THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




The Introduction to the 1986 GMP edition of Teleny


John McRae


Homosexuality has always given rise to myths. And no homosexual figure has more myths surrounding him than Oscar Wilde. Of course, Oscar was an enthusiastic participant in his own myth-making. From his university days at Oxford, in the creation of his image as the ultimate aesthete, to his death in a seedy Paris hotel (‘I am dying above my means’) he was professionally engaged in making himself memorable.


The scandal surrounding the trials and conviction in 1895 for homosexual offences played a great part in the creation of the Oscar Wilde myth, and it is beyond doubt that this was partly Oscar’s own doing. He could, as many other men in a similar situation did, have left the country before the case reached the courts, and no one would have stopped him. The fact that he stayed, and that he turned the trials into a great tragic-comic show, and thereafter turned his prison experiences to artistic use in The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the long letter known (rather spuriously, but irrevocably) as De Profundis, shows that he saw himself not necessarily as a martyr but certainly as a heroic and misunderstood man and artist. Thus was the lasting myth of Oscar Wilde born.


His name was for decades better known for ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ (the words are Lord Alfred Douglas’s) than for his achievements in prose and drama. Critical and moral viewpoints have now more than redeemed him, and his wit sparkles not a whit less brightly than it did before his conviction and the subsequent ordeal of suffering, degradation, and decline.


Teleny, a fairly erotic anonymous novel, has been associated with Oscar Wilde’s name since it was first published in 1893. This was the year when Wilde’s one act drama Salomé, written for Sarah Bernhardt, was published, after its performance was banned in London. The authorship of Teleny has been attributed to Oscar with varying degrees of certainty ever since.


The 1893 edition, published under the fictitious imprint Cosmopoli by Leonard Smithers (1861–1907) – later described by Wilde as ‘the most learned erotomaniac in Europe’ – was followed by a rather poor reprint in 1906. This was identical to the 1893 text but was reset and contains a large number of misprints. In 1934, Charles Hirsch published, in Paris, a French translation, which purports to be ‘based on the original manuscript … revised by the author.’


All of these were anonymous, in limited editions, respectively of 200, 200 and 300 copies. The 1893 edition was priced at five guineas, so the publication was clearly directed at the wealthier end of the market. The Hirsch edition carries an ‘Envoi’, signed by A. de Z., ‘Secrétaire’ to Monsieur le Président du Ganymède Club à Paris, for whose members it was intended. This traces the novel back to ‘one of the first in London to have the original manuscript in his hands and to know, if not the author himself, at least the man who truly inspired the novel.’ These three versions describe the novel, in the terminology of the time, as ‘A Physiological Romance of Today,’ or, more concisely, if no less spuriously, ‘Étude Physiologique’. All are in two volumes, the division being at the end of Chapter Five. The English versions are in eight chapters. The French version divides the final chapter in two.


Thus things stood until 1958, when Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press (publishers of the Ganymède Club edition) issued the novel as the undisputed work of Oscar Wilde (‘an oniric autobiography’!) in their famous green paperback series, The Traveller’s Library (‘something sensational to read on the train’?) This edition returned to the 1893 version, but was incomplete. In 1966, H. Montgomery Hyde introduced a severely cut English version (it is distilled to six chapters), based on the 1893 version, published by Icon Books and ‘edited’ by Martin Secker. No authorial attribution is given.


Three American editions endeavoured to restore the text to its original form, attributing authorship to Oscar Wilde. The Brandon House edition (1967) published in North Hollywood, contains an obtuse introduction by Jack Hirschman PhD., and, despite claims to completeness, omits entire scenes of the original, as does the Greenleaf edition, published in San Diego in 1968. This contains a well-argued case for Wilde’s authorship, on stylistic grounds, by Dr Douglas Garland. Winston Leyland prepared the best edition to date, published by Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco in 1984. He, however, based his text on Hirsch’s, repeating the claim that it was close ‘to the original manuscript’. This does not hold, and leads to several major incongruities in the text, the most important of which is the setting of the novel in London instead of Pairs. To find how these discrepancies arise we must turn to Hirsch’s lengthy preamble to the 1934 edition, ‘Notice Bibliographique’, being an ‘extraite des Notes et Souvenirs d’un vieux bibliopole.’ Since this is the only evidence we have about the origins of Teleny, it is worth referring to it at length.


