John Gray, born 1866, was a poet, translator and ultimately priest, and definitely not to be confused with the author of Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus, noted for its revolutionary message that women and men are not entirely alike.
Our John Gray was much more taken with Uranus, or rather was associated with Uranian poetry, the late 19th century movement which celebrated love between men. Gray’s most successful literary endeavours were as a translator, and he was one of the first to introduce the great French Symbolist poets to an English-speaking audience. His own poetry appeared in deluxe editions which, like Gray himself, were often more notable for their attractive exteriors rather than their literary greatness.
But while his verse is little more than a curio today he is at least part inspiration for one of the best known characters in literature – the titular hero of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The latest incarnation of this endlessly fascinating work, in which the hero retains his youthful beauty while his portrait cracks and ages, is a movie made by British director Oliver Parker. It’s a film which emphasises the story’s gothic horror rather than its melancholic insights into the creative process.
The exact extent to which John inspired Dorian is debateable. There is no doubt that he lent his surname to the character, but even more remarkable is that if Wilde had indeed fleshed out much of the book before meeting Gray in 1889, that he should have somehow foretold their meeting, summoning Gray in an act of imaginative magic no less extraordinary than Dorian’s perpetual bloom.
Gray himself initially encouraged the comparison, and in Wilde’s circle was frequently referred to as “Dorian”. But unlike his moneyed avatar, Gray came from working class stock, growing up in south-east London. Like a Victorian Mrs Slocombe, his accent sometimes betrayed his origins. By all accounts, however, the young Gray was indeed as easy on the eye as his fictional double, who looked “as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves”, and this alone was enough to open doors for him in 1890s London.
Gray recognised earlier than most that Wilde was heading for trouble, and cut his ties to the Decadent movement well before it crashed and burned in the wake of Wilde’s arrest, trial and imprisonment in 1895. The sole link between the first and second acts of Gray’s life was his long-time partner André Raffalovich. The rich and charming French poet evoked Wilde’s jealousy and was the subject of his famously bitchy putdown: “poor André had come to London hoping to found a salon, but succeeded only in opening a saloon.”
The two apparently enjoyed a “chaste” relationship (and I’m a Samoan quarterback). But Raffalovich was loyal to the end. After Gray “came out to Rome”, in the charming phrase of the time, Raffalovich too converted to Catholicism, despite being born Jewish. Gray was ordained in 1901 and served as a priest in Edinburgh, and was in all likelihood the only man of the cloth to say annual prayers for the poet Verlaine. He died in 1934, one of the last witnesses to the Wilde life.
Dorian Gray is currently showing in Australia and is opening in various European countries over the next few months.