He did not conceal from himself that the situation had its difficulties. The most ordinary prudence required that his strange secret should be concealed from all the world.
F. Anstey, ‘The Gull’ (1906)
Rightly or wrongly, he preserved his sinister secret to the end.
F. Anstey, ‘The Magic H’s’ (1906)
Oscar Wilde’s only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in the July 1890 edition of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. It was not universally acclaimed as a masterpiece.
Amongst those who took exception to the work, pride of place surely went to the St James’s Gazette, a Conservative-inclined evening newspaper. In a piece mockingly headlined ‘A study in puppydom’, it briefly summarized the story of a portrait that changed while its subject remained unchanged, and then observed sarcastically:
Here’s a situation for you! Théophile Gautier could have made it romantic, entrancing, beautiful. Mr Stevenson could have made it convincing, humorous, pathetic. Mr Anstey could have made it screamingly funny. It has been reserved for Mr Oscar Wilde to make it dull and nasty.
Wilde was clearly stung by the review. It was, he insisted, ‘the most unjustifiable attack that has been made upon any man of letters for many years’. A war of words ensued, with Wilde’s protests in the letters column being matched by replies on the editorial pages.
One charge in particular seemed to have cut deep. ‘To call my book an ineffective attempt at allegory that, in the hands of Mr Anstey, might have been made striking, is absurd,’ protested Wilde. ‘Mr Anstey’s sphere in literature, and my sphere, are different – very widely different.’
So who was Anstey, and why was Wilde so mortified by the mere mention of his name?
Thomas Anstey Guthrie was born in London in 1856, and intended to pursue a career at the bar, until writing got the better of him. His moment of destiny came while he was studying law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and, in a legal textbook, stumbled upon the sentence: ‘An infant is incapable of crime.’ His imagination suitably fired, he wrote a humorous tale about ‘a precocious infant, who, on reading this sentence, proceeded to give it the lie direct by committing every possible crime, even to drowning his nurse in the Round Pond’.
He submitted the story to a student magazine under the pseudonym T. Anstey, but a printing error rendered that as F. Anstey, and the happy echo of ‘fantasy’ seemed entirely appropriate to his style. So he kept it.
Also written while he was a student was an episodic story about a father and a son who somehow swap bodies, but the piece was left unfinished, partly because he ran out of ideas and partly because the magazine ceased publication. A couple of years later, however, having been called to the bar, ‘he remembered this fragment, took it from his writing-table, began it afresh, and, without difficulty this time, completed it’. Rejected by several publishers, it was eventually picked up by James Payn at George Murray Smith. (Payn was later to promote also the career of Arthur Conan Doyle.)
The novel was published in 1882 as Vice Versa, and for a while seemed in danger of dying from neglect until two wildly enthusiastic reviews, in the Daily News and the Saturday Review, transformed its fortunes. Though anonymous, both reviews were actually the work of Andrew Lang and they turned the book into a best-seller. Within a year, it had been through more than twenty reprints and was being adapted for the stage.
Having thus made his name, Anstey went on to publish a long string of novels and short-story collections, to become a staff-writer at Punch, and to contribute to other magazines. He was seen as heralding a new age of humour. ‘There is a new and brilliant hand in Punch, which is Mr Anstey’s,’ wrote a critic in 1887. ‘Punch is beginning distinctly to take higher ground, and to use keener satirical weapons than of yore.’
Among those who were influenced by him was another Lion & Unicorn hero, as a columnist in the Pall Mall Gazette suggested when issuing a correction in 1889: ‘The amusing article in the current number of the Cornhill, which on internal evidence I attributed to Mr Anstey, is, I now learn, not by him, but by a new and young writer, Mr Barry Pain.’
Anstey’s writing, however, largely came to an end with the First World War, and in the 1920s his only major work was in adapting plays by Molière for the British stage.
A rare glimpse of him in later life came in a posthumous tribute by his niece:
It was perhaps his childlike spirit that endeared him most to those who knew him best. Because of it, he was understood and beloved by all children whose ‘Fairy Godfather’ he was. His annual children’s party was always attended by a mob of happy boys and girls – and their parents who, in their turn, had been his adopted children.
And, she added: ‘He adored dogs, particularly mongrels because of their clever brains, sense of humour and understanding hearts.’
