.’

Dying in Paris in the misery that was abhorrent to him, and amid general indifference, abandoned by the intellectuals of Paris, the convict who, in the manner of Paul Verlaine, would wait for a friend to pass by to settle his bill at the Café Procope, left for all that an erotic novel of rare quality.

Oscar Wilde was not at all a homosexual who proclaimed his difference, like Francis Bacon.  Besides, could that have been possible under the Victorian iron rod?  On the other hand, very rapidly, he accepted what nature had thrust upon him, took it on, and even vaunted his bisexuality.  Married, father of two children, he purposely paraded himself with his lovers in good London society, his faubourg Saint-Germain.  He incidentally made the mistake of at the same time not wanting to disguise himself like the man with the cattleya, and of wishing to throw down a challenge.  Thus he became the instrument of his own destruction.  Dandy to the uttermost end, he would declare ‘I would do anything to regain my youth, except to get up early, take exercise and become respectable’.  Steeped in notoriety, he held in contempt the rigid laws of Victorian England.

One cannot deny that Teleny was written by Oscar Wilde: one finds there all his referents, Antinoüs, his reading of the Bible, his aphorisms, his descriptions, his people.

Teleny is a prolongation of The Picture of Dorian Gray with the disguises removed.  All is there: the pursuit of pleasure, the intimations of a crash, his literary foibles, and above all the unchallengeable autobiographical character.  Oscar Wilde is both Teleny and Des Grieux: seducer, unfaithful, passionately amorous, a sensualist, impenitently jealous, accepting the pernicious sentiment of possible redemption.



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[1] Note added by the translator. The Librairie Parisienne, the bookshop where Hirsch presided over the comings and goings of the Teleny manuscript was at 4 Prince's Buildings, Coventry Street, London, close to Leicester Square.  More work needs to be done on this.  It advertised in The Times just once, on Thursday 18th February 1892, p.8.  It had opened by 1885, when it published L'amour au pays bleu by Hector France (1837-1908), and was gone by 1902 (information kindly supplied by Lee Jackson).