154 & 155: The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Queen and I

Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense.

It’s not surprising that, when it was first published, The Picture of Dorian Gray was decried as immoral, nor that it was produced as evidence at Wilde’s trial for gross indecency (which resulted in a sentence of two years of hard labour, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol). The book is a work of two halves. The second is the obvious one, the one where Gray leads his debauched life, himself remaining young and beautiful while the picture locked up at the top of his house displays both his moral decay and the physical effects of his vices. The first is more insidious; it is a seduction, one which reminds me of nothing so much as Kirkegaard’s Either/Or. Lord Henry is intoxicating, planting in Gray the seeds of a hedonism that is not satisfied with simple physical pleasures. It is a sublime corruption, a world in which everything is turned on its head, everything sacrificed for the amoral pursuit of an aesthetic ideal. “There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realise his conception of the beautiful.”

Read it. It is outrageously good.

Sue Townsend’s publishers made sure, I noticed, to get an endorsing snippet from The Sunday Telegraph on the front of her Republican fantasy The Queen and I. (“Laugh-out-loud funny.”) In many ways, of course, Townsend set herself an impossible task – writing a character-driven story about real people in the public eye is never going to be easy, because of the fundamental difference between a public and a private character, and there could be few topics more sensitive for that subject than the Royal Family. And there are some plot-holes you could sail the Royal Yacht Britannia through. To ameliorate that the ending is a little bit of a cop-out. But all in all it’s a funny book.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Author Oscar Wilde
Published 1891
Pages 211
Best line “All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime.”
Best character Basil Hayward.

The Queen and I
Author Sue Townsend
Published 1992
Pages 265
Best character George Beresford.


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