Letters to Frank Harris and Other Friends

Author: 
Year: 
1980

ENID Bagnold is best remembered as the author of National Velvet, that beloved children's classic which was made into a popular film starring a teenaged Elizabeth Taylor. As a young woman in the early years of the 20th century Enid worked alongside Hugh Kingsmill Lunn on the paper Hearth and Home, whose editor was Frank Harris. Harris was married (though not to the woman he lived with) and more than thirty years her senior, but - never one to let an attractive young woman pass by - he soon became her first lover.

Time passed, and Harris lost interest in Hearth and Home and sold up; he and Enid moved on to another paper, Modern Society, where he got into legal difficulties and was sent to prison (a photograph of his being taken to prison can be seen in the gallery); while he was imprisoned he and Enid quarrelled and parted, rarely to meet again. On his release, heart-sick of England, he headed for France but World War I loomed and Harris made his way to America.

Although Enid had ended their love affair, she was still fond of him and wrote to him in his exile. Some of those letters and others written at the same period are collected in this finely produced book from the Whittington Press. At the time of publication she was 90 years old, so one assumes she felt sufficiently distanced from the emotions that permeate these pages, of a youthful love affair, friendships, the budding hopes of her literary career and the nightmare horrors of war.

As far as I am aware these are the only love letters addressed to him - of the many there must have been - that have ever been published, and they add considerably to one's image of the man.

Hugh Kingsmill (he dropped the Lunn when writing) has given us his own picture of Harris at the same stage of his life, through the eyes of one who started as a disciple and then became disillusioned, but these letters give us a different view, that of an intelligent and literate young woman who loved Harris though she was aware of his imperfections. Here is a brief, typical, extract from a letter written on the 20th May 1917:-

Men are so tasteless after you ... I say that often enough to weary you! You had everything. The stimulation, constant kindling power, the delight in triumphs, worldly triumphs, against odds, courage, staying power, and with it, tenderness for me as for a child: what you said in your letter about my 'dear blue eyes' being hurt ... As I read the lines I felt younger, less alone, and grateful to the very core of my being.

[...]

You cover my eyes like the sun, I can't see through or round you. What a blessed feeling. I love you but if I didn't I should feel the same secure sense of your spiritual importance to me.

(O to be the recipient of such words! )

The letters provide a unique insight into Bagnold's feelings at the time, a glimpse of the effect Harris could have on a woman: it is a shame that this minor classic has not been published in a cheaper edition where it might reach a larger audience.