Anstey died at the age of seventy-seven in 1934, with that first novel Vice Versa, written when he was just twenty-five, still in print. He was, noted The Times on his passing, ‘essentially a late Victorian who lived agreeably enough through the Edwardian age but not beyond it. To the era since the War he hardly belongs.’
Vice Versa remains Anstey’s best known work by a very wide margin. It’s the story of Paul Bultitude, a stolid, unimaginative Victorian businessman, a widower who ‘had not a grain of chivalry in his disposition – chivalry being an eminently unpractical virtue’. He works in Mincing Lane in the City of London, but Anstey is keen from the outset to make clear that this is not going to be a conventional City novel: ‘Mr Bultitude, although he was a merchant, was a fairly successful one – in direct defiance of the laws of fiction, where any connection with commerce seems to lead naturally to failure in one of the three volumes.’
He’s not quite wealthy enough for his son, Dick, to attend a front-rank public school, so the boy is sent instead to a very minor institution, the kind of place where you have to pay extra to get ‘meat for breakfast’ and where the headmaster – the wonderfully named Dr Grimstone – reaches for the cane at the first opportunity. ‘I’ll establish a spirit of trustful happiness and unmurmuring content in this school,’ thunders Grimstone, ‘if I have to flog every boy in it as long as I can stand over him!’ Unsurprisingly Dick is not enamoured with the place.
Into this dull, sullen bourgeois household comes a stone brought back from India by a reprobate brother-in-law, a Hindu stone that magically has the power to grant anyone who holds it one wish. Unfortunately for the older Bultitude, he happens to be holding the stone just as he’s trying to persuade Dick that the start of term isn’t anything to worry about. ‘I only wish, at this very moment, I could be a boy again, like you,’ he says. ‘Going back to school wouldn’t make me unhappy, I can tell you.’
The result is inevitable. Father and son swap bodies and the natural order is inverted.
If it all sounds over-familiar, that’s a little unfair to Anstey. His story has been adapted (and plagiarized) by cinema and television so often that it has become a cliché. It wasn’t in 1882.
And even at this distance, there’s still a vein of originality to the novel. Unlike most of the film adaptations, its exclusive focus is on Paul struggling to fit in as a schoolboy. There is an occasional mention of how Dick’s getting on in the City, but that’s a very minor element. The subtitle is A Lesson to Fathers, which spells out the central theme: Paul’s recognition that his approach to parenthood has been perhaps overly stiff and formal.
Initially he finds himself unable to cope with his new situation: ‘he would not accommodate himself to circumstances and try, during his enforced stay, to get as much instruction and enjoyment as possible out of his new life.’ But, once things have been put right, he emerges with a new understanding of his children’s needs: ‘His experiences, unpleasant as they had been, had had their advantages: they had drawn him and his family closer together.’
The idea of a fantastic element intruding into everyday life became Anstey’s most common plot device. In The Tinted Venus (1885), the goddess Venus causes a statue of herself to come to life; in A Fallen Idol (1886) a Jainist figurine brings bad luck; in The Brass Bottle (1900) a jinee is released from a bottle. Variations on the same theme can be found in many of his short stories.
In all cases, the humour is generated by the juxtaposition of exotic magic and modern London. And by the fact that – once the initial fantasy twist has been introduced – everyone behaves entirely naturally.
It may take a moment or two to accept the new reality, since ‘the average healthy-minded young Englishman will not go over to fetish-worship without a struggle’, but resistance doesn’t last long. Typical of Anstey’s heroes is Leander Tweddle, the barber who inadvertently brings the statue to life in The Tinted Venus and who simply follows the evidence of his eyes: ‘He made no attempt to account for her presence there on any rationalistic theory.’
Running through all these books is Anstey’s mischievous attitude towards religion. ‘I don’t mean it as any reproach to you, but you can’t deny you’re an ’Eathen, and, worse than that, an ’Eathen goddess,’ Tweddle explains to Venus, as he tries to persuade her that there’s no future for them. ‘Now, all my family have been brought up as chapel folk, Primitive Methodists, and I’ve been trained to have a horror of superstition and idolatries, and see the folly of it. So you can see for yourself that we shouldn’t be likely to get on together!’
There is much cheerful mockery of Eastern religions. An image of Shiva is described as ‘a large and imposing figure, pot-bellied, painted a sickly blue, with a superfluous eye in the middle of its forehead, and more arms than even a deity could manage with either comfort or dexterity.’ Meanwhile a Jain idol is even less awe-inspiring: ‘The eyes in the broad flat moon-face were closed, and the general expression was one of smug and sleepy self-satisfaction – as if it were being reverently tickled by an unseen attendant.’
