To keep the Fortnightly subdued and reassuring in tone was comparatively easy. But to lower himself to the temperature necessary to the comfort of his guests in Park Lane taxed Harris sorely. Yet, with a Royal Duke at his table, some measure of restraint was obligatory.
Once, he writes, he gave a lunch with the old Duke of Cambridge on his right and Russell Lowell, the American Ambassador, on his left; and the guests included Beerbohm Tree and Willie Grenfell (now Lord Desborough), John Burns, the firebrand agitator, the poet George Wyndham, and Alfred Russel Wallace–all listening spellbound to the humour and eloquence of Oscar Wilde.
The authenticity of this list of guests is corroborated by Sir Sidney Low, in an obituary notice in the Observer. Harris, Sir Sidney writes, had at this time a charming little house in Park Lane, where he entertained a great many of the people best worth knowing. Calling one afternoon on Mrs. Harris, Sir Sidney found a Royal Duke taking tea with her. “Peers, politicians, poets came to the Park Lane luncheons and dinner-parties. Oscar Wilde would toss up scintillating epigrams, countered by the host with fiery thrusts of savage criticism and biting satire.”
It looked just then, Sir Sidney Low says, as if Frank Harris were to be one of Fortune’s favourites. The Conservative party-managers had their eye on him, and people were saying that he might do anything.
But his old uneasiness ran strongly below the surface. He felt restless, out of the picture he had framed so expensively with his wife’s money. The unobtrusive self-assurance of his new acquaintances exasperated him; he noticed with surprise that among these gentle-folk the untitled were as sure of themselves as the titled. What was the secret of their complacency? It couldn’t be brains! He had more brains in his big toe that the lot of them in their united skulls. And what under the mask of polished manners, did they really think of him? If he was good enough to know now, why hadn’t he been good enough to know earlier? Or was it the husband of their own set, the editor of the Fortnightly, the coming man in politics?
Lunching in the house in Park Lane with the Duke of Cambridge, and a half dozen people of good position, taught him, he says, that he would always be an outside, alien to them in imagination and sympathy. And yet, he adds, in a sentence which perhaps throws more light on his handicaps as a social climber than on his assets, he had certain advantages: “I had had an English education and knew how to dress, my table manners, too, were English of the best.”
If he hadn’t worked so strenuously on his own notoriety, culminating in his long-winded but often fascinating autobiography, My Life and Loves, Frank Harris would be long forgotten by now. And even the autobiography is more often remembered for its pornographic than its literary merits. So why bother reading an account of his life?
I had utterly no interest in Frank Harris before reading this book. Neither did I know anything about Hugh Kingsmill. I bought Frank Harris solely on the basis of its mention by Michael Holroyd. So I think I can fairly say that I approached this book with no preconceptions, asking only that it proves its own merits. Having devoured it in an afternoon, I will argue that these are considerable. This is one of the most striking examples of the art of biography I’ve ever read.
This is not a conventional life. Kingsmill first came to know Harris as a youthful admirer, remained in close contact with him as part of the London literary world of the early decades of the twentieth century. He lost that contact when Harris fled to France to avoid prosecution for bankruptcy and fraud, then visited him again years later, when Harris was in elegant but unmistakable decline on the French Riviera.
Although Kingsmill does recount the essential facts–which, in the case of a pathological liar like Harris, was no simple feat–of Harris’ life, what makes this book worth reading is its remarkable power as a study of a deeply flawed yet powerful character.
When Kingsmill first wrote the book, in the 1930s, Harris’ literary reputation still had a few remnants intact, and his notoriety as a pornographer was peaking. The scandal value of the book no doubt guaranteed healthy sales, and many of the literary figures whose careers Harris influenced in one way or another–including Shaw and H.G. Wells–were still active. Harris’ defenders could still be found, even if they were subdued in public fora.
What credibility Harris might have had at the time is calmly and completely destroyed by Kingsmill. His ammunition is simply Harris’ own words and deeds. As Kingsmill demonstrates so effectively, there was never any need to mount a vendetta against Harris–he was his own worst enemy. His accuracy derives from the clarity of a youthful admirer become middle-aged realist. For the first third of the book, Kingsmill shows how Harris haphazardly, but relentlessly, constructed a career as a man of letters–and politics, in aspiration at least–of materials of dubious origin.
Harris’ ascent is a striking illustration of the momentum a forceful personality can generate from the slightest of talents. On the strength of a few stories and articles and a great many boastful stories loudly related, Harris managed to gain the editorship of a series of weekly magazines. At a time when newpapers and weeklies were the predominant mass medium, this put him in a position of great influence, and he cultivated the aura of power and insight people naturally associated with an editor of an influential journal.
This aura was about the only thing Harris ever successfully cultivated. As Kingsmill shows, to call Harris a creative talent would be overstretching the truth. He was not so much a writer as a producer of words. His chief creative concern was the building–and propping up–of his own facade. For nearly everything else, his was a destructive energy.
