THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue





Teleny and Wilde’s Missing Gay Texts



Jason Boyd


Like the photograph that was wrongly supposed to picture Wilde dressed as Salome,[1] Wilde’s involvement with Teleny is one of the many appealing fictions that make up the construction of the ‘gay Wilde.’ At the most basic level, the problem with the attribution of Wilde’s involvement with Teleny is the historical evidence we have supporting it. As any serious scholar of Wilde biography knows, anecdotes and recollections concerning Wilde – many of them generated many years after his death after his legend had become well established – can never be accepted as the pure and simple truth. In fact, all the biographical materials relating to Wilde are impure in one way or another, and a scholar who approaches these materials without a skeptical attitude and a willingness to question both the reliability and possible motivations of the persons who originated stories concerning Wilde – including Wilde himself – is simply being naïve. There is no justification for taking at face value the 1934 account of publisher Charles Hirsch, a shadowy figure about whom very little is known apart from his involvement with Teleny.[2] Since there exists no corroboration, accepting Hirsch’s account is a matter of faith: one must simply trust that Hirsch is telling the truth. But equally, the story could be a complete fabrication: there is no evidence that Wilde was either a consumer of ‘Socratic literature,’ or a customer of Hirsch’s, and his account raises questions and suspicions that suggest its fictionality -- the need to use his shop as a drop-off/pick-up point for the manuscript being the least credible of his many dubious claims. Thus, the so-called historical evidence is of very little use in determining Wilde’s involvement in Teleny.[3]

If Wilde had not been involved in writing Teleny, why would Hirsch have associated Wilde’s name with the novel? In part, because by associating an anonymously written uranian text – what Neil Bartlett has described as ‘London’s first gay porn novel’ (83) – with the infamous (and conveniently dead) symbol of the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ made the text more ‘significant’ and thus saleable. In hitching Wilde’s name to work that was not Wilde’s, Hirsch would not have been the first to do so: Wilde’s name (as ‘Sebastian Melmoth’) was so associated with a translation of Jules-Amédeé Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel Ce Qui Ne Meurt PasWhat Never Dies (1902) – and of The Satyricon of Petronius (1902) by the unscrupulous Charles Carrington, a publisher of pornography who also published (and pirated) some of Wilde’s legitimate works (see Straight, items 61, 112-13, 190, 205-12, 216-17, 236-9, 246, 273, 294). Rod Boroughs, who has thoroughly investigated these publications, explains Carrington’s motivations:

Here was an opportunity to cash in by using the name of a famous English author to boost the sales of a translation of a rather less well-known – at least to Carrington’s British customers – French novelist [Barbey d’Aurevilly]. The opportunity was too good to miss…. And then Carrington must have had a last-minute brain-wave: since he had a translation of the Satyricon coming out at the same time, why not put Wilde’s name on that too? – the author’s notoriety might even help point up the homosexual content of the work. (25-6)


As with Carrington’s Wilde translations, commentators who have accepted the validity of Hirsch’s account of Teleny’s authorship have failed to consider ‘the motives and reputation of the publisher who first made the claim’ (Boroughs 11).

Another question Boroughs asks regarding the Carrington translations can be helpfully reused in the case of Teleny: ‘if the Wilde ascription is utterly without foundation, how could [Hirsch] imagine that he would get away with such an outrageous hoax?’ (11). Why would people believe, indeed want to believe Hirsch’s claim? What is compelling about Hirsch’s story is that it offers us a rare and intimate glimpse into Wilde’s gay life, as a gay man and as a gay writer, as a part of, perhaps even the guiding muse of, a network of men banded together in the creation of a recognizably gay work of literature. This is the kind of story that fits in so well with, and confirms and justifies, Wilde’s status as a gay icon, as the progenitor of modern gay culture. As Neil Bartlett observes, Teleny ‘seems to relate our story, in our language, because it seems that this text – hidden for so long and part of our dark, private world, speaking a pornographic language which seems hardly to have changed at all – this text speaks to how close to our history I am, of how we created our own lives and desires even then’ (83).[4] Thus, reading Teleny not only illuminates gay history, but, for some commentators, ‘contribute[s] to our understanding of Oscar Wilde’s personality and his way of life’ (Kronhausen 143).

