Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Pictures of Women in Dorian Gray

Through his work with Woman’s World in the late 1880s, Oscar Wilde positioned himself as an important connection for aspiring woman writers in 1890s London. Although journalism was opening up as a viable career path for women, men still had more access to information and opportunities about London’s writing life, making male contacts, like Wilde integral to a female writer’s success in the field. Wilde was happy to help.

The question I ask today is what did Wilde think of these women? Of course, I don’t feel there is anyway that I can really know the answer, but I am going to try to get a sense of Wilde’s view of women through his portrayal of women in his only novel: The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I took the text of the novel on my computer and searched it for Wilde’s use of the word: woman. The result has provided views of different kinds of women from the rich and the poor to the young and the old, interestingly most of them are old.

We also have the problem that not everything Wilde says in Dorian Gray is meant to be taken as his opinion. For example, the words and opinions Wilde writes an uneducated young girl as speaking can hardly be assumed to represent his own views directly, but may tell us something of what he thought about uneducated young girls.

I present my findings in the order they appear in the novel, separated by commentary.
"Humph! tell your Aunt Agatha, Harry, not to bother me any more with her charity appeals. I am sick of them. Why, the good woman thinks that I have nothing to do but to write cheques for her silly fads."
Contrary to what we think of today as “slumming” that is what Aunt Agatha is doing here. In the 1890s, slumming referred to both rich people acting poor and rich people helping the poor. Upper- and middle-class women were especially involved in charities, like Aunt Agatha, and Wilde probably met lots of Aunt Agathas through his work at Woman’s World.
So that was the story of Dorian Gray's parentage. Crudely as it had been told to him, it had yet stirred him by its suggestion of a strange, almost modern romance. A beautiful woman risking everything for a mad passion. A few wild weeks of happiness cut short by a hideous, treacherous crime. Months of voiceless agony, and then a child born in pain. The mother snatched away by death, the boy left to solitude and the tyranny of an old and loveless man.
I’m beginning to read stories, like Dorian Gray’s origin story, as Victorian urban myths or legends that were perpetuated to keep “respectable” women from straying too far from the domestic sphere. That is all.
"A blush is very becoming, Duchess," remarked Lord Henry.
"Only when one is young," she answered. "When an old woman like myself blushes, it is a very bad sign. Ah! Lord Henry, I wish you would tell me how to become young again."
As editor of Woman’s World, Wilde was well-informed about women’s health and fashion. I wonder if the Duchess is worried about her blood pressure?
She laughed nervously as she spoke, and watched him with her vague forget-me-not eyes. She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions. She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy. Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church.
I love that description. It describes so many people I know today, if they lived in Victorian times. It describes a woman, who is full of dreams and passion - though she often chases the wrong ones, but that doesn’t matter because she has mastered the art of mending her broken parts.

"Never marry a woman with straw-coloured hair, Dorian," he said after a few puffs.
"Why, Harry?"
"Because they are so sentimental."
"But I like sentimental people."
"Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed."
Ever since reading Franny Moyle, my reception of Wilde’s view of marriage has changed. I think he was really disappointed in his marriage because it was supposed to be an exercise in aesthetic living, but wound up being until-death-do-we-part. I also sort of suspect that he started fooling around with men to maintain a certain level of faithfulness to his wife.
"My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals."
"Harry, how can you?"
"My dear Dorian, it is quite true. I am analysing women at present, so I ought to know. The subject is not so abstruse as I thought it was. I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured. The plain women are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. Our grandmothers painted in order to try and talk brilliantly. Rouge and esprit used to go together. That is all over now. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. As for conversation, there are only five women in London worth talking to, and two of these can't be admitted into decent society. However, tell me about your genius. How long have you known her?"
Well, this does sound like the view of a man, who no longer works as editor of a woman’s magazine, though today I imagine him being fired for that. Too bad Wilde is identified as gay, otherwise David Gimour could read that and they could be best friends.

