A visitor to the presbytery of St Peter’s Morningside in Edinburgh during the 1920s would have realised at once that the occupant was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill Roman Catholic priest. There were fitted carpets (a most unusual luxury at this period) of a soft velvety quality. The leaded casements in the windows shut out the Edinburgh light and made the house mysteriously dim. Lithographs looked down from the walls, faces that might have been recognised by a small band of London literati, but which would have meant nothing to the majority of Catholic parishioners in Morningside: figures such as Charles Ricketts and C H Shannon, and Theodore Wratislaw, who had said of the canon that he was ‘a young man with a promising career behind him’. On the chimney-piece in the canon’s study there was a small statue by Eric Gill of a man, weeping for his sins. Upstairs, on the canon’s bed, the sheets were of black linen. Here, doubtless, were enacted the sleepless torments of his poem ‘Compunction’:
Strew with fear my late-sought bed;
Sleep no better bring;
twist and wreck the wretched thing
till the pillow loathe my head,
which is as good a description of the physical discomforts of insomnia as I have read.
Who was Father John Gray, and what were the reasons for his tears? The answer is given in the title of Brocard Sewell’s brilliant biography, In the Dorian Mode. Although John Gray persistently denied being the ‘original’ of Oscar Wilde’s story, he was an intimate of Wilde’s from 1891–1893, and it was inevitable, given his outstanding physical beauty, and his dubious private life at that date, that he should have acquired the sobriquet Dorian.
He was born in 1866, of Methodistical working-class parents in Bethnal Green. By hard work, he managed to become a clerk (at the age of sixteen) in the Civil Service Lower Division. Within six years, having studied for an external degree at London University, he managed to get into the Foreign Office. He was, by his early twenties, already building up a small reputation as a poet, and he was an associate of the Rhymers Club – the group which assembled each week at the Cheshire Cheese in Johnson’s Court and included such figures as W B Yeats, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and Richard le Gallienne. Around this time, also, he took a holiday in a Breton village called St Quay-Portrieux. While there, he decided to become a Catholic. It was while hearing mass in a neglected wayside chapel, ‘with an unshaven priest saying Mass, hastily and in a slovenly manner, for congregation there were six peasant women … “I said to myself, John Gray, here is the real thing”’.
On his return to London, he was received into the Church (at SS Anselm and Cecilia’s in Lincoln’s Inn Fields). But the conversion did not ‘take’, and almost at once, he plunged into a seedy homosexual underworld. His biographer mentions the theory that Oscar Wilde first ‘picked Gray up’ in a bar, but thinks it just as likely that they met, some time in 1891, either at the Rhymer’s Club or at a dinner party. The nature of Wilde’s intimacy with the young Gray was, from the first, different from his intense and frequently acrimonious obsession with Lord Alfred Douglas. As he wrote bitterly to Bosie from Reading Goal: ‘When I compare my friendship with you and my friendship with such still young men as John Gray … I feel ashamed. My real life, my higher life, was with them and such as them’.
Unquestionably, it was Wilde’s patronage of Gray which ‘made’ whatever name he had in the very early 1890’s. In 1892, Wilde paid for the publication of Gray’s first volume of verse by The Bodley Head. Silverpoints reads today like a parody of the Nineties manner, with the hints of tasteless but ingenious obscenity which made Aubrey Beardsley an apposite as well as a willing illustrator of Gray’s work. In ‘The Barber’, the poet, having allowed his ‘trembling fingers’ to play with the hair of ‘many a pleasing girl’, turns to their ‘mobile breasts’ and their thighs.
I was a masseur; and my fingers bled
With wonder as I touched their awful limbs.
Suddenly, in the marble trough, there seems
O last of my pale mistresses, Sweetness!
A twylipped scarlet pansie. My caress
Tinges thy steelgray eyes of violet.
Adown thy body skips the pit-a-pat
Of treatment once heard in a hospital
of plagues that fascinate but half appal.
