In The Dorian Mode — A Life of John Gray: 1866-1934, by Brocard Sewell, (Tabb House, £18).
THE STATUS of Fr Brocard Sewell as a student of the 1890s and of the contemporary literary movement will be enhanced very considerably by this volume. Although some correspondence had already been published and poems by John Gray have appeared in anthologies, there was still every need for a full biography of the poet who became one of Edinburgh 's outstanding Catholic priests.
Fr Sewell has performed this task and has provided the student with a biography which places Canon Gray in his proper setting and which will recall his figure from the half-forgotten state into which it was in danger of drifting.
Born in 1866, John Gray came of working-class parentage and left school at an early age to become a trade lad at Woolwich Arsenal. But his interests lay in the poetical and cultural movements of the time and Gray owed his education to his own application and reading. He managed to secure entry to the Foreign Office and his years as a civil servant were those of his own development as a poet.
His acquaintanceships in the literary world was expanding and he was for a short while one of the circle of young Litterateurs who gathered around the growing fame of Oscar Wilde. It was Wilde who subsidised the publication of Gray's first volume of verse, Silverpoints, which appeared in 1892. But Gray was already suspicious of the trends which showed themselves in Wilde and the beginning of a lifelong
friendship and literary collaboration with the wealthy and cultured Jew, Raffovich, drew him away from the Wilde circle.
The Wilde debacle in 1895 scattered the aesthetic circle. Some, rebounding from the gospel of Hedonism sought refuge in the Catholic Church. Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson were among the converts of this period. Both Gray and Raffalovich were among those who turned to Catholicism.
John Gray decided to go further still and enter the priesthood. He made various enquiries but, after a rejection by the Oratorians at Brompton, he seems to have decided to leave London for good. Acting on the advice of Mgr (later Cardinal) Merry de Val and of Raffalovich, he became a student at the Scots College at Rome.
The strict and ordered life must have been a trial for one of so unusual a background but Gray proved an assiduous student even though his health was in danger of breaking down. In the end, the Bishop of St Andrew's and Edinburgh recalled hint to Scotland and sent him to the Edinburgh slum parish of St Patrick, Cowgate.
The Cowgate was Gray's only curacy. Raffalovich had been in close touch with him over the years and he now made a definite proposal. He would come to live in Edinburgh and would build a church in the select district of Morningside over which Gray could preside as parish priest. St Peter's came into being and Gray drew an interested and cultured congregation.
Gray retained a strikingly handsome and ascetic appearance and he was much valued as a spiritual director.
Raffalovich died suddenly on Ash Wednesday, 1934, and Canon Gray took the funeral of his old friend on a bitterly cold day. He contracted a chill and is thought to have laid the seeds of his last illness. The loss of Raffalovich was something from which he could not recover and he died on June 14.
Gray was a very remarkable man and an outstanding disciple of those who understood the essential relationship which must exist between Catholicism, art and culture. His gifts were of a kind that left an important legacy which the Church of today should still cherish and nurture.
Once again, may we thank Fr Brocard Sewell for an excellent biography which rescues Gray's memory from the limbo of the half-forgotten.
F. II. Amphlett Micklewright