He ran newspapers and magazines from solid reputation and financial standing into near-ruin. In the words of an old Bob and Ray routine, he firmly believed he could build himself up by knocking other people down. Although he supported rising talents, like Wells, he also attacked and denigrated others. What might at the time have seemed critical judgment seems more like random choice in retrospect. None of this kept Harris from maintaining a high opinion of his own talents: “I am, really, a great writer” he once remarked. “[M]y only difficulty is in finding great readers.”
If Harris genuinely deserves to remembered for anything of literary consequence today, it is for The Man Shakespeare, which, at the time, saved the Bard’s reputation from reverent mummification. “To many of the ‘professors,’ as Harris always calls his colleagues in Shakespearean criticism,” Kingsmill writes, “Shakespeare was a substitute for experience…. Harris, hastily scanning a play between an afternoon in the city and an evening with a girl, had none of this cloistered diffidence.” Despite the book’s undeniable vitality, however, Kingsmill finds it very much a reflection of its author:
To bring order into this chaos is impossible. It is the hasty impressionistic criticism of a man with no coherent outlook on like, who writes as the passing mood prompts, alternating without any uneasiness between envious depreciation and melting worship.
Nonetheless, The Man Shakespeare gave Harris some legitimate status as a critic, and he relished the band of young admirers–Kingsmill among them–attracted by his status and celebrity. “He talked always,” one of them later said, “as if he held the key to Life–with a big L. As if only with his help could one pass into the kingdom of experience.”
What delight Harris must have taken in holding court. Any listener–suitably in awe–would do. As Kingsmill recalls of his many strolls with Harris, “During these walks I seemed rather to be overhearing a soliloquoy than lending my attention to talk directly addressed to me.” Whether this was a reflection of Harris himself or of the image he wanted others to have of him is hard to tell. Harris believed “a deep bass voice and a ruthless disregard of everyone’s feelings” were “the two main attributes of a man of action.”
Eventually, Harris ran out of fools to underwrite his wrecking of magazines and fled–to France, then to America, then back to France. He managed to beg, borrow, charm, or steal sufficient funds to maintain a semblance of gentility. His final attempt to regain his audience and substantial profits, if not his respectability, with his long-winded and scandalous memoirs, was undermined by a proliferation of pirated editions.
Though he provides ample evidence to justify one, Kingsmill refuses, however, to make this book a hatchet job. Instead, this is first and foremost a study in character. If all Kingsmill did was to reveal the flimsiness of the props with which Harris bolstered his public facade, this book would be as forgettable as its subject. It is the sensitivity with which Kingsmill traces Harris’s personality that make this such a remarkable book. Harris’ energy may often have been misdirected, but the intensity of that energy is undeniable. Harris may had little reason for holding himself to be something more than he was, particularly after his flight from England, yet Kingsmill recognizes what tremendous willpower it must have taken Harris to maintain that facade when its artifice was so obvious.
Harris never did as much damage to others as he did to himself. In the end, Harris comes to seem rather like another minor figure Kingsmill mentions, “one of those men who owe their reputation among their contemporaries to what they might have achieved, and who would perhaps have had less reputation had they done more to earn one.” Yet, as Kingsmill shows so persuasively, it was also solely by his own efforts that Harris earned what reputation he had, and Harris kept up those efforts long after the point when lesser men would have crumbled.
Frank Harris deserves a prominent place, on an admittedly short shelf, alongside Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception and Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret as a classic portrait of the pathos and pathology of a constructed reputation. It wouldn’t be an entirely unjust ending if we came to remember Frank Harris because he happened to have been the subject of Hugh Kingsmill’s book.
- Horace Gregory, Books, 18 September 1932
- Mr. Kingsmill’s biography of Frank Harris is not the first, nor will it be the last, for the Frank Harris legend shows signs of growth and possibly immortality, yet I believe that he has written the perfect story of Harris’ life. Something of the fascination that Harris must have had is reproduced in Mr. Kingsmill’s version. From the very start one catches the excitement, the vicarious adventure of knowing Harris and knowing him a shade too well.
- Joseph Wood Krutch, Nation, 2 November 1932
- It is possible that more facts will be brought to light if anyone cares enough to search for them, but it is not likely that we shall get a more convincing portrait of the picturesque and exasperating scoundrel who remains strangely pathetic despite his manifold sins.
- Alexander Armstrong’s review of Frank Harris from the Frank Harris page at www.oddbooks.com
- The great virtue of this book is its consistent humanity, both towards Harris itself and those whose lives he touched. It is this quality, as well as its readability, that have made this one of my long-term favourite works; indeed it was this book more than any other that set me on the path which has led to the creation of these pages.
Find Out More
- Wikipedia biographies of Hugh Kingsmill and Frank Harris
- The electronic text of The Man Shakespeare available at Project Gutenberg