THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue




Analyzing the Rainbow: A New Reader Responds to Teleny

Marcy L. Tanter

A few months ago, one of my students, Thom, came into my office breathless with excitement.  Having recently finished The Green Carnation and having discussed Wilde with me, he stumbled across a book he wanted to share with me:  ‘It’s called Teleny. It’s gay erotica and it’s supposedly written by Wilde and at least two other people.’  He handed me the book and I flipped through it.  Sure enough, it was definitely erotica and, from what I could see, a queer story.  Thom hadn’t finished reading it but I was intrigued, especially due to the Wilde connection, so I promised to buy a copy and read it so we could talk about it.  After a little digging and assistance from John McRae, I had my own copy and sat down to read the book.

I am in no way a Wilde scholar but I have loved his work since I was a child and watched both Charles Laughton and Alastair Sim try to frighten unsuspecting visitors in film versions of The Canterville Ghost.    My first real taste of Wilde was in school, I cannot remember what year, when I was first assigned The Importance of Being Earnest.  If I were asked to choose what I think is the single funniest moment in British drama, I would not hesitate with my answer, for the exchange between Algy and Lane in Act I, Scene I is so brilliant in its wit and social commentary that it leaves me laughing every time.  My love of Oscar truly began at that time, with that scene in that play.  I read everything I could about Wilde during my teenage years and came to know him through his writing.  Despite coming from a very Conservative family, I felt nothing but sympathy and pity for him; when I was able to get a copy of the trial transcript, I was outraged for him and in love with Robbie Ross for being such a true and steadfast friend.  Ellman’s biography came out while I was in college and although it left me with some questions, it did solidify my outrage against Queensbury and pushed me to read Bosie, which left me angry and hurt on Wilde’s behalf!  I feel nothing but compassion for him and deep appreciation for his artistry.    In my professional life as an English professor I have taught Wilde a few times and am always willing to hear about new discoveries relating to his work.  When Thom came into my office with Teleny, I was very much caught off-guard.

Erotica is not a genre I read very often.  I’m not opposed to it, it just doesn’t have a great appeal for me and I spend most of my time entrenched in the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the slave narratives of authors such as Frederick Douglass.  While I understood that Wilde is supposed to have been involved in the novel, I did not know what to expect from it.  We live in an age and time when homosexuality is becoming ‘no big deal’ but to put this novel into the context of its own time is very important to me.  The fact of its anonymous authorship was to be expected given the subject matter but the writing of it at all is significant because of the risks the authors took in getting it into print.  My approach to the book was probably more academic than I meant it to be but I was not sure what I would encounter.  I wish I had not known that Wilde was supposedly connected to Teleny because I’m sure that as I started to read, I was looking for Wilde; I think I would have preferred to have ‘discovered’ him in the novel, but then I might not have read it had I not been told of his connection to it.

Several things about the novel impressed me immediately.  Of course I knew it was erotica, but I was still surprised by how explicit the sexual scenes are.   The surprise was not because the imagery is so graphic, rather in my mind I was still thinking of the novel as Victorian and expected it to be more euphemistic.   I was taken aback due to my ignorance of the genre, even though it is probably one of the earliest examples of gay erotic novels in English.  The degree to which the diction is so explicit removes some of the emotion, which also surprised me.  At times the book reads like a how-to manual rather than the tale of superb love and rapturous sexual experience that I had anticipated would be highly emotive and less clinical.  That said, I was intrigued by the development of Camille’s emotional ties to René:  from the psychic pull they both felt the first time they were in the same room, Camille’s need for René is all-encompassing.  I am unable to completely trust that René’s feelings for Camille were equally reciprocated even though Camille seems to believe that they were.  This, perhaps, is a problem created by the multiple authors writing the story and with the truth of the story itself, under which lies a strain of anxiety possibly caused by the authors’ awareness of what they were producing. 

It is evident that this novel was written by more than one person, and not simply because we are told in its history that it was written and corrected by several different hands (9)*. As John McRae notes, there are phrases that are unmistakingly Wildean:  ‘Sin is the only thing worth living for,’ for example (13), but I also see more than phrases that smack of Wilde’s unique vision.  In De Profundis, written later than Teleny of course, Wilde says ‘What the artist is always looking for is the mode of existence in which body and soul are one and indivisible’ (59)**.  Camille and René exemplify this from the first, evident in the electric connection Camille feels for René and in their later declaration of mutual understanding that occurred as René was playing (38).  Later in the story, when Camille is talking about coming to terms with his love for Teleny, how he was tortured by his feelings yet did not act upon them:  ‘I was young and inexperienced, therefore moral; for what is morality but prejudice?’ (70).   Here and at many other points in the text, the narrator reflects sentiments akin to those in ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ and Dorian Grey. 

I have come to the conclusion that Teleny was been written by three people.  I am fairly convinced that Wilde had a hand in the writing of the novel.  If he did not do any of the actual writing, he made contributions through editing or some other means.  His voice is very evident, especially in Camille’s coming to terms with the ‘naturalness’ of his sexuality and in the discussions of art being so connected to the psyche.  The voice of the explicit sexual scenes is very different from the voice I attribute to Wilde.  From the descriptions of rapturous pleasure Camille and René share to the accounts of frightening orgies to the aggressive behavior of Camille’s rape of his chamber maid, the narrator’s tone and diction are very different from the conversational moments that propel the plot.  As Camille speaks to his anonymous interlocutor, his ability to see himself objectively and subjectively is more ‘literary’ than the erotic scenes and his diction and syntax differ greatly from the Wildean considerations of art and morality.  While we may never know how many people were involved in writing this novel or who they were, I think it is safe to say that this is not the work of just one writer.

The purpose of Teleny may be to satisfy the needs of an audience that craved gay erotica, but apart from that audience, the novel can stand as a legitimate text with a social conscience.  In defense of homosexuality as a natural state of being, it provides sure and ample evidence.  The love story plot, with its ups and downs, is as good a tragedy as any written in the 1890s.   Perhaps as the recovery of Teleny continues it will find a readership that is willing to consider it as a serious declarative novel of its age; if a Wilde association helps with that then let us continue to press the connection, but even without Wilde, this novel deserves recognition for its honesty, pathos and stance.   With diligent and careful criticism, we can assert this text as an important marker of Victorian issues that fuses the artistic with the real.

*I am using the GMP edition, edited by McRae, 1986.

**Wilde, Oscar.  De Profundis.  GP Putnam:  New York, 1909.


Return to the Table of Contents imc  | Return to hub page imd | Return to THE OSCHOLARS home pageime