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Rare Oscar Wilde books a ‘huge coup’ for UBC and queer studies

Teleny was ‘the first book to deal explicitly with homosexuality,’ says PhD student

PhD candidate Justin O’Hearn and professor Gregory Mackie celebrate the University of British Columbia’s acquisition of two gay literature classics believed to have been written by Oscar Wilde. Credit: UBC/Don Erhardt

The University of British Columbia announced Jan 12 that it’s the only library in the world to have copies of original texts of two pieces of gay literature believed to have been penned by iconic gay author Oscar Wilde more than a century ago.

Teleny was first published anonymously in 1893, and only five known sets of the two-volume publication remain. The homoerotic novel follows the doomed love affair of two men, the title character, René Teleny, a Hungarian pianist, and his lover, Camille des Grieux.

Only three known copies remain of its rarely seen prequel, Des Grieux, published in 1899. Until now, the remaining copies were in private collections.

Justin O’Hearn, a PhD candidate in Victorian literature, tells Daily Xtra the acquisitions are a “huge coup” for those interested in queer and gender studies. “UBC is the only place in the world where they can examine them side by side,” he says. “I would think because Teleny is a gay literature classic, I would think Des Grieux deserves to be part of that milieu.”

O’Hearn says that Wilde supposedly dropped the Teleny manuscript at a bookseller’s, where others came and added to the text.

“The book itself has been taken up as an early example of gay literature, something of a classic,” O’Hearn says. “It was the first book to deal explicitly with homosexuality.”

He says the publishing of Des Grieux may have been an attempt to cash in on the notoriety of Teleny, which was very expensive to purchase in Victorian England. “It was porn. It hit all the buttons to make it totally indecent,” says O’Hearn, who now hopes to republish Des Grieux. “You had to know someone in order to get it.”

Teleny is remarkable for the period in which it was published, given the graphic nature of its text: “He took hold of my rod and pressed it against his gaping anus,” the author (or possibly multiple authors) writes. “The tip of the frisky phallus soon found its entrance in the hospitable hole that endeavoured to give it admission. I pressed a little; the whole of the glans was engulfed. The sphincter soon gripped it in such a way that it could not come out without an effort. I thrust it slowly to prolong as much as possible the ineffable sensation that ran through every limb, to calm the quivering nerves, and to allay the heat of the blood.”

“I felt it wriggling in its sheath like a baby in its mother’s womb, giving myself and him an unutterable and delightful titillation,” the paragraph ends.

Gregory Mackie, a professor of English literature at UBC, calls Teleny and Des Grieux important documents for the gay community.

He tells Daily Xtra that such books were in demand in the “delicately concealed subculture” at the time. “One of the things that these books give us is access to how gay men’s lives could be conceived of, conceptualized, in the 19th century,” he says. “It’s not ancient pederastic tutelage or anything like that. It’s two gay men. It’s a kind of homosexual representation that is demonstrably modern.”

Like O’Hearn, Mackie says it’s important to have Des Grieux in the library for scholars to access. “There’s no scholarship on it,” he says. “It’s a vast open field. It opens it up.”

The texts were purchased for $39,000 ($23,000 for Des Grieux and $16,000 for Teleny) after a crowd-sourcing push by O’Hearn raised $3,000 from 56 backers toward their purchase at a Nov 18 Christie’s auction. UBC Library picked up the rest of the bill. The library’s contribution was taken from a fund earmarked for rare and special acquisitions.

The additions complement UBC Library’s Colbeck Collection of 19th-century literature, which includes several rare Wilde texts.

Wilde is celebrated as the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, The Picture of Dorian Gray and De Profundis. Following a scandalous trial, he was imprisoned for gross indecency in 1895. He was released from prison in 1897 and died in 1900 at the age of 46.