Wilde’s activities and self-understanding as a gay man remains a lacuna in his biography. The testimony of the trials is tainted, biased and constructs Wilde as a sexual criminal and deviant, and Wilde never wrote as a counterbalance a sexual autobiography like that of John Addington Symonds. De Profundis completely sidesteps discussing that life in any detail by dismissing it as ‘unworthy of an artist’ (and Wilde is in any case more interested in blackening Douglas’ reputation and elaborating his Christlike self-development than in exploring his identity as a man who loves men). The accounts by Alfred Douglas, Frank Harris, Robert Sherard and André Gide are self-serving and/or distorted by retrospection. This lack, and the desire to fill that lack with a narrative of Wilde’s gay life (and therefore of the gay past) has led to many attempts at reconstruction: John Moray Stuart-Young (1881-1939) wrote Osrac, the Self-Sufficient and Other Poems with a Memoir of the Late Oscar Wilde (1905), which included a number of clearly forged letters by Wilde that provided material evidence for the fictional memoir of his association with Wilde. ‘Osrac shows one reader’s struggle to rehabilitate and understand Wilde’s sexuality’ (Newell 65), and, implicitly, the reader’s own. It does so in the memoir by foregrounding and enlarging, indeed creating, a narrative of Wilde’s active homosexuality while the narrating and witnessing ‘I’ remains inviolate and celibate. Stuart-Young’s attempts to provide a homosexual biography for Wilde would be imitated numerous times (although not so idiosyncratically), most recently by Neil McKenna in his biography The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003), which is written in what Marjorie Garber terms the ‘could-have, might-have mode... – a mode we might call the prurient wishful subjunctive’ (15).

However, Wilde remains resistant to repeated attempts to assimilate him into the models of gay identity and socialization emerging at the turn of and developing over the course of the twentieth century. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argue that ‘Wilde ‘as a person,’ does not make it particularly easy to assimilate his own sexuality, even insofar as it is oriented toward other men, to either of the then newly available models for male-male sexuality, ‘inversion’ and ‘homosexuality’’ (55-6), pointing out that Wilde’s sexuality is more informed by the classical paederastic and platonic models that were being superseded by the hetero/homo binary of sexual orientation (57-8). Likewise, Wilde’s oeuvre has never been able to be satisfactorily assimilated into contemporary definitions of gay literature, no matter how sophisticated the theoretical framework. Even more recent and sophisticated attempts to create Wilde’s gay corpus by finding in Wilde’s legitimate works a dense palimpsest of cleverly concealed homosexual significations and subversions, while ingenious, have been seen as unconvincing. For example, although it has been common to regard The Picture of Dorian Gray as Wilde’s ‘gay text,’ the novel according to such a definition is unsatisfactory or a failure because, as Jeff Nunokawa writes, ‘Wilde’s text declines to cooperate wholeheartedly with its après coup canonisation as an Old Testament version of the exodus from the closet, a shadowy precursor whose difference from the contemporary coming-out narrative is only a matter of time’ (185). The homosexuality of the novel by now seems evident from a casual viewpoint, but this impression evaporates if one goes looking for homosexuality in the text:

According to a strong critical consensus stretching from Wilde’s moment to the present, Dorian Gray among other things engages in homosexual acts. But our certainty about this ‘fact’ is chimerical, since the novel nowhere specifies the content of the rumours swirling about Dorian…. At the same time, nearly all readers acknowledge that homoeroticism is something that must be read into this narrative, since Wilde nowhere explicitly identifies same-sex love as part of its content. (Arata 65, 66)


Similarly, in response to Christopher Craft’s exuberant gay reading of The Importance of Being Earnest, Alan Sinfield bluntly states: ‘Most commentators assume that…there must be a gay scenario lurking somewhere in the depths of The Importance of Being Earnest. But it doesn’t really work. It might be nice to think of Algernon and Jack as a gay couple, but most of their dialogue is bickering about property and women; or of Bunburying as cruising for rough trade, but it is an upper-class young heiress that we see Algernon visiting, and they want to marry’ (vi). Even ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ cannot be read as a transparently gay text: Wilde put an abrupt end to Edward Carson’s line of questioning on this text when he replied, in answer to Carson’s ‘I believe you have written an article pointing out that Shakespeare’s sonnets were practically sodomitical,’ ‘On the contrary, Mr Carson, I wrote an article to prove they were not so.’ Wilde went on to state, like Basil Hallward with Dorian Gray, ‘I was explaining that the love of Shakespeare to the young man to whom he dedicated them, was the love of an artist for a personality which I imagine to be a part of his art’ (Holland 93). We run the risk of misconstruing Wilde if we equate his concept of male love mediated by art with what Carson wanted to interpret as ‘practically sodomitical.’

This irresolvable indeterminacy about if and how Wilde’s writing signifies his sexuality, and if it does, what relation, if any, that sexuality has with contemporary understandings of gay identity and gay literature has understandably created a desire for a unproblematically gay text that is missing from Wilde’s oeuvre. Just as Stuart-Young attempts to makes tangible Wilde’s homosexual life through his fictional memoir, so too have others attempted to invent a gay corpus for Wilde. In the years after Wilde’s death, this took the rather blatant form of forgery and misattribution. An example of the latter is the attribution to Wilde of John Francis Bloxam’s paederastic story ‘The Priest and the Acolyte’ which Wilde had been questioned about in his libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry because it was published in the same issue of the Chameleon as Wilde’s ‘Phrases and Philosophies for Use of the Young.’ There existed no great difficultly in determining that ‘The Priest and the Acolyte’ was not written by Wilde: newspaper accounts of the testimony make it clear that Wilde was not the author, and both Robert Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, and Christopher Millard (‘Stuart Mason’), Wilde’s bibliographer, protested attempts to assign authorship to Wilde. The ‘misattribution’ of this story as Wilde’s is not a question of missing facts about authorship but a response to what is perceived as a failure on Wilde’s part, as a gay martyr/hero, to have written a ‘real’ gay text.

The belief that Wilde could have, would have, indeed should have written an unambiguously gay text is bound up in a larger misconception of Wilde’s practices as a writer. Although it has been argued that a major aspect of Wilde’s project as a writer was ‘attempting to make sexual desire between men as visible as possible’ (Bristow 45) – attempts, it is presumed, that were largely foiled or perverted by the homophobia of British readers, playgoers, publishers, critics, theatre managers – this, as Josephine Guy and Ian Small point out in Oscar Wilde’s Profession (2000), ‘presupposes a politics of constraint and censorship which in turn assumes an ‘ideal’ work which Wilde wanted to write, but which he was constantly prevented from so doing. Unfortunately, the evidence fails to support this view’ (243). Guy and Small demonstrate that Wilde was foremost a professional and, as he became a successful playwright, an increasingly conservative rather than daring or subversive writer:

Wilde nearly always wrote for money; paradoxically, as he became more successful and his earnings increased, money became more rather than less important to him. The element of versatility that characterized his early career virtually disappeared once he found a market – the fashionable West End theatre – which combined social and artistic prestige with income. …[F]inancial security did not propel Wilde into any form of creative risk-taking; rather the opposite. (221)


It is therefore highly unlikely that Wilde would have been involved in writing (or co-writing) a work that did not have broad appeal and was not personally lucrative, and Teleny was neither. A letter from Wilde to the actor-manager Norman Forbes-Robertson, written around the time in which Wilde supposedly brought Teleny into Hirsch’s bookstore, contrasts suggestively with Hirsch’s account and accords with Guy and Small’s picture of Wilde as a resolutely pragmatic writer (even when dealing with an old friend like Forbes-Robertson): ‘If you want a play from me I would require £100 down on the scenario being drawn out and approved of, and £100 on the completion of the manuscript, Then royalties of course to follow. If you can give these terms, well and good. If not, I fear I could not give up paying work for speculative. I am always in need of money, and have to work for certainties’ (Wilde 454).

A shrewd observer, Vincent O’Sullivan, noted that Wilde wrote for the market – ‘He had a full, even a gross sense of what the public liked and could assimilate. He had the face of a man born to popular success…and he would have been a perfectly enormous success but for the accident that derailed him’ (43). Wilde only wrote what he could sell to the broadest market and for the highest remuneration. Even works like Salome were produced with profit in mind: publication in French and English, French and English readerships, a foothold in the French literary market, an edition illustrated by the artist of the moment, Beardsley, a production starring the leading French actress Sarah Bernhardt – all calculated to get a much money and literary capital as possible out of this esoteric work. Wilde had neither the interest nor the time to produce private writing nor anonymous or pseudonymous writing for the small and clandestine readership of Socratic literature. In sum, Wilde was not a writer invested in making same-sex desire as visible as possible (although he may have seen potential in the transmutation of this desire into a more aesthetic discourse in The Picture of Dorian Gray and elsewhere) in large part because such a goal went against his practice of producing saleable work for the literary market and promoting himself as a writer of value.     

This hard-headed professionalism also goes against the image of Wilde as a confessional or autobiographical writer, or even a writer in the romantic mode, that is, one for whom writing is compelled by an overwhelming need for self-expression. Although most scholarship on Wilde’s works has understood them within an ‘expressive aesthetic’ – as expressive of ‘Wilde himself,’ this is a perception that is founded on the tragic legend of Wilde as a persecuted (gay) artist rather than on the evidence of his practice as a professional writer. If Wilde’s writing was prompted by a desire to write about same-sex love, why, it might be asked, when released from prison, did Wilde not become the ‘homosexual writer’ that his pre-trials persona as successful celebrity author and playwright, it is implied, precluded? Surely once it was well known by all what he was, then there was no reason any longer to fear exposure. After prison, Wilde could have explicitly written on the subject that all his previous works only imperfectly expressed, but, despite his joke that he was thinking of writing a roman-a-clef about Reginald Turner called ‘The Boy-Snatcher of Clements Inn’ (Wilde 1073), no such intention is indicated by what he did write (the Ballad of Reading Gaol) and what he stated he intended to write. Indeed, Wilde’s disinclination for writing after prison was related to his awareness that, after the trials, any reader, knowing the ‘secret’ of his life, would presume that one could discover the ultimate ‘secret,’ the interpretative clef, of any text he should publish: after his trials, Wilde’s sphinxes would always have a secret, and it would always be the same ‘secret.’ After the trials, everything about Wilde having hardened into a single authentic ‘truth’ that everyone knew, what inclination could Wilde have for writing? Having become a pathological pariah, Wilde saw his role as an artist as impossible. When it was announced in the press by theatrical manager Horace Sedger of the future production of a play by Wilde, even though Wilde had no intention of actually writing the play, his judgment about the inadvisability of this announcement was sound: ‘My only chance is a play produced anonymously. Otherwise the First Night would be a horror, and people would find meanings in every phrase’ (Wilde 1128). As Max Beerbohm observed, Wilde wrote for ‘success’ and since, after his conviction and imprisonment, ‘his main motive for writing was lost’ it was not surprising that he did not ‘find consolation in his art’ after his release (333). Similarly, before his trials, Wilde’s art was not a means of consolation for not being able to live openly as a homosexual.

For these reasons, I am unconvinced by Hirsch’s story that Wilde was involved in the creation of Teleny. However, this by no means is to suggest that Teleny is not an important text: it is important, and this importance is not dependent on Wilde’s having been one its co-authors.[5] Not only is it ‘a vivid exploration of the homosexual aesthetic of the time’ (McRae 23), but it offers (among other things) a glimpse into the forms of socialization of men who were romantically and sexually interested in other men in an historical period where there were no gay villages or gay bars or gay websites, and homosexuality was a socially-vilified crime and thus a clandestine activity. As such, I concur wholeheartedly with McRae’s assertion that Teleny is ‘worth recovering even without any Wilde connection’ (23). It is an important historical document, and, as such, McRae is to be commended for producing a definitive and scholarly useable edition – something that still needs to be done for other important texts like Sins of the Cities of the Plain, or, Confessions of a Mary-Anne (hint, hint, John). Of course, given its history, the novel will continue to have a ‘Wilde connection’ as part of the mythology that has produced the complex, many-sided and often contradictory Oscar Wilde we know today. And, although they should not be confused, this mythology is as much a part of the gay past as historical fact.


Works Cited


Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle. Cambridge UK: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Bartlett, Neil. Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde. Masks Series. London: Serpent's Tail, 1988.

Beerbohm, Max. More Theatres 1898-1903. Ed & introd. Rupert Hart-Davis. New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1969.

Boroughs, Rod. ‘Oscar Wilde’s Translation of Petronius: The Story of a Literary Hoax.’ English Language in Transition 1880-1920 38 (1995): 9-49.

Bristow, Joseph. Effeminate England: Homoerotic Writing after 1885. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.

Craft, Christopher. ‘Alias Bunbury: Desire and Termination in The Importance of Being Earnest.’ Another Kind of Love: Sodomy, Inversion, and Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850-1897. London: U of California P, 1990: 106-39, 211-18.

Garber, Marjorie. ‘Bisexuality and Celebrity.’ The Seductions of Biography. Eds. Mary

Rhiel and David Suchoff. New York & London: Routledge, 1996: 13-30.

Gray, Robert, and Christopher Keep. ‘‘An Uninterrupted Current’: Homoeroticism and Collaborative Authorship in Teleny.’ Literary Couplings: Writing Couples Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2006.

Guy, Josephine M., and Ian Small. Oscar Wilde's Profession: Writing and the Culture Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Holland, Merlin, ed. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde: The First Uncensored Transcript of the Trial of Oscar Wilde Vs. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry), 1895. Published in the UK as Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. London: Fourth Estate, 2003. New York: Fourth Estate-HarperCollins, 2003.

Kronhausen, Phyllis, and Eberhard Kronhausen. Erotic Fantasies: A Study of the Sexual Imagination.  1969. New York: Grove Press, 1987: 143-7.

McRae, John, ed. & introd. Teleny. By Oscar Wilde and Others. London: GMP Publishers, 1986.

Newell, Stephanie. The Forger’s Tale: The Search for Odeziaku. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2006.

Nunokawa, Jeffrey. ‘The Disappearance of the Homosexual in The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. Eds. George E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1995: 183-90.

O'Sullivan, Vincent. Aspects of Wilde. London: Constable & Co., 1936.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. ‘Tales of the Avunculate: Queer Tutelage in The Importance of Being Earnest.’ Tendencies. Q Series. Durham: Duke UP, 1993: 52-72.

Sinfield, Alan. The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment. London: Cassell, 1994.

Straight, Sheryl. ‘Charles Carrington: A Bibliography [by Title] of Works Published.’ The Erotica Bibliophile. Accessed 1 June 2008.

Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Eds. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Fourth Estate, 2000.



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[1] For the misattribution of this photograph of the Hungarian soprano Alice Guszalewicz in costume as Salome for the 1906 Cologne production of Richard Strauss’s opera, see Merlin Holland’s ‘Wilde as Salomé?’ (1994) and his essay in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde (1997): 10-12.

[2] A translation of Hirsch’s preface (‘Notes and Souvenirs of an Old Biblioprick’) can be read in the limited preview of the Kronhausen’s book (see Works Cited) on Google Books, pp. 143-7.

[3] All that is known for certain about Teleny’s history prior to Hirsch’s 1934 edition is that Leonard Smithers published the novel in 1893 and claimed (contrary to Hirsch’s claim of multiple authorship) that it was written by ‘a man of great imagination’ (qtd. McRae 10).

[4] It should be pointed out that Bartlett goes on to problematize this perception of Teleny.

[5] Indeed, Robert Gray and Christopher Keep argue that ‘[m]arketing the novel as ‘by’ Oscar Wilde or ‘attributed to’ Oscar Wilde is to affix its polyvalence, its many voices and multiple desires, to the name of a single ‘author’’ (205).