Hirsch had opened a bookshop, the Librairie Parisienne in Coventry Street, in London, around 1889. He describes Oscar Wilde as one of his clients, who purchased many French books (authors such as Zola and Maupassant are mentioned), and later ordered books of a ‘Socratic’ nature, mostly in French. Wilde is described as ‘the man of the moment, with a play running successfully at the St James’s Theatre’ (Lady Windermere’s Fan opened at that theatre in February 1892). Hirsch elaborates, ‘He rarely came alone. He was usually accompanied by distinguished young men who seemed to me to be writers or artists. They showed him a familiar deference. In a word he seemed the Master surrounded by his pupils.’


One day this man brought Hirsch a small package, carefully wrapped and sealed. He told the bookseller that a friend would call ‘for this manuscript’ and would ‘show you my card.’ Hirsch says, ‘And he gave me a name I have since forgotten.’ A few days later, one of the young men whom Hirsch had seen in Wilde’s company called for the package and took it away. He, in his turn, brought it back, leaving it to be called for by a third person.


This procedure was repeated three times. The last time the package was brought back to the bookshop it was poorly wrapped – the young man was clearly ‘less discreet and careful than the other two’. Hirsch opened the package and found the manuscript, full of different handwritings, interlineations, additions and erasures, of a novel whose title he first read as Feleny. ‘It was evident to me,’ he went on, ‘that several writers of unequal merit had collaborated on this anonymous but profoundly interesting work.’ He found in it ‘astonishing erudition, an elegant style, sustained dramatic interest, all the hallmarks of a professional writer, but also some irrelevant and unnecessary details. He concludes, ‘I could easily see why, with his wife, children, and servants he could not leave this compromising, extra-licentious manuscript at home.’ Where ‘he’ kept the ‘socratic’ novels he bought from Hirsch is not queried – although it must be said that he did return several of them to the shop.


The prospectus issued by Smithers to publicise Teleny is revealing in its references to ‘an eminent littérateur’ (J.A. Symonds) and its highly spurious association of musical talent with ‘inversion’ (an impression later taken up by Havelock Ellis in Studies in the Psychology of Sex):


This work is, undoubtedly, the most powerful and cleverly written erotic Romance which has appeared in the English Language during recent years. Its author – a man of great imagination – has conceived a thrilling story, based to some extent on the subject treated by an eminent littérateur who died a few months ago – i.e. on the Urning, or man-loving man. It is a most extraordinary story of passion; and, while dealing with scenes which surpass in freedom the wildest licence, the culture of its author’s style adds an additional piquancy and spice to the narration. The subject was treated in a veiled manner in an article in a largely-circulated London daily paper, which demonstrated the subtle influence of music and the musician in connection with perverted sexuality. It is a book which will certainly rank as the chief of its class, and it may truthfully be said to make a new departure in English amatory literature.


How Leonard Smithers came into possession of the manuscript is not documented, but when he read the published version Hirsch noticed several differences from the manuscript he had read: the setting had been moved from London to France (it is never stated to be Paris), a Prologue had been removed, and the subtitle The Reverse of the Medal added. In the 1934 French version the action is returned to London, the prologue restored, and the ending altered.


Hirsch finds confirmation of Wilde’s involvement in the writing of Teleny when, he says, he found ‘some odd details of the furnishings, carpets, and ornamentation’ when delivering books to Wilde’s home in Tite Street ‘which corresponded quite well to the description I had read in Teleny.’


Hirsch encountered Smithers in Paris in 1900 (where he also saw Wilde, ‘surrounded, as before, with young friends’ and Smithers, who had published Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol in 1898, acknowledged that he had made some changes to the text of Teleny, transporting the setting from London to Paris ‘so as not to shock the amour propre of his English subscribers.’ There was some talk of a definitive edition with the author’s collaboration, but Wilde’s death, then Smithers’s bankruptcy, ended these plans. The manuscript somehow passed into the hands of one Duringe – ‘notre ami commun’ – and, more than thirty years later, Hirsch produced his edition. The translation leaves several gaps, involves a few transpositions, and the ending is completely restructured – all to the detriment of the 1893 edition.


There is something rather ironic in the fact that the London edition is set in Paris, and the Paris edition is set in London. The cultural influences between England and France in the late nineteenth century were very strong; the English aesthetes affected Gallicisms, the French aesthetes affected Anglicisms. Teleny is a meeting-point of these aesthetic trends.