"You don't understand her, Harry. She regarded me merely as a person in a play. She knows nothing of life. She lives with her mother, a faded tired woman who played Lady Capulet in a sort of magenta dressing-wrapper on the first night, and looks as if she had seen better days."
 "I know that look. It depresses me," murmured Lord Henry, examining his rings.
Ok, time for a confession. I wanted to repeat the same process that I’ve been using to write this analysis by searching Dorian Gray for all of Wilde’s usages of the word: man. However, the search proved exhausting and I went to bed at an unholy hour. Such a comparison, I thought, would add balance to my reading, but the truth is that many of the things Wilde says about women he also says about men. I don’t think Lord Henry is depressed about women getting old here. I think he sees himself getting old and that depresses him. Wilde elsewhere called women the “decorative sex,” but what is Dorian Gray in chapter one, but literally a decoration.
"Mother, Mother, I am so happy!" whispered the girl, burying her face in the lap of the faded, tired-looking woman who, with back turned to the shrill intrusive light, was sitting in the one arm-chair that their dingy sitting-room contained. "I am so happy!" she repeated, "and you must be happy, too!"
Spoiler: this is Sybil Vane talking to her mother, who is to be left with no living children at the end of the story. Thanks to Dorian.
"I don't know how we could manage without him," answered the elder woman querulously.
The Vane family are poor and, in Victorian times, in need of a man to provide for them. There are elements of the fairy tale in this, but it’s sad.
The elder woman grew pale beneath the coarse powder that daubed her cheeks, and her dry lips twitched with a spasm of pain.
Again, this is Sybil Vane’s mother, but also a demonstration of why Dorian Gray sought to hold onto his youth and beauty.
For a moment a hideous sense of humiliation came over the woman. Her head drooped. She wiped her eyes with shaking hands. "Sibyl has a mother," she murmured; "I had none."
This reads as if she read my comment and is trying to make me feel guilty.
“...I love Sibyl Vane. I want to place her on a pedestal of gold and to see the world worship the woman who is mine. What is marriage? An irrevocable vow. You mock at it for that. Ah! don't mock. It is an irrevocable vow that I want to take. Her trust makes me faithful, her belief makes me good...”
I told you that I thought that Wilde was disappointed in his own marriage. There was even an air of temporariness to it, when it started, but I think that some way in Wilde realized he was not living an idealized aesthetic life. He was living a life, committed to a woman. The words he puts into Dorian’s mouth above are characteristic of Victorian ideals of marriage and wifehood. Putting anyone on a pedestal, no matter what it's made of is impractical to say the least.
"My dear Dorian," answered Lord Henry, taking a cigarette from his case and producing a gold-latten matchbox, "the only way a woman can ever reform a man is by boring him so completely that he loses all possible interest in life..."
Aye! There is the rub!
"...That awful memory of woman! What a fearful thing it is! And what an utter intellectual stagnation it reveals! One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar."
To me, the above lines represent the death of Wilde’s earlier ideals about aesthetic matrimony.

"...The one charm of the past is that it is the past. But women never know when the curtain has fallen. They always want a sixth act, and as soon as the interest of the play is entirely over, they propose to continue it. If they were allowed their own way, every comedy would have a tragic ending, and every tragedy would culminate in a farce. They are charmingly artificial, but they have no sense of art ... Ordinary women always console themselves. Some of them do it by going in for sentimental colours. Never trust a woman who wears mauve, whatever her age may be, or a woman over thirty-five who is fond of pink ribbons. It always means that they have a history..."
The extraordinary woman in the above passage is Sybil Vane. She couldn’t console herself, making her, in Lord Henry’s eyes, wonderfully romantic. So, what is wrong with a woman having a past? Women were to be sheltered and protected from life experience, until marriage. No wonder they seemed boring. How do ordinary Victorian women console themselves?
"Oh, the obvious consolation. Taking some one else's admirer when one loses one's own. In good society that always whitewashes a woman. But really, Dorian, how different Sibyl Vane must have been from all the women one meets! There is something to me quite beautiful about her death. I am glad I am living in a century when such wonders happen. They make one believe in the reality of the things we all play with, such as romance, passion, and love."
"I was terribly cruel to her. You forget that."
"I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated. I am sure you were splendid..."