Nor is Christianity spared. Characters are constantly finding reasons why they can’t go to church on Sunday, a day that ‘would glide slowly by with the rather drowsy solemnity peculiar to the British sabbath as observed by all truly respectable persons’. When it is suggested that a sacred object be returned to India and set up in a shrine, an elderly Englishwoman is horrified: ‘You can’t seriously mean that you are going out to deliberately lower our nation in the eyes of the heathen by encouraging them in their idolatrous practices? After all we’ve spent for years and years on mission funds!’
The ancient gods may have lost some of their authority, but only because they’re all a bit passé. As Tweddle tells Venus: ‘You mustn’t expect to have everything your own way down here. We’re in the nineteenth century nowadays, mum, and there’s another religion come in since you were the fashion.’
Which implies that if Christianity is – like other religions – only empowered by human belief, then it too is vulnerable to the passing whims of society. In A Fallen Idol, a cynic gives some practical advice to an advocate of Theosophy: ‘You might raise the tone of your miracles, my dear fellow; there’s a very good opening just now for a new faith, but naturally people want to be sure it’s a going concern before they invest in it.’ The Theosophy student, incidentally, is presented as ‘perfectly sincere and simple-minded in his queer rhapsodies and cloudy philosophy’.
Also common to Anstey’s work is a superb gift for capturing characters and scenes in a handful of words.
A florist presides over her shop ‘while her attendants at her side made up sprays for dances and wreaths for funerals from the same flowers’.
An artist, who enjoys the freedom accorded by a private income, ‘had drifted from one art school to another until he conceived his education complete, and then he set up an elaborately appointed studio, where he soon became celebrated for his afternoon tea, and was reported to have begun several important pictures’.
A young man comes across the bench where he first met his now-lost love: ‘She had been reading a library novel that first morning, he remembered; it was Ardath by Miss Marie Corelli, of whose genius she was an ardent admirer. Now a fat woman sat there, knitting a woollen stocking.’
This is beautiful writing, the kind of precise, quiet wit that I love best. And it’s matched by the easy creation of character, from the humble Tweddle (‘I’m not a hero myself, I’m a hairdresser’) though to Horace Ventimore in The Brass Bottle, whose nonchalant repartee and innate decency wouldn’t be out of place in a PG Wodehouse novel.
Even peripheral figures are magnificently drawn, especially the lugubrious Yarker, a butler turned policeman who still nurses a grudge against those he encountered while he was in service. ‘I always used to bear a sort of prejudice like against you,’ he tells a suspect who he recognizes. ‘I didn’t like your conversation when you lunched with us. I didn’t hold with your perlittlical views.’ Not that he’s any happier now:
Ah, but the police, take ’em as a body, ain’t what I call an intellectual lot. You don’t get much of an exchange of ideers on or off duty amongst them. I assure you that for general information there was a little club of gentlemen’s men that I used to belong to, which I’ve not met their equals in the Force up to now.
‘One of Mr Anstey’s special gifts,’ observed The Times, ‘is his extraordinary knowledge of the humours of the humbler classes of Londoners.’ He had, the paper added, ‘a hand more masterly than any that has attempted pictures of the kind since Dickens’.
All of this is evident as early as Vice Versa, though it develops in subsequent books. But there’s one element missing from his famous debut novel.
Because the storyline he keeps coming back to in subsequent tales is that of a young man who is in love with, and wishes to marry, a young woman, but finds himself handicapped in his wooing by a secret that prevents him plighting his troth.
Generally, since Anstey writes fantasy, the secret tends to be a comic jinee or a pact with a cheerful demon. The treatment is light and (in the novels at least) we know there’ll be a happy outcome, but there’s a dark undertone here as well. The fear is real; the young men have a genuine, paralyzing terror of discovery. Always there’s the threat of social exposure.
In The Tinted Venus, it actually happens. The goddess comes to claim Tweddle at Sunday dinner, in front of his fiancée and their respective families. His dark secret having been revealed, she later crows in triumph: ‘Your friends have deserted you; mortals are banded together to seize and disgrace you; you have no refuge but with me.’