Since the original manuscript is lost, the variants between the Smithers and Hirsch editions take on an unusual level of complexity: if it is accepted that the novel is the work of several hands, it has also to be acknowledged that the hands of Smithers and Hirsch themselves might well have been at work. Smithers’s defence of the national ‘amour propre’ is not as spurious as it might seem. The French realistic novel from Gautier to Zola had shocked the English common reader. In the 1890s Ibsen was still being castigated as writing of ‘an open sewer’, and the novels of George Moore and Thomas Hardy (to name but two) aroused considerable moral indignation. Smithers’s transferring of the action of Teleny to Paris, while in no way lessening the risqué content of the book, gave an added fashionable frisson of Frenchness to an already highly esoteric work. The fascination of the Aesthetic movement for things French – from yellow-bound books to the eroticism of Pierre Louÿs – makes Smithers’s alteration both understandable and apposite. Decadentism was in the air, and Oscar Wilde himself had suffered at the hands of hostile critics of The Picture of Dorian Gray - ‘a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Décadents.’  That The Picture of Dorian Gray was set in London may have been another reason for Smithers’s changing of the locale.


The rather unnecessary Prologue to the Hirsch edition (newly translated, and reproduced in the present edition as an appendix) is a perfunctory tying-up of loose ends: Des Grieux dies and is buried beside Teleny (in Brompton Cemetery) after recounting his tale to the anonymous narrator. He dies of tuberculosis and melancholia in Nice. Structurally this Prologue adds nothing to the book, and seems indeed to contradict the opening paragraph of the novel itself. The time-scheme of the Prologue does not tie in satisfactorily with Des Greiux’s memories ‘after these many years’, or with the only internal evidence of dating of the action, the reference to an ‘operetta…. then in fashion.’ This is La fille de Madame Angot, which ran in Paris for some 400 performances in 1872, and was a success in London a year later. The Prologue, dated ‘July 1892’, has Des Grieux and Teleny together ‘two years before …. last winter’ – in 1889 or so. The story of their relationship certainly does not last more than perhaps a year – although the text is as vague about time as it is about place names.


The 1870s setting might be confirmed by the mention of ‘the actor Bressan’ (correctly Bressant), who was at the height of his career in the early to mid-1870s, but it is inconsistent with references to Bel Ami (1885) and to Symonds’s poetry, mostly published between 1878 and 1884.


There are several similar small inconsistencies in the text, regardless of the edition consulted. These would seem to indicate that the text was not fully revised or overseen for publication. They include wayward punctuation, differing spellings, especially of foreign words, and uncertainties of attitude: Des Grieux’s interlocutor, ‘he’ in the opening sentence of the novel, seems shocked at first by some of Des Grieux’s confessions, but a couple of rather coy references to each other’s penis would seem to indicate a different level of intimacy. And his reaction to the description of the homosexual orgy is ‘rapturous’. Again, a man’s breaking of wind, described as ‘surely … no crime against nature’, is asserted as something men do not do, only two pages earlier.


In the Hirsch edition there are further problems: gaps and interpolations, which lead to the omission of the Doppelgänger theme and of some references to Des Grieux’s father; fewer named characters, especially in the first chapter; punctuation inconsistencies, and uncertainties about school references and place names. The most obvious inconsistency is in the character of the English old maid (Chapter Two) described as ‘a real specimen of the wandering English old maid, clad in a waterproof coat something like an ulster. One of those heterogeneous creatures continually met with on the Continent, and I think everywhere else except in England; for I have come to the conclusion that Great Britain manufactures them especially for exportation.’ She would not, therefore, be encountered in England, on a train to Eastbourne. The object of Des Grieux’s affections in the same chapter, ‘a Parisian milliner who worked in a Bond Street shop’ (Hirsch/Leyland) is, without doubt, a Frenchwoman in France, and of a rather higher social level than that ascribed to her by Hirsch.


The original text avoids specific place names with what seems like deliberate care, the climax of this being the Dantesque ‘Night-town’ sequence in Chapter Six, just before Des Grieux decides to commit suicide. The city is any city, the torment universal, the characters eternal. The punctilious location of scenes in Tottenham Court Road or Eastbourne, as given in the Hirsch edition, adds no verisimilitude to the tale. More is left to the reader’s imagination (as, incidentally, is the case with Dorian Gray’s less salubrious adventures) with an indeterminate, but clearly French setting.