And we are suddenly reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Ok, I’ve never read Fifty Shades of Grey. My point is that the above passage is an incarnation of an insidious popular myth. I’m sure that Wilde knew that some men loved to be dominated and refuse to dwell on that bit of nastiness too long.
"...Poor woman! What a state she must be in! And her only child, too! What did she say about it all?" 
"My dear Basil, how do I know?" murmured Dorian Gray, sipping some pale-yellow wine from a delicate, gold-beaded bubble of Venetian glass and looking dreadfully bored. "I was at the opera. You should have come on there. I met Lady Gwendolen, Harry's sister, for the first time. We were in her box. She is perfectly charming; and Patti sang divinely. Don't talk about horrid subjects. If one doesn't talk about a thing, it has never happened. It is simply expression, as Harry says, that gives reality to things. I may mention that she was not the woman's only child. There is a son, a charming fellow, I believe. But he is not on the stage. He is a sailor, or something. And now, tell me about yourself and what you are painting."
Now, we are clearly back to Sybil Vane’s mother. In this passage, I believe, we are to see the cruelness that is consuming Dorian Gray. This is the stuff that is rearranging the paint on the Picture Basil gave him and, so, I think we are made to understand that Wilde also views this attitude as abhorrent and unusually cruel.
What of the second Lord Beckenham, the companion of the Prince Regent in his wildest days, and one of the witnesses at the secret marriage with Mrs. Fitzherbert? How proud and handsome he was, with his chestnut curls and insolent pose! What passions had he bequeathed? The world had looked upon him as infamous. He had led the orgies at Carlton House. The star of the Garter glittered upon his breast. Beside him hung the portrait of his wife, a pallid, thin-lipped woman in black. Her blood, also, stirred within him. How curious it all seemed! And his mother with her Lady Hamilton face and her moist, wine-dashed lips--he knew what he had got from her. He had got from her his beauty, and his passion for the beauty of others. She laughed at him in her loose Bacchante dress. There were vine leaves in her hair. The purple spilled from the cup she was holding. The carnations of the painting had withered, but the eyes were still wonderful in their depth and brilliancy of colour. They seemed to follow him wherever he went.
Now, we have a portrait a wife and of a mother. The wife is "thin-lipped" and unremarkable. Wilde was close to his mother, but not as close as his alcoholic brother was. Her “moist, wine-dashed lips -- he knew what he had got from her.” Sadly, when Wilde’s mother died of bronchitis, he room was full of empty gin bottles. I’m sure Wilde was aware of the problem.
Staveley curled his lip and said that you might have the most artistic tastes, but that you were a man whom no pure-minded girl should be allowed to know, and whom no chaste woman should sit in the same room with.
What was I saying about women not being allowed to experience life? Yes, that!
"I must speak, and you must listen. You shall listen. When you met Lady Gwendolen, not a breath of scandal had ever touched her. Is there a single decent woman in London now who would drive with her in the park? Why, even her children are not allowed to live with her...”
Lady Gwendolen was clearly susceptible to the corrupting influences of Dorian Gray, much the way that Dorian was susceptible to the corrupting influences of Lord Henry. Maybe men and women aren’t so different after all?
He looked down and saw the policeman going his rounds and flashing the long beam of his lantern on the doors of the silent houses. The crimson spot of a prowling hansom gleamed at the corner and then vanished. A woman in a fluttering shawl was creeping slowly by the railings, staggering as she went. Now and then she stopped and peered back. Once, she began to sing in a hoarse voice. The policeman strolled over and said something to her. She stumbled away, laughing.
This, I think, was used to make the neighbourhood seem more creepy. It seems like we are in Jack the Ripper’s hunting grounds here. Also a message to women about not straying too far from the domestic sphere.
At some of the letters, he smiled. Three of them bored him. One he read several times over and then tore up with a slight look of annoyance in his face. "That awful thing, a woman's memory!" as Lord Henry had once said.
With all of his banter, Lord Henry has corrupted Dorian, making him hate the thing that could mast reform him and make him good again: women. How sad for Dorian.
It was a small party, got up rather in a hurry by Lady Narborough, who was a very clever woman with what Lord Henry used to describe as the remains of really remarkable ugliness. She had proved an excellent wife to one of our most tedious ambassadors, and having buried her husband properly in a marble mausoleum, which she had herself designed, and married off her daughters to some rich, rather elderly men, she devoted herself now to the pleasures of French fiction, French cookery, and French esprit when she could get it.
Lady Narborough sounds just like the kind of woman that Wilde wanted to have writing for Woman’s World. In the following passage, she begins to sound like Wilde’s wife.

