Frank Harris

A Biography
Year: 
1932

Throughout his life Frank Harris attracted admirers by his talent, his original and forthright way of speaking and the rare strength of his personality. Unhappily, it was usually not long before the darker side of his character would make itself known, and his onetime devotees would draw away, repulsed by his brutality or perceived venality. Those that did not leave of their own accord were generally pushed away anyway by him, once he had decided that their enthusiasm did not come up to the high standard set by his vanity.

Hugh Kingsmill was one of these disillusioned disciples, but had a clear enough perception of both sides of Harris to write the most entertaining and illuminating of biographies. Despite Harris' frequently appalling behaviour Kingsmill succeeds in making him if not worthy of our respect at least due a degree of our sympathy. And he provides enough clues for us to get some inkling of why such luminaries as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw should have happily kept company with him.

This is not an authoritative picture of a whole life so much as a personal recollection: in particular Kingsmill did not research Harris' early years enough to tell us very much apart from that the Life and Loves is not to be relied on. It really comes to life about half way through when Kingsmill and Harris first meet, because it is with seeing him through Kingsmill's eyes that the old monster really comes back to life.

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.