In the absence of the manuscript, problems of attribution must remain unsolved, but the case for or against Oscar Wilde having at least a hand in the writing of Teleny must be examined.


Oscar Wilde was 35 years old when The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890. He had been married to Constance Lloyd for six years and there were two children of the marriage. Wilde had met Robert Ross in 1886. Ross was to be his literary executor, was the man who introduced Wilde to London’s homosexual sub-culture and was, he claimed, Wilde’s first male lover.


It is not difficult to pick out epigrams and aphorisms which have the flavour of Wilde’s better-known writings. ‘Sin is the only thing worth living for’; ‘it is not the pains of hell we dread, but rather the low society we might meet there below’; ‘Nothing renders people quite so superstitious as vice.’ ‘Or ignorance.’ ‘Oh! That is quite a different kind of superstition’; ‘What is morality but prejudice?’ The final lines of the novel contain a moral that Joe Orton would not have disdained: ‘If Society does not ask you to be intrinsically good, it asks you to make a goodly show of morality, and always, above all, to avoid scandals.’ Overtones of Wilde’s own downfall are there to be found (there had been previous such scandals, notably the case of Lord Arthur Somerset in 1889), but Hirsch’s interpolation of ‘dishonoured, pursued, perhaps sentenced in court’ seems post facto and an extraneous appeal for sympathy. Wilde’s trials and conviction took place some two years after the publication of Teleny.


Wilde’s biographers have tended to ignore Teleny or to dismiss it summarily. Rupert Croft-Cooke in his Unrecorded Life of Oscar Wilde completely rejects Wilde’s involvement in the writing of Teleny, claiming that the ‘style is totally foreign to Wilde’s way of thinking or writing. Nothing in the whole novel has, or could have, the slightest suggestion of Wilde’s talent in it.’ This is oddly vehement, ‘or could have’ being a particularly strange assertion. Wilde’s best biographer, Philippe Jullian (1968), recounts the story of Teleny’s writing briefly in an appendix but, while acknowledging Wilde’s possible involvement in the writing is reluctant to commit himself further.


There is no need to make excuses for Oscar if he did have a hand in writing Teleny. Much of the novel is no better and no worse than a lot of his other writing. Some of the themes of his other works are seen here: the absence of the beloved weakening the artistic powers of the lover is the most obvious. The street scenes recall Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, and the dagger which kills Teleny vividly recalls the stabbing of the picture and the hero’s death in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The linked themes of beauty and art, sin and guilt, and the ways in which the first two might disguise the second two, are constantly examined in Wilde, notably in The Truth of Masks, but also, less explicitly but no less forcefully, in the comedies. The carefully described menus which accompany Teleny’s passionate seductions of the Countess and of Des Grieux, bring to mind Oscar’s comment that a dirty mind is a perpetual feast. The sensuality of the descriptions of furnishings (Teleny’s all-white boudoir the ‘reverse of the medal’ of Des Esseintes’ black banquet and boudoir in A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysman), of scents and perfumes, of skin (especially the neck), all recall aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray, as indeed do the main character’s initials.


But, of course, any such supposition as to authorship can easily be countered: there were several writers, both well-known and unknown, who might equally well have been capable of writing all or part of Teleny. That it is infinitely superior to all the other erotic writing of the time (My Secret Life by ‘Walter’, 1888, is the best-known example) is beyond doubt. A.P. Herbert memorably described the function of such works as ‘to make the reader as randy as possible as often as possible’. Teleny does rather more than this. It is also superior on the whole to much of the fictional writing contained in The Yellow Book, or to Aubrey Beardsley’s rather tedious attempt at erotic writing, Under the Hill (1896/1899).


Teleny can be accepted as a novel of the 1890s in its own right, whether or not agreement can be reached on Oscar Wilde’s part in the writing of it. It certainly reflects many of the aesthetic, moral, and sexual concerns of Wilde; it certainly contains more than just echoes, touches or influences of Wilde.


Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, states, ‘the nineteenth century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality [ … ] the homosexual was now a species.’ But, not unexpectedly, ‘sterile behaviour carried the taint of abnormality; if it insisted on making itself too visible, it would be designated accordingly and would have to pay the penalty [ … ] It would be driven out, denied, and reduced to silence. [ … ] The task of truth was now linked to the challenging of taboos.’


This was the context in which Teleny was written and anonymously published. It is not a courageous work – it is too much of a private document for that. But it is, nonetheless, one of the most valuable and important works in the meagre history of Western erotic literature, that tradition of ‘sex as discourse’ which Foucault reminds us was meant to keep sexual aberration in check, hidden, and therefore harmless. Thus ‘the effort to speak freely about sex and accept it in its reality is so alien to a historical sequence that has gone unbroken for a thousand years now, and so inimical to the intrinsic mechanisms of power, that it is bound to make little headway for a long time before succeeding in its mission, [ … ] If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, non-existence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power, he upsets the established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom.’  Teleny does indeed hold out some slight hope for that ‘coming freedom’, using fiction rather than the philosophy that other homosexual writers of the period employed in their self-justification.


Homosexuality was not an uncommon subject in the writings of the time, with their strivings after a terminology and a rationale – ‘What a number of Urnings are being portrayed in Novels now!’ wrote J.A. Symonds to Edmund Gosse, one older homosexual to another. Wilde’s own The Portrait of Mr W.H. (1889) is a notable pastiche on the theme of Shakespeare’s putative homosexuality – with a wealth of quotations from Shakespeare, of which Teleny is also full. The theme here is a serious one, and one that can be found in several of Wilde’s tales, and in his theatrical masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, that one’s beliefs begin to disappear when one convinces someone else to accept them. This is closely related to the famous idea that ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’ (from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, also published by Smithers). The theme is found again in Teleny. Des Grieux does his utmost to deny his feelings for Teleny, thus effectively destroying Teleny’s artistic powers.


Only the presence of the beloved can inspire Teleny the artist, as was the case with Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray – but this is not enough. Teleny has to spend more and more in order to indulge his passion, neglecting his art for his ‘sinful’ love, and this will prove to be his downfall. Once convinced of their love the lovers are destroyed: money is the root of this end, as reality and sexuality make a fatal mixture.


If we take Oscar Wilde’s dictum, ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all’, we have to acknowledge that, though something of a curate’s egg, this book is largely well-written. It is inevitably episodic, and H. M. Hyde’s heavily bowdlerised 1966 edition proved that the original text can be cut fairly heavily without harming its basic readability. Structurally the book is a mess, although the plot line is solid: lovers’ meeting, parting, coming together, parting, tragic ending. There are carefully woven references to the closeness of love and death, and to Des Grieux’s mother, which build carefully to the climax of the novel.


The climax is an astonishing combination of themes, reached with a narrative logic and inevitability which belie the basically episodic structure of the novel. The final chapter leaves digressions largely aside and develops a new theme, Teleny’s financial difficulties, and Des Grieux’s willingness to pay them without Teleny’s knowledge.


But Teleny says he has to go off to another city to play; the scenes of leave-taking are imbued with gloomy overtones of destiny and fate. In a memorable moment, as Des Grieux follows Teleny to the station, he is accosted by an unexplained ‘country youth’ (a case of mistaken identity? a figure from the past? a symbolic figure of innocence? a road not taken?), but Teleny disappears.


Des Grieux is drawn back to Teleny’s apartment; he sees a light behind the blinds and tremulously makes his way upstairs. Through the keyhole he sees Teleny making love to a woman, or rather she to him, as she is astride him. Jealousy turns to nightmare as Des Grieux realises the woman is his mother. She has exacted the price of Teleny’s love in exchange for the payment of his debts.


This savagely ironic and fatal conclusion is carefully foreshadowed, from the opening pages of the novel. Des Grieux’s mother and father are recurring figures. The father is elusive: he participates directly in the action only once, in a scene of his son’s embarrassment. A distant figure, clearly older than Des Grieux’s mother, he speaks in a ‘stentorian’ voice. His son is afraid of him. A standard figure, then, of a distant older father? There are, however, subtler hints that he was destroyed by his wife: he died mad (this fact is repeated but never explained). Des Grieux’s mother’s age is rather heavy-handedly stated as 37 or 38, just before her final entanglement with Teleny. She must, therefore, have been very young indeed when Des Grieux was born. And Des Grieux constantly promises his interlocutor that one day he will fill in all the juicy details of his mother’s amours – going so far, indeed, as to say that if his sexual preference had been heterosexual he would not have thought twice about discussing them fully with his mother. It seems that there are grounds for suggesting that the nebulous father-figure was driven mad, and then to death, by his young wife’s sexual excesses. That her son’s lover is similarly destroyed betokens a significant store of anti-mother blame; although the final words of the novel hold out yet again the ambivalent promise that Des Grieux still has to recount the life and loves of this dangerous lady. The enigma is compounded by his line, in Chapter Two, ‘Some day I shall tell you the reason why I am an only son.’ There are abundant possibilities for those who seek psychological explanations of gay sensibility, but these are by no means the main concern of the novel.


The mentions of mother and father contribute little or nothing to either the plot or the digressions until the final scene. Were they, then, added by the ‘overseeing’ hand who brought the manuscript together, to lend the novel a cohesion its digressions made it lack?


Most of the sexual episodes were edited out of  H. M. Hyde’s 1966 edition, but some surprisingly explicit things remained, not least of which is the scene of Des Grieux’s first vision of Teleny, the pianist with mysterious Hungarian or gipsy blood in him. This moves from a highly ‘aesthetic’ expression of sensual responses, dotted with classical and cultural allusions, to an explicit masturbation fantasy. It is perhaps surprising how little of the novel is similarly oriented towards the creation of masturbation fantasies in the reader: he is almost always voyeur rather than participant, sensually rather than sexually involved. The exceptions, the set-pieces, have little to do with the narrative structure of the novel, and encompass a fair range of erotic description, from disgust with the female body and bodily functions, to sadism, rape, lesbianism and ‘bottlery.’


These episodes of erotic activity occur at more or less regular intervals, but some are so irrelevant as to be almost extraneous: the Dulcinea episode manifests disgust at female functions, the chambermaid episode is largely sadistic, ending in rape and suicide; the psychically recounted episode of Teleny and the Countess is interesting, as is the incestuous dream, in its confusion of sexuality, fantasy and desire. The brothel scene, something of a classic in late nineteenth century erotica, is an odd mixture of titillation and disgust, paralleled, with very little more obvious enjoyment, by the homosexual orgy – both scenes end in the death of one of the main participants in the erotic activity.


It is only when Des Grieux and Teleny finally consummate their relationship that the novel’s raison d’être becomes clear. Their erotic scenes are finely described, the first person narration allowing the reader at last to become more participant than voyeur: they are the most successful and best written erotic scenes in modern gay writing, rising above the wise-cracking cynicism of Phil Andros, or the heavy-handed masturbatory fantasies of Hot Acts or First Hand. There is remarkably little physical description of the lovers’ bodies. Rather, right from their first encounter, the descriptions are more of sensual reactions, physical and emotional feelings. This contrasts with the detailing of disgust and the lack of sensuality in the non-homosexual encounters. Teleny at its best is a superb celebration of physical love between men, culminating in the assertion, ‘The quintessence of bliss can … only be enjoyed by beings of the same sex.’


That the novel ends in tragedy is not a peculiarity of gay writing of the time: love and death are closely linked in the English novel from Emily Brontë to D.H. Lawrence and beyond, and the American tradition is even more marked (as Leslie Fiedler has shown in Love and Death in the American Novel). This reflects a complex question of transgression and guilt tied up with the acknowledgement of sensuality, which reaches a tortured climax in English writing in the 1890s with the poet Algernon Swinburne, in particular, relishing his sexual and sensual suffering. The current can be traced back to the Pre-Raphaelites, to the French influence and back to Poe, and to the whole ethos of the Gothic novel. Pleasure and pain, sensuality and suffering, are almost inevitably linked in a society where the Protestant middle-class capitalist ethic is the norm. The ‘reverse of the medal’ is, and should be, as shocking as were the realistic novels of slum life by Arthur Morrison, George Gissing, John Law, and others.


But Teleny was not written for a wide readership – its price, five guineas, alone would restrict its appeal. It was written for a coterie who most certainly shared the tastes the book describes, and who would probably also have recognised the wealth of literary, classical and Biblical references, especially in the first and last chapters.