"Of course I go and stay with them every summer after I come from Homburg, but then an old woman like me must have fresh air sometimes, and besides, I really wake them up...”
Constance Wilde frequently needed to get away for her health.
Lady Ruxton, an overdressed woman of forty-seven, with a hooked nose, who was always trying to get herself compromised, but was so peculiarly plain that to her great disappointment no one would ever believe anything against her...
That, I think, was just supposed to be funny. Funny because it was true? Probably, I don’t think that Victorian women were as committed to respectability as we like to think.
"Dear Lady Narborough," murmured Dorian, smiling, "I have not been in love for a whole week--not, in fact, since Madame de Ferrol left town."
"How you men can fall in love with that woman!" exclaimed the old lady. "I really cannot understand it."
Love isn’t for anyone else to understand, silly old lady.
"You will never marry again, Lady Narborough," broke in Lord Henry. "You were far too happy. When a woman marries again, it is because she detested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck; men risk theirs."
"Narborough wasn't perfect," cried the old lady.
"If he had been, you would not have loved him, my dear lady," was the rejoinder. "Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them, they will forgive us everything, even our intellects. You will never ask me to dinner again after saying this, I am afraid, Lady Narborough, but it is quite true." 
"Of course it is true, Lord Henry. If we women did not love you for your defects, where would you all be? Not one of you would ever be married. You would be a set of unfortunate bachelors. Not, however, that that would alter you much. Nowadays all the married men live like bachelors, and all the bachelors like married men."
"Fin de siecle," murmured Lord Henry. 
"Fin du globe," answered his hostess.
I love that, although it is wrought with generalizations. The truth in it is that all of Wilde’s characters were so different that they seem to more accurately represent people. I hope I can do that in my writing.
"What nonsense people talk about happy marriages!" exclaimed Lord Henry. "A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her."
Oscar, is that why you clung so desperately to Bosie? Is it?

"He bores me dreadfully, almost as much as he bores her. She is very clever, too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness..."
Oops! It sounds like I’m having a conversation with Wilde again. This is not intentional, but fun, so I will leave it as it is and hope you have as much fun reading it.
A dull rage was in his heart. As they turned a corner, a woman yelled something at them from an open door, and two men ran after the hansom for about a hundred yards. The driver beat at them with his whip.
Wild women in the night again! I think this is a sign of degeneration, decadence and drink that Wilde was pointing to. Just because factions of Victorian society saw Wilde as the symbol of degeneration, doesn’t mean that he didn’t see it elsewhere.
Two red sparks flashed for a moment in the woman's sodden eyes, then flickered out and left them dull and glazed. She tossed her head and raked the coins off the counter with greedy fingers. Her companion watched her enviously. ... Dorian walked to the door with a look of pain in his face. As he drew the curtain aside, a hideous laugh broke from the painted lips of the woman who had taken his money. "There goes the devil's bargain!" she hiccoughed, in a hoarse voice. 
"Curse you!" he answered, "don't call me that." 
She snapped her fingers. "Prince Charming is what you like to be called, ain't it?" she yelled after him. ... The woman gave a bitter laugh. "Little more than a boy!" she sneered. "Why, man, it's nigh on eighteen years since Prince Charming made me what I am." ... He broke from her with an oath and rushed to the corner of the street, but Dorian Gray had disappeared. When he looked back, the woman had vanished also.

Oooh... Dorian almost forgot that just because he’s not aging doesn’t mean that others aren’t. This creepy aged woman in the night comes across as almost mystical, though it is Dorian that is enchanted.
"Greek meets Greek, then?"
"I am on the side of the Trojans. They fought for a woman." 
"They were defeated." 
"There are worse things than capture," she answered.
And we are back to Fifty Shades of Grey. I probably shouldn’t talk about that book, unless I plan to read it.
"How fond women are of doing dangerous things!" laughed Lord Henry. "It is one of the qualities in them that I admire most. A woman will flirt with anybody in the world as long as other people are looking on."
I saw this quote (or part of it) somewhere on the internet recently. It was listed as a Wildean insult. Is it? In the context of all Wilde’s other mentions of women in Dorian Gray, we have women painted as creatures that must be frightened and scared into not straying out of the domestic sphere. Gentlemen, Wilde seems to suggest, don’t be afraid to dominate them a little. Clearly, women wouldn’t mind breaking free and Wilde knows that. Remember, "there are only five women in London worth talking to, and two of these can't be admitted into decent society."
“...She is a charming woman, and wants to consult you about some tapestries she is thinking of buying. Mind you come. Or shall we lunch with our little duchess? She says she never sees you now...”
When Wilde’s women are remaining in the domestic sphere, Wilde’s men are encouraged to spend a little more time with them there. If that was prescriptive, Wilde wasn’t good at following his own advice and didn’t spend nearly as much time with Constance as she would have liked.

The picture of women in Dorian Grey isn’t one that I want to paint. I’d especially like to leave out that stuff about dominating a woman, but I like that his woman aren’t too different from his men, even if the men and women joke about one another.

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