John Gray: Poet, Dandy, and Priest by Jerusha Hull McCormack (University Press of New England, £23) John Moynihan AS a former Victorian dandy, in a shadowy artistic world, and an emerging poet of not inconsiderable talent, John Gray gained "dubious" fame as being the model for Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
That this good looking son of two working class Londoners was Wilde's selected choice for subject matter, the author of this taut, diligently researched biography does not entirely believe; but the "Dorian" tag has stuck in literary and clubland circles. A century later, John Gray might not have been able to keep his hidden past so seciet in his new vocation as a Catholic convert, and a much respected priest in Edinburgh for the last half of his life. Modern media gossip sleuths would surely have tracked Gray down in Scotland as being a friend of the notorious Wilde. But Fr Gray, to the many who respected their ultimate canon at St Peter's, Edinburgh, may have seemed sometimes aloof in company "but they did not imagine him as a man with a past..." Fr Gray, who had achieved a distinguished career as a priest'poet between long, inspirational walks across the heather, or during the Hogntany season, through Lochside mists, was made a canon of the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh in February 1930, having gained the considerable confidence of Archbishop Joseph McDonald and the resident clergy. What memories Fr Gray had of his earlier literary life were revived by the odd visit to Edinburgh by such old friends as Max Beerbohm. His long, spiritual friendship with Andre Raffalovich, another member of Wilde's circle, and like Gray, a Catholic convert, also sustained the thread of those fascinating days at the turn of the century when Wilde was a notorious celebrity before his trial, imprisonment and subsequent banishment. Wilde enjoyed using the real names of friends and disciples in his works and having Gray around in his company in his role of dandy, and devoted admirer of literary genius, proved irresistible. And yet the biographer, Jerusha Hull McCormack believes John Gray was dissimilar in birth, status and class to Dorian. "John Gray may have been a model, but he was probable not the model for Wilde's Dorian Gray ...," she writes. The model or not, however, Gray continued to be dominated by Wilde's personality and work "in a way other admirers were not". Intrinsically, he admired Wilde the writer while others, born with silver spoons in their mouths, simply used the great wit to fan their own limited egos. Gray moved away from bohemian life to become a civil servant -a foreign office. librarian but he kept writing poems and prose, and had his first volume of poems published before going to Rome where he attended Scots College to prepare for the priesthood. There was a considerable lull between 1902 and 1921, when Gray virtually abandoned writing poetry while he devoted himself to the priesthood. But once started again, inspired very much by his walks in the Highlands, he never stopped composing poems and writing novels until he died in 1934. His biographer believes Gray was capable, if not achieving the status of major poets of his generation, of "occasional perfections, minor, if judged by the highest criteria, but nevertheless genuine and secure.." Ms McCormack suggests Gray "casts light, and often intense light, upon an entire generation of writers ..." Which was reason enough for her to embark on such a fascinating tale of a man who began his career as a member of the "tragic generation" of English decadent artists to finish his days as an Edinburgh canon.