The literary references run from Chaucer and Dante to the 1890s, taking in Shakespeare (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth in particular), Paradise Lost (there are several quotations from Book Nine, where the eating of the forbidden fruit is recounted), Laurence Sterne, Shelley, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and the contemporary poet J.A. Symonds. These, with classical allusions, notably to Hadrian (here Adrian) and his lover Antinoűs – a story frequently quoted in the ‘Uranian’ literature of the period, and found several times in Wilde’s own poetry, together with Biblical references, largely to the Old Testament, underline ideas of punishment for sensual pleasure. Yet, at the end, and through the Dante references, there is a sense that the expression of true feelings will win through. There is some hope for a future when love between men will not be considered a sin: no more will Brunetto Latini be condemned to run in the eternal cycle of those whose love was illicit; the rejoicing of ‘the Zophars, the Eliphazes, and the Bildads’ will be seen to have been premature.


This raises Teleny above the level of the merely titillating. The setting of sensuality and sexuality in a wide-ranging historical and cultural context is an indication of the serious intentions of a generation of writers who had been influenced by the work of Pater and Symonds. The ‘Uranian’ movement frequently tried too hard to assert the place of homosexuality in society, coyness or philosophising getting in the way. Teleny explores sexuality with candour and in a wide context, combining explicitness with a final assertion of tenderness, and sensuality with sexual enjoyment.


The readership Teleny now reaches is likely to be more interested in the novel as a document, as an early example of what has become a recognisable, if not altogether respectable genre, than simply as a curiosity, although as Gore Vidal says in Pink Triangle and Yellow Star, ‘Homosexuality shocks less, but continues to be interesting; it is still at that stage of excitation where it produces what might be called feats of discourse.’ The book’s candour may still cause remark. To quote Vidal again, ‘In literature, sexual revelation is a matter of tact and occasion. Whether or not such candour is of interest to a reader depends a good deal on the revealer’s attitude.’ The attitude of the narration in Teleny is profoundly contrary to the objective of titillation – it is a novel of the discovery of true love, and the physical expression of that love until its tragic end. The voyage towards discovery takes narrator and reader through a series of sexual episodes, all presented in a negative away, until the final positive celebration of homosexual love.


It is possible to speculate about Oscar Wilde’s circle of ‘collaborators’ on Teleny but, of course, with no degree of certainty.


Foremost among Wilde’s close friends at the time (most if not all homosexual) was Robert Ross (1869-1918). The two had been lovers since 1886, when Wilde was 32 and Ross only 17. Ross put forward the theory which led to Wilde’s story The Portrait of Mr W.H. (1889), and he may, indeed, have written parts of this work. An outspoken aesthete and unrepentant homosexual (he claimed before his death to have been Oscar’s first male lover), it is very possible that he had a hand in Teleny, although he later earned his living as a critic rather than a creative writer. After Wilde’s introduction to Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945) in 1891, Ross probably ceased his sexual relations with Wilde, becoming the lover of More Adey (1858-1942), with whom he shared the administration of an art gallery. Ross’s influence on Wilde’s creative writing was, however, very profound, as is borne out by his being nominated literary executor upon Wilde’s death.


Around 1890 Wilde helped to found ‘the Rhymers Club’, a loose association of young poets, whose most famous member was fellow Irishman W.B. Yeats. Another outstanding member was Ernest Dowson (1867-1900). Yet another was Lionel Johnson (1867-1902), who first introduced Wilde to Douglas. Oscar’s closest friend in this circle was John Gray (1866-1934), sometimes seen as the prototype for Dorian Gray in Wilde’s novel (he certainly received the nickname of Dorian after the novel was published). John Gray later became a Catholic priest, and lived in Edinburgh with André Raffalovich (1864-1934), a wealthy Russian emigré who, apart from building a church for his friend, also helped to support the artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) at the end of his life. Gray and Beardsley, not to mention Douglas, were all interested in prose fiction around the time of the gestation of Teleny and may conceivably have been involved in its composition.


Other friends of Wilde from this period include Richard Le Gallienne (1866-1947), ‘accused’ by one of Wilde’s recent biographers, Martin Fido, of having ‘a lifelong tendency to sentimental womanising’. He was married in October 1891, but was certainly a close friend of Wilde’s for at least three years before that. W. Graham Robertson (1866-1948) was another friend form this period. He was principally a draughtsman, and a friend of Sarah Bernhardt, but also wrote a successful play and a volume of autobiography. He was costume designer for the London production of Salomé censored by the Lord Chamberlain in June 1892.