This horrified fascination with public humiliation is a well-used theme, but not so much in mainstream literature as it is in pornography. In particular, it turns up regularly in sado-masochistic fiction, as, for example, in Paul V. Dallas’s Binding with Briars (Essex House, 1968). It’s evident too in the blackmail fetish that forms a sub-genre of femdom fantasies.
I don’t think that’s the story with Anstey. But it does feel that the repeated return to the theme of a double-life, of a dangerous destructive hidden world that so often involves a strong emotional relationship – this is more than simple coincidence, coming, as it does, from the pen of a man who never married and who was so intensely private that it was noted in the obituaries:
Anstey was little known outside his work. All the gossip searchlights of the London press failed to focus him in the privacy of his Kensington home. Again and again London literary clubs and groups tried to get him as their guest, but it is a long time since they last succeeded.
But to return to the question with which we started: What was it about being mentioned in conjunction with Anstey that so upset Oscar Wilde in 1890?
After all, despite Wilde’s protestations, their worlds weren’t really that far apart. In fact they had already shared hard covers by this stage. Both had contributed to a charity volume In a Good Cause (1885), alongside H. Rider Haggard, Andrew Lang and others, in an endeavour to raise money for the North-Eastern Hospital for Children. Anstey wrote ‘A Very Bad Quarter of an Hour’, and Wilde wrote a not very good poem, ‘Le Jardin des Tuileries’.
The real problem, I think, is that Wilde knew he’d been influenced by Anstey in writing Dorian Gray, and he would rather that others didn’t notice the fact.
To start with, Dorian Gray falls in love with Sybil Vane – and Sybil is a distinctive enough name that some have seen as a nod towards Disraeli’s famous novel from a half-century earlier. But there was a more recent model: Sybil Elsworth, the heroine of Anstey’s A Fallen Idol, published just four years before Dorian Gray.
Anstey’s Sybil is a lovely character, almost sharp and irreverent enough to be in one of Wilde’s plays. ‘If I was giving someone I liked a present,’ she explains, ‘I should be careful to choose a rather hideous one, because then if he cared about it I should know it was not for its own sake, but for mine.’ When her fiancé says he has something serious to tell her; she replies: ‘Then suppose we find a seat somewhere? I can be so much more serious sitting down.’
This fiancé of hers is Ronald Campion, an artist who is painting her portrait. And she does indeed give him an ugly present, an Indian idol of a man who has mistakenly been proclaimed a saint by Jains. But he wasn’t a saint: he was a man of whom there were dark rumours about his abuse of a dancing girl, stories ‘of stolen joys, of detection, hideous punishment and fierce despair’. And the idol made in his image brings Campion nothing but ill fortune.
In particular, Campion finds that it’s affecting his painting. When he goes to see his portrait of Sybil – which he considers his masterpiece – hanging in a gallery, he finds that the picture had changed in appearance:
The bewitching face on which he had bestowed such loving labour, he now saw distorted as by the mirror of some malicious demon, yet without losing a dreadful resemblance to the original. Gradually he realized how subtle and insidious those alterations were, how the creamy warm hue of the cheeks with the faint carmine tinge had faded into a uniform dull white, and the delicately accented eyebrows which, combined with the slightly Oriental setting of the eyes, had given such piquancy to Sybil’s expression, were inclined at an ultra-Chinese angle, while the wide, innocent-guileful eyes were narrowed now and glittering with a shallow shrewdness. Worst of all, the smile with its sweet pretence of mutinous mockery, had spread into a terrible simper, self-occupied, artificial and fatuous.
This, it’s made clear, isn’t just the result of Campion working under the influence, for when the idol is finally destroyed, the picture changes back again: ‘the cold malignity had died out of the eyes, and left only a subdued amusement; the expression, with all its animation and witchery, spoke of nothing that was not womanly and tender and true.’
Maybe I’m wrong, but the style of that writing doesn’t seem to me to justify Wilde’s murmured outrage: ‘Mr Anstey’s sphere in literature, and my sphere, are different – very widely different.’ Indeed, I’d say that Wilde’s prose style bore some of the hallmarks of Anstey. And the plotline, of a portrait that changes its appearance from good to evil after it has been painted – that doesn’t seem entirely dissimilar either.
‘Absurd,’ said Wilde, when Anstey’s name was – even tangentially – associated with Dorian Gray. It doesn’t seem quite so absurd to me.
also available in the neglected novelists series: