New Preface to "The Life and Confessions of Oscar Wilde"

Year: 
1925

After Oscar Wilde's death there was an endless series of disputes and recriminations between his former friends, accusations of betrayal and misrepresentation, claims and counter-claims. Frank Harris' Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions was one of the causes for controversy. The ever-rancorous Lord Alfred Douglas disliked it, and disliked Harris for writing it, but being persuaded that Harris had been misled by Robert Ross, he collaborated with Harris on a new preface to set matters straight. When Harris and Douglas fell out, Douglas published his version of the preface in this curious volume.

In 1925, Frank Harris was short of money and hunting about for fresh funds. He had never been able to publish his Wilde in England for fear of litigation by Lord Alfred Douglas, but he was by now sufficiently desperate to try to overcome that obstacle. When Douglas happened to be in the South of France - where Harris was living at the time - Harris set about wooing him, sending notes and using mutual friends as intermediaries, with a view to getting Douglas to meet him and discuss the matter.

Douglas was eventually won over: he and Harris agreed that Robert Ross was the villain of the piece, not Douglas. They set about writing a preface together to be included in any future editions of Harris' life, that would expose Ross' lies and thereby would satisfy Douglas that the book as a whole was no longer libellous to him.

For a while, things went well. Douglas gave Harris two letters: the first (March 20, 1925), which is a frank confession of Douglas' homosexual relationship with Wilde, was meant simply so that Harris would know the truth and could choose his words accordingly; the second (April 30, 1925), intended to be included directly in the preface, is more circumspect, being concerned largely with the circumstances of the trial of Wilde and the later conduct of both Wilde himself and Robert Ross. Harris composed his preface and both pronounced themselves satisfied.

Then came a blow: Harris had gone to England and made enquiries about Douglas' assertions. The responses he got led him to make changes to the preface which Douglas would not accept. Douglas told him to restore the original preface and also alter the text of the book itself and add some footnotes: Harris refused. At that, Douglas vowed never to permit any edition of Harris' book to be published in Britain; and, in an attempt to right the wrong he saw done to him by the American editions he could not otherwise touch, he issued his version of the preface in book form.

Fortunately for we literary detectives, there is a significant clue to the content of Harris' version: in 1930, near the end of his life and even more starved of cash, he brought out a new American edition of his Wilde, in which appears a preface remarkably like the one here, but differing in one key point: Douglas' version asserts that had he been called at Wilde's trial he would have succeeded in winning the sympathy of the jury. Harris' version directly contradicts this. In my view this is the sticking point between Harris and Douglas: Douglas always wanted to believe that he could have rescued Wilde, but had been prevented from doing so by the shortsightedness of Wilde's counsel Sir Edward Clarke; Harris thought this view was mistaken, and would not submit to being a mouthpiece for it. Both were stubborn men.

Other differences between the two versions provide more clues: some (though by no means all) complimentary references to Douglas are excised from Harris' later version, doubtless partly because he felt less charitable towards Douglas and partly because he no longer needed to butter him up; more significant was Harris' addition of the first, explicitly confessional, letter from Douglas, an act which smacks both of spite and a desperate attempt to boost the sales of his book with a scandalous 'scoop'.

This book, which is valued for its rarity and associations rather than its content, will be of little interest to most readers.