Wilde also had his Parisian connections. Principal among these was Robert H. Sherard (1861-1943), a great-grandson of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who worked mainly as a journalist and biographer. He was also friendly with Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925) who became in 1889 editor of a highly influential literary journal, La Conque, and later was to be asked to prepare the text of Wilde’s Salomé for publication in French (1892/93)


Any or all of these writers might have had a hand in the composition of Teleny. Its preparation – obviously by several writers – may have been prompted by the widely publicised Cleveland Street ‘scandal’ of 1889, involving the conviction of Lord (Arthur) Somerset for homosexual offences: a fact which probably led also to some of the shocked reaction to the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (which first appeared on June 20th 1890). The name of John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) has been suggested as a contributor to Teleny, but this seems unlikely, given that he and Wilde were never in direct contact, and that Symonds’s published writings on homosexuality are much more polemical than erotic. Oscar Browning (1837-1923) is another putative author of Teleny, but his background as an historian, as a political biographer, and as a schoolteacher at Eton and later a Cambridge don, render this supposition unlikely.


Wilde’s other gay friends at the time were mainly pictorial artists: Charles Shannon (1863-1937) and Charles Ricketts (1866-1937), Walter Crane (1845-1909) and Jacomb Hood (1857-1929) are examples. All except Hood helped design the published version of Wilde’s work in the 1880s and 1890s. Other figures on the fringes of Wilde’s artistic circle at the time include Charles Conder (1868-1909), a watercolour painter who specialised in the decoration of fans, and Reginald Turner (1868-1911), a journalist who spent most of his adult life outside England. It is most unlikely, however, that any of these friends of Wilde’s were involved in the preparation of Teleny.


Many hands were probably at work, and we neither know nor care which particular fantasy might have had most appeal for Oscar. But we might be tempted to see his fleeting presence in such moments as the mention of the ‘new pleasures Algiers could afford him’, anticipating his own visit there with Douglas in 1895 (when he met up with André Gide, one of the people who had introduced him into Parisian homosexual circles in 1891), and the glorious snub to Mrs Grundy in Chapter Four, ‘ ….  is nature moral? Does the dog that smells and licks with evident gusto the first bitch that he meets, trouble his unsophisticated brain with morality? Does the poodle that endeavours to sodomise that little cur coming across the street care what a canine Mrs Grundy will say about him?’


But if Oscar’s name had not been associated, however tenuously, with Teleny, would the novel not have simply disappeared into the oblivion of the British Library to rest unvisited? It seems to me so highly characteristic of the 1890s, such a vivid exploration of the homosexual aesthetic of the time, that it would be worth recovering even without any Wilde connection – although I feel compelled to add that I am convinced that he did have some part to play in the writing of the novel. The basic plot outline, the final resolution, a few pages of sensual description that are closely reminiscent of the language of Salomé, and the narrative assurance which keeps the novel readable, reveal the hand of a more than competent writer. These are all intangibles but in the Wilde myth-making process are convenient grist to the mill.


The dialogue form is, almost inevitably, a clumsy narrative device. Interestingly, Gide used it in his homosexual essay Corydon, and the rather convoluted excusings and justifications of Gide’s narrator find distinct echoes in Des Grieux’s story: the wrestling with temptation and conscience which were fairly standard reactions to the horror of homosexuality are, in fact, somewhat laboured, but the pangs of fear when threatened with exposure, the attempts to run from the truth of his own nature, the account of the inexplicably unsatisfactory involvement with a female sexual partner, all are clear and valid analyses of male homosexual feelings and behaviour that have changed little in the present century.


The quality of the writing is very variable, from the downright turgid to the successfully sensual. Characters are hinted at rather than drawn clearly – even Teleny himself is largely left to the reader’s own imagining. He is a fantasy character rather than a real figure. The novel is thus at once fantasy and assertion, describing the unattainable in highly realistic terms. Few readers will be unable to identify with some of the desires and longings expressed and described in Teleny. Many will be shocked and disgusted, as Des Grieux was, by some of the excesses recounted. But the novel was ahead of its time in this celebration of uninhibited sensual and sexual passion between men. It is the first gay modern novel, and deserves to be considered a classic.



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