CANON John Gray, parish priest of St Peter's in the fashionable Morningside district of Edinburgh. kept his cards close to his chest. Those who knew him well spoke of his kindness in the confessional, but most saw only the cool. inscrutable veneer. Gray was a punctilious priest, neat and correct on the altar, his piety as crisply laundered as his black clerical suits.
There were hints Gray was not the standard Edinburgh parish priest. He occasionally let slip a trace of a Cockney accent. Amongst those remembered at Mass on their anniversaries each year was Paul Verlaine. The housekeeper must have been surprised to find that the canon slept on black linen sheets. And on the bookshelves, several volumes were inverted, their spines hidden from view; when picked out for inspection by a visitor, they would be gently reclaimed and returned to their place, face to the wall.
Gray knew he was considered a cold fish. "I know what folk think of me, but I just have to do it in self-defence. If I were to relax for a single moment God only knows what might happen."
Most of his parishioners would have been astonished to know that Canon Gray had not once, but twice, re-invented himself, shedding one identity and adopting another. The aloof and enigmatic canon of St Peter's was not the only John Gray. There was also the decadent poet of the 1890s; the original. so it was said, of Oscar Wilde's beautiful and corrupted youth, Dorian Gray. And also the carpenter's son. who left work at 13 to work in the tool shop at the Woolwich Arsenal. A splendid new life of Gray by an American scholar. Jerusha Hull McCormack. has recently been published by the University Press of New England (John Gray: Poet, Dandy and Priest, £23). Fr Brocard Sewell's earlier, breezier, sprightlier biography published by Tahh house is still in print (In the Dorian Mode: A Life of John Gray, .£18).
Gray was born in rented rooms in Old Ford, East London, the eldest of nine children, in 1866. His childhood seems straight out of Dll Lawrence: bright, sensitive son. doted on by loving mother; canny, unsympathetic father, determined his son should "learn to use his hands", who forces him to take a job as an apprentice metal-turner. But Gray foils his father's attempt to keep him amongst his own. He studies at night, passes the civil service entrance exam, and at 16 begins work as a clerk in the Post Office.
At 27, several exams later, he has progressed to a respectable post in the Foreign Office Library.
By this time, Gray's first reincarnation had been completed. Arriving in Paris in the summer of 1890 to seek out symboliste poets, Gray felt able to present himself "the last of a little band of artists, painters and men of letters in London who care about nothing except art". Gray the apprentice in the tool shop had become Gray the smart new-wave poet and in spite of his dodgy French translator of Rimbaud and Verlaine.
S'ilverpoints, a wafer-thin collection of poems printed on handmade paper in delicious but virtually unreadable italic type, appeared. "I dreamed I was a barber," one begins, not unpromisingly, before continuing: "and there went/Beneath my hand, oh! manes extravagant." WisOy. Gray did not resign the day job in the Foreign Office.
Gray, gorgeous to look at by all accounts, encouraged the rumour that he was the original of Dorian Gray ("a young man of extraordinary beauty... who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves"). Wilde and Gray's brief affair was intense, but remains ill-defined. Sewell and McCormack both avert their gaze from the hurly-burly of the chaise longue.
When Wilde's affections transferred to Lord Arthur Douglas, Gray's despair drove him close to suicide. The guilt he felt for the rest of his life was perhaps in part a distraction from the hart of rejection.
Like many of his circle Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and Aubrey Beardsley Gray had been drawn to Roman Catholicism. Sin and redemption gave an extra coat of paint to their toilette adventures although some of them put off the actual moment of their conversion as late in the day as they possibly could and Catholicism had the added virtue of getting up the noses of the respectable middle classes.
Though baptised in 1890, Gray had immediately lapsed. After the break with Wilde, a renewed faith became the lever in a second, and even more astonishing, reincarnation, from dissolute poet to young seminarian. In 1898 Gray entered the Scots College in Rome; he was still enough of a nineties dandy to enjoy the student dress: violet cassock, purple cincture and black soprano.
For a few years after his ordination Gray worked in the Cowgate in Edinburgh, before he was given the new parish of St Peter's. He found immediate and genuine satisfaction in his work amongst the poor. "It is all so simple: there are the open arms of God, and one just has to push people into them."
There had been one final, brief meeting in Rome with Oscar Wilde, virtually abandoned by his old friends since his trials and imprisonment. Gray, one day walking in the company of other seminarians, came across the man keen to see his former disciple, "a large form planted as if to waylay him. There was complete silence but mockery dangled it." Eight months later. Wilde was dead.
In the 1920s Gray returned to writing: poems, translations and a
strange, short novel. Amongst Gray's severe, buttoned-up friends was the celebratedly unbuttoned Eric Gill, who in 1932 arranged for the printing on his own press of Park: A Fan tasic Story. The hero, Mungo Park, has a futuristic vision of an England governed by black Roman Catholics, with the rodent-like descendents of the white races scrabbling for an existence in a network of underground caves. Gill couldn't make a lot of sense of it: "a thoroughly weird business, typical of its author".
Canon Gray's closest friend was a wealthy Catholic Jew. Andre Raffalovich. Every day Raffalovich was driven in his landau to morning Mass. Twice a week Gray was a guest at the grand set-piece dinner parties Raffalovich gave in his home in Whitehouse Terrace.
Gray and Raffalovich went back a long way to 1892. Their feelings had been schooled over many years into highly formalised social exchanges.
Raffalovich died suddenly in February 1934; Canon Gray followed him four months later.