In The Picture of Dorian Gray the main character, a pretty Victorian dandy, is spellbound by his beautiful portrait and makes a vain wish to remain young while the portrait grows old. Like the average psychopath, Dorian is egocentric and impulsive, lacks empathy and enjoys the conquests of superficial charm in the upper social circles of Victorian London while leading a separate life of opium addiction and criminality. The decadence and degradation of the coldhearted playboy doesn’t reflect upon his flawless appearance and while his corrupted acquaintances turn old and ugly, Dorian continues to roam the unmarked streets and dodgy neighbourhoods of east London with the face of an angel.
Oscar Wilde, like his sneaky fictional invention, had to hide aspects of his private life from public view, but rather than opium he sought male prostitutes of underground Soho and the love of a spoilt Lord. Apart from some ambiguous references to homosexuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray (a persistent indifference towards attractive ladies, a house in the gay-hangout Algiers shared with his flamboyant best friend and the portraitist’s burning devotion for his subject) Dorian’s main infatuation is himself.
The obvious appeal of the book lies in the flamboyant decadence, guilt-ridden vanity and dirty secrets, but the descriptions of a labyrinth-like east London of nameless alleyways and unruly gin palaces are as intriguing. Although I constantly get lost in east London (unlike Dorian I’m yet to discover the hipster secrets and pop-up cafés and clubs of Dalston), it sounds quite fun rambling around unlit dead-end streets off your face on opium.
After reading The Picture of Dorian Gray I had a weird longing to live in a conservative society with a rigorous class system and royalist attitudes in order to succumb to the subversive pleasures of decadence. Imagine Victorian London – the working class occupy the east end, while the rich thrive in Chelsea and gays hook up in Soho. And then I realised that all I need is a bit of opium. Or perhaps some crack – the modern day equivalent.