The brief, hand-written inscription inside this book marks the intriguing and tumultuous friendship between the Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and the French poet Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925). ‘It is part of the story of how Wilde was shunned by the public, and even his friends, because of his homosexuality,’ explains Christie’s Books and Manuscripts specialist Alice Chevrier.
In late 1891, Wilde was in Paris writing his first play in French, Salomé, when he called upon his new friend Louÿs for advice. The pair had been introduced just months prior, and although Louÿs was an outspoken critic of male homosexuality, in private he already had many gay friends, including André Gide.
‘Wilde sent Louÿs a manuscript of the play, which the Frenchman happily returned with corrections and suggestions,’ continues Chevrier. ‘As a sign of his gratitude, Wilde gifted Louÿs this copy of his latest book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, writing inside, “Given to Pierre Louÿs by his friend Oscar Wilde in London in June”.’
The book came about through a dinner in 1889 at the Langham Hotel in London. J.M. Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, commissioned Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to each submit a story. Nine months later, in July 1890, Wilde’s first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in Lippincott’s in 13 chapters.
Despite the fact that Stoddart had removed 500 words of text that he deemed too offensive to publish, its readers were nevertheless outraged at the story’s scenes of suicide, murder, blackmail, drug-taking, homoerotica and moral corruption. W.H. Smith withdrew the July edition of Lippincott’s from sale on its bookstalls in railway stations.
The steely Wilde, however, went on to write a 20-chapter version of the story, which was published in 1891 by Ward, Lock & Co. and prefaced with a manifesto defending art for art’s sake. ‘This copy, gifted by Wilde to Louÿs in 1892, was one of the 250 large paper copies of the first edition of the book,’ explains the specialist.
‘I cannot tell you how hurt I am… It is new to me to think that friendship is more fragile than love is’ — Oscar Wilde
In February 1893, Wilde published his finished version of Salomé, printing a dedication to Louÿs inside every copy. Louÿs scolded Wilde for doing so in a heavy-handed telegram, to which Wilde replied, ‘Is the enclosed really all that you have to say to me in return for my choosing you out of all my friends to whom to dedicate Salomé? I cannot tell you how hurt I am… It is new to me to think that friendship is more fragile than love is.’
‘It was a question of reputation,’ states Chevrier. ‘Salomé contained a homosexual subtext and was banned on stage in Britain for portraying biblical characters. Louÿs didn’t want to be associated with the indecency in public.’
The poet also wrote to his brother, complaining that Wilde’s crowd had begun to embarrass him during a stay in London. ‘Oscar Wilde has been charming on my behalf, I have lunched with him almost every day,’ he reported. ‘But I should have been glad if he had provided different company.’
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When Wilde was convicted of gross indecency in 1895, Louÿs distanced himself further from the writer. Following an infamous trial, during which homoerotic passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray were read aloud by the prosecutors in court, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Three years after his release, he died — impoverished, drunk and ruined — at the Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris.
‘Louÿs attended the funeral,’ the specialist reveals, ‘which was odd given his denouncement of Wilde in public, to his friends and his family. In his private life, though, it seems he always maintained an admiration for Wilde, and who knows what went on between the two behind closed doors. Maybe this book suggests there is more to the story.’
Today, first-edition copies of The Picture of Dorian Gray sell for several thousand pounds, depending on condition. In 2005, Christie’s sold another of the 250 limited-edition first editions, also signed by Wilde, for $54,000 — almost triple its lower estimate.
‘With the connection this book has to Wilde’s private life,’ adds the specialist, ‘I suspect collectors will be keen to own it.’ It sold for €100,000 on 7 October 2019 at Christie’s in Paris.