By the time these verses had actually been published, however, Gray had met the friend who was to displace Wilde in his affections forever. This was André Raffalovich, born in Paris but of Russian-Jewish extraction, who was to be Gray’s friend until the end of his life, over forty years later.
The vulgar modern mind could wish that Brocard Sewell had speculated about the nature of the intimacy, in its early months, between the two friends. In 1894, Gray wrote a long poem entitled ‘The Two Sinners’ in which two men kneel before a crucifix in a darkened church and address the Crucified:
Swift, from shame to shame,
Ever run they aimless;
All the wit and will they have is evil;
Much I wonder how they hither came.
The poem is emblematic of the direction their friendship was to take. By the time of Wilde’s trial, Gray and Raffalovich felt, like so many homosexuals of the period, that it was advisable for them to go abroad. Raffalovich, who always felt vindictive towards Wilde, was one of the first to rush into print, after the trial, with a scabrous pamphlet, printed in Paris, L’Affaire Oscar Wilde. Gray’s attitude to the business was different. Some time after the Wilde débâcle, he went into the French church in Leicester Square to kneel before the statue of Our Lady. As it seemed to him, it was only a few minutes later that the sacristan told him she was going to lock the church. He had been on his knees for a whole day.
Once reconverted to Catholicism, Gray’s life is moulded in an inexorable pattern. He attended, eight years after Baron Corvo, the Scots College in Rome; he spent a few years as a curate at a Roman Catholic Church, St Patrick’s, in Edinburgh, where he was a devoted and self-disciplined pastor. And in 1906, his still faithful friend Raffalovich, who had followed him on his spiritual pilgrimage and embraced the Catholic faith, paid for the splendid church of St Peter’s Morningside to be built and consecrated. Gray lived there for the next twenty-eight years, Raffalovich his most devoted parishioner. Their manner to each other had now become stiff and formal. The well of poetry seemed, for a long time, to have been discarded with other forbidden pleasures of the 1890’s. Gradually, however, Father Gray began to write again. Most of what he wrote was religious verse, or direct quotations from breviary hymns:
Pledge of our hospitality, the bread
Is broken by thy hands;
our quaking love, our most confiding dread
beholds and understands.
But a lot of the later verse, written in his fifties and sixties, is infinitely better than any of the precious, mannered stuff he wrote when he was the darling of Oscar and his circle. It has a vigorous unhappy oddity all of its own, as does his late prose fantasy Park. No one would claim that Gray was a major literary figure, but we can all be grateful to Brocard Sewell for drawing attention to an interesting minor Victorian who certainly does not deserve the utter oblivion to which he has been consigned.
Brocard Sewell is a Roman Catholic priest, and he is understandably irritated by any rationalist desire to bemoan or belittle the Nineties-ish drift to Catholicism. He quotes as a ‘misreading of the situation’ Brigid Brophy’s view that ‘Beardsley died on charity (that of André Raffalovich) terrified and frustrated, a convert to Catholicism of uncertain faith and ambivalent motives’. He certainly shows that no such dismissive comment could be made about the life of John Gray, who managed to be a devoted and loyal Catholic priest without losing any of his distinctive eccentricities. He was a far cry from the ‘gay priests’ who haunt the more incense-filled crannies of the Church of England nowadays. If he was ‘terrified and frustrated’, he not only put this melancholy fact to good pastoral use; he transformed it into a number of poems which are unlike anything else. One of his favourite sayings was, ‘You have not lived if you do not know that there is a pit in life’. It was a pit from which he emerged, partly through piety, and partly through the ancient means, recommended by Plato, of loving his friend.
On Ash Wednesday, 1934, the seventy-year-old Raffalovich was found dead in his exquisite apartments. Gray was told at once, and then had to return immediately to his church to impose ashes on the foreheads of his parishioners: ‘memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris’. After the mass, he said to the sacristan: ‘I’m the saddest man in Edinburgh. My friend has gone to Heaven’. Gray’s own death followed only a few months later, and Brocard Sewell’s account leaves one in little doubt that he, too, journeyed to beatitude.