If you are already aware of John Gray (1866-1934), you may well have a particular interest in the 1890s, or in certain aspects of Catholicism.You may have fleetingly met the name in period biographies – Beardsley’s, Yeats’s, Wilde’s. Wasn’t Gray supposed to be model for ‘Dorian’? Or you may simply have come across an extraordinary poem called ‘The Flying Fish’, which more than anything has roused and tantalised curiosity. For the most part, though, Gray has vanished, even as a name. Partly, this is his own doing. During his lifetime he sought to obliterate first one, then another stage of his past. He destroyed or edited letters, poems, documents, and his relatives piously followed his seeming wishes, blocking research and even refusing verse to anthologists. Even today’s predictable learned papers (there is quite a busy Gray industry) are hardly accessible.
Gray needed to re-invent himself. He was born in Bethnal Green the oldest of nine children, in a stormy home. A bright little boy, he won at 12 a scholarship to the Roan School, Greenwich. But a year later he was removed by his irascible father to be an apprentic metal-turner at the Woolwich Arsenal. Oddly, he did not dislike the work itself. Machines and artefacts, ‘whirring lathe and rank machine oil’s smell’, would always have an appeal. Still, the path was upwards. He studied at night, and at 16, through exams, became a Post Office clerk. He acquired a working knowledge of Latin, French and German. He wrote poems. By his earliest twenties he was a minor but respectable middle-class civil servant.
Being also young, gifted and poor, and exceptionally good-looking, he had the luck to catch the interest of Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts, whose bohemian house in Chelsea, ‘unhygienic’ but ‘a palace of enchantment’, was a magnet for writers and artists. Ricketts gave him an education in modern art, set him stern literary tasks, introduced him to French writers (Gray was to meet among others Mallarmé and Verlaine), and encouraged him to translate the French symbolistes. He also printed two pieces by Gray (one an essay on the Goncourts) in the first number of the Dial. Gray was in the literary scene.
Meeting him in 1890, Wilde promptly added the beautiful youth to his circle. When The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared a few months later, it was widely assumed that the exquisite young poet was the model. A model, not the model, is the biographer’s verdict. But the name stuck; Gray used it himself. He went further: he entered into the ready-made Dorian image. If ‘sin’ went with the persona, that was accepted too.
But by the end of 1892 the Wilde connection had become a dangerous hazard. Gray was in debt, in a state of nervous exhaustion; in Wilde’s increasing grossness, moral and physical, his Nonconformist conscience saw a fearful warning. His doubts and dreads were fused in a story, never published in his lifetime: ‘The Person in Question’. Here, the narrator, clearly Gray, sees a double of himself, but twice his age – heavy, coarse, with a straggling beard. At every dinner, first night or function that he attends, the Other is also there. When at last he fails to appear, the narrator, frightened, goes in frantic search, and finds the double (what a cinematic touch!) taking a seat on a giant switchback railway. He also takes a seat, but a distant one. There is a sickening smell of perfume. He turns his head. Horror! The Other is just behind ...
Remorse for ‘sin’ was to haunt Gray all through his life (or lives). Its nature remains vague, since Gray destroyed all relevant letters and papers. It is unlikely that he would have been an initiator of interesting vice. In the Dorian mood he would have accepted Dorian experience: but, to quote one modern scholar, he probably had a kind of ‘incipient sexual anaesthesia’ – not uncommon with those of unusual beauty.
Still, at this time, a painting of a sinful self seemed to hang persistently on the wall of John Gray’s mind. Had he turned it over, he would have found another picture, of a portly, rosy-cheeked, golf-playing priest, with an impressive look of authority: the Father Gray (later Canon Gray) of tomorrow. Before this transformation, though, Gray was to be rescued from Wilde, from ‘Dorian’, from his debts and impossible double life, by a patron, who came as a lover and stayed as his closest friend. André Raffalovich, himself a poet and novelist, was a wealthy, witty young man, Russian born but brought up in Paris, described as ‘ugly’ but quaintly so (in the photographs he has the look of a white marmoset). Expensively neglected as a child, he had one refuge, his governess, Florence Gribbell. She remained for life his companion, hostess and mother-figure. Gray was made part of this household.
He was now in a spiritual phase, writing religious and mystical verse. He gave up his job as librarian in the Foreign Office, and entered the Scots College at Rome to become a priest. The regime was strict, but the uniform splendid. His first post (in 1901) was in the poorest and roughest district of Edinburgh. The new role entirely suited his temper. But in a few years he had worked himself into a breakdown. A project was suggested: the building of a new church in Edinburgh of which Gray would be parish priest. Most of the money came from Raffalovich (now, with Florence, a convert). McCormack’s excellent book describes the church, St Peter’s, built by Lorimer, with its church house, to Gray’s design. It was his base until his death.
It was the most satisfying role that he could ever have devised. What sort of priest was he? ‘Everybody said he was very proud,’ a parishioner offered, ‘but he was awfully kind in the confessional.’ For proud, read remote, inscrutable. Zealous for converts, he trawled family and friends. Some were easy; some less so. His difficult, none-too-spiritual widowed mother was a triumph. There were problems, of course; the Beardsley business was one. Anxious to promote poor Aubrey’s final sanctity, Gray had prepared a book of his ‘Last Letters’, carefully chosen (and laundered). But Madame Strindberg had acquired a very different collection of Beardsley material – items that had not been burned, as he wished ...
But was there a real identity under the mannered mask? In 1932, he wrote a disturbing, dreamlike tale called ‘Park’ – ‘his most perfect and most exasperating prose work,’ notes his biographer, who then proceeds, most usefully, to give a long analytic plot account. Dr Mungo Park, a 59-year-old priest, is walking in the Cotswolds when he thinks that he has died. He finds himself the captive of a strange primitive society, ruled by black Catholic priests. Below ground is a race of ‘rodent-like white men’ who present ‘an intolerable paradox; mechanical genius ... with moral degeneration the most complete’. Is he himself ‘black within’? ‘I shall never be back in time,’ Park laments. ‘Every thought has two meanings.’ If this seems simple, pursue the plot in all its perplexing detail.
Every ‘trough’ time – the lull between two major periods – produces fascinating oddities: a Beddoes, a Dowson, a Hood. Most transcend their time in only a very few poems, one maybe. Gray is no exception. True, he left far more published work than one would expect: poems, essays, stories, plays, translations (not only pioneer versions of the French Symbolists, but of Nietzsche and Goethe), as well as hymns and works of piety. In each of these fields he is by no means negligible. But outside the annals of Catholic Edinburgh, and perhaps (for their interior interest) those two prose tales, ‘The Person in Question’ and ‘Park’, Gray’s best pass into our own time remains ‘The Flying Fish’. It could be called a curious by-product of his work as translator Gray’s English versions of Rimbaud were never very successful. Yet this strange original piece of invention catches the Rimbaud spirit more than any other English poem that comes to mind.