An Accusation of Plagiarism

Summary:

Frank Harris' story An English Saint, from his collection Unpath'd Waters, has been alleged to have been plagiarised from Stendhal. This allegation has been repeated as if well-founded but on closer examination it proves to be of little substance. The real secret of Harris' story is not plagiarism but something else altogether. And there is one final twist to this story...

The source of the charge against Harris is John Middleton Murry, who was the lover and later husband of the writer Katherine Mansfield. An enthusiastic if rather untalented editor and writer himself, one of the literary lights of Edwardian London, he was also for a while one of Frank Harris' fans. Dan Rider's bookshop in the West End of London was a popular meeting place for Harris and his enthusiasts and the location for a scene recounted by Hugh Kingsmill where Harris discomforted Murry:-

On the table lay the contents bill of the July number of Rhythm [a journal edited by Murry], headed by the article on Harris: 'Who is the Man'. Harris picked it up and read out the first three items:

'Who is the Man'
'Drawing.'
'The Shirt'

'The Shirt!' he repeated, and threw the bill down with a laugh. 'Drawing of a man in a shirt, eh? By God, Murry, this paper of yours is going to made a stir,' and he was beginning to improvise in Rabelaisian vein on the man in the shirt when Murry burst into tears and ran out of the shop.

In his autobiography, Between Two Worlds, Murry said that Harris encouraged him to read Stendhal. Following this instruction, he started on an unnamed volume, but was quickly struck with a horror of recognition: Harris' story An English Saint had been plagiarised from the very same work he was reading. From that point he was utterly disillusioned with Harris.

The story is repeated in Philippa Pullar's biography of Harris and in later works such as Claire Tomalin's Katherine Mansfield, a Secret Life, but I have not been able to unearth any trace of anyone subjecting Murry's allegation to further examination. This willingness to believe Murry's claim without further evidence would seem astonishing were it not for Harris' reputation, which makes such charges seem relatively small beer.

So what is the basis for this calumny? Murry does not say which work of Stendhal's he was reading, but I have asked several authorities on Stendhal (including the distinguished editors of Approaches to Teaching Stendhal's the Red and the Black) which of Stendhal's writings might have been meant, and they have all indicated that The Red and the Black is the most likely candidate.

There are indeed some notable similarities between The Red and the Black and Harris' story. One might summarise either of them in this way: a pale, handsome, young man of humble origins trains as a cleric, has both an old and a younger mistress, learns how to profit by the concealment of his true nature, has his marriage to the younger mistress foiled by the elder and dies at the end of the story. Not much remains of either work in this summary, and in fact this is almost the entirety of the resemblance between them.

Julien Sorel, Stendhal's central character, is generally taken to be based on his creator. He is an angry, passionate young man, filled with fantasies of Napoleonic self-aggrandisement and constantly incensed by the way that his class status means that he is looked down on by his intellectual inferiors. Compare Sorel to Harris' Gerald Lawrence, who is stupid, a conformist, and practically incapable of independent thought. Then again, take the mistresses: Sorel's initiator Madame de Rênal is middle-class and ignorant of the world; his later conquest Mathilde de la Mole is clever but excessively proud, the daughter of a very rich aristocratic family. By contrast Gerald's first mistress is an astute Oxford widow who teaches him how to make his way in life, while his second is a dancer from the chorus line, pretty but shallow.

While both stories are to some extent about the need to hide one's true nature imposed by the artificiality of society they are quite different in manner: Stendhal, through his characters, gives a constant sense of edginess and unresolved conflict, while Harris adopts a plain style in which simply what happens is all.

Moreover, not content to refrain from stealing any of Stendhal's characters or plotting, Harris did not take any scenes nor dialogue either. This is a pretty feeble sort of plagiarism. My suspicion is that Murry did not trouble to read much of The Red and the Black before jumping to his conclusions.

The real secret of An English Saint

Harris' abiding characteristic and motivation is his extraordinary ego, and this is the key to An English Saint. Stendhal's hero is pale, handsome and short, Harris' is pale, handsome - but tall. Why did he take just two characteristics of Stendhal's Sorel and vary the third?

The answer is that Gerald Lawrence is meant to be the very opposite of Frank Harris. Look at a fuller list of his attributes: pale, handsome, tall, sickly, weak, a poor talker, unworldly, dim-witted, ascetic. And like Stendhal's character Sorel he learns to be a hypocrite, though unlike Sorel he is untroubled by his deception.

There are just two respects in which Lawrence resembles Harris: his dandyism, and the anger he feels when he becomes jealous seeing his young sweetheart with another man - very reminiscent of Harris' agonies over Laura Clayton in My Life and Loves.

But the overall message conveyed by An English Saint is that Gerald Lawrence is the sort of man who might be taken for a saint in England; a real saint would be someone altogether different. And if one concluded that such a real saint might be more like Frank Harris, would that conclusion be very far from what he intended?

The resemblances between Frank Harris' story and Stendhal's are little more than faint echoes. One might speculate endlessly as to how they arose, but I incline to the view that the borrowing was conscious, that Harris had it in mind to write a set of variations on Stendhal's themes. One idea that Harris might have taken whole from Stendhal is the equation of the clergy with hypocrisy, which he also used in his earlier story A Modern Idyll. The debt to Stendhal is not so great as to be worthy of reproach, but it would have been politic if he had explicitly acknowledged it. Unfortunately Murry waited till after Harris' death before making his accusation.

A final twist

After Katherine Mansfield's death it was noticed that her story, The Child-Who-Was-Tired, bore an uncanny resemblance to one of Chekhov's, Spat' khochetsia (translated as Sleepyhead or Sleepy-Eye). There has been some debate as to whether this borrowing was deliberate or inadvertent but the case for plagiarism is a great deal stronger than it ever was against Harris. John Middleton Murry made a stab at defending her reputation, on the easily refuted basis that he did not think a translation of Chekhov's story was available at the time. If his effort to remove this black mark on her character made him reconsider his own slur against Frank Harris, there is no record of it.