The Woman Who Knew Frank Harris

This is the complete text of a touching, witty, and artfully-written memoir by Alec Waugh, which is printed in his collection of stories and travel writings My Place in the Bazaar (Cassell, 1961). It is subject to copyright and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Mr Peter Waugh.

The Woman Who Knew Frank Harris

The Seychelles Islands contain as many eccentrics as I have encountered anywhere. They are by no means only men. The colonel's widow was far from being the least remarkable.

I met her on my third morning in Mahe. I was writing in my room when my hostess put her head round the curtain, and with her finger pressed against her lips to ensure silence beckoned me into the sitting-room. 'I was sorry to disturb you,' she said later. 'But I couldn't have you miss one of the island's characters.'

The character to whom I had been introduced was a tall, plumpish woman, grey-haired, in a locally made straw hat, with a sallow skin and no noticeable features. She was, I imagined, one of those women who at twenty have the attraction of youth and health, a clear skin and supple movements, whom middle age and maternity rob of their figure and complexion, so that as early as their thirties people begin to say of them: 'I can't think what he ever saw in her.' Her eyes were bright and she had a deep, rich voice. She might have been any age over sixty.

She had called at the early hour of half past nine to enlist my hostess's support in an anti-Communist campaign. She had a full morning ahead of her. 'People arc so unpublic-spirited,' she com- plained. 'There's the Attorney-General, now. He's a Roman Catholic. He ought to be one of the first to help. He says he's too busy. He says it's not his business. Too busy! Not his business! I ask you.' She struck a fine note of indignation and contempt. She paused. She looked at me interrogatively.

'I know you are only going to be here for a short while, but you could help, you know.'

I excused myself on the grounds that I was unpolitical.

She sniffed. 'Unpolitical. It's not a question of politics but of principles. That's the trouble with writers nowadays. They won't interest themselves in the things that matter.'

In the late 1930s I should have replied that the converse was the case. But maybe she was right today. I retreated to a different base. Did she think there was any real Communist danger here? I asked. I recalled my days in Military Intelligence when we had looked for a channel of communication. I could not see how Moscow was going to build a cell in Mahe. She had her answer ready. 'If the soil is ready, then a seed may fall. We must keep the soil unfertile.' She spoke with such conviction that I almost agreed to give a lecture on my visit to the U.S.S.R. in 1935. Almost but not quite.

'Tell me all about her,' I asked when she had gone.

She had arrived, I leamt, in 1937, with her husband, a retired Indian Army colonel. Their daughters were married and they were looking for a place to settle. They were debating between Tanganyika and a cottage in Devonshire. On their way to Africa they had decided to spend a month in Seychelles. They had liked it there so much that they had lingered on. Then the war had come. Though he was much over age, the colonel had insisted on going back to India; there must be something there that he could do. His ship was torpedoed: nobody was saved.

'And she stayed on?'

'She had no alternative at first. Later, well, I suppose she's got used to being here. There was rationing in England and a housing shortage. She was afraid of being a nuisance. She talks, now that things are getting easier, of going back to see her grandchildren. But I doubt if she will. It's difficult to uproot yourself at her age.'

'And is this typical? This anti-Communist campaign?'

My hostess nodded. 'Typical but not general. Most of the time she lives quietly in her bungalow in the country. She hasn't got much money; she does a certain amount of what one used to call "good works": sits on church committees and helps us at Home Industries. Then every so often she goes off the rails.'

'In what kind of way?'

'In the kind of way that you'd expect of an Indian Army wife. That's what we call her, you know - 'the Colonel's Widow'. There was a disease among the dogs, hardpad, some time ago. She got very worked up over that. Then she wanted to start an orphanage, but the mission authorities said it would only make the Seychelloise more casual. She wanted to hold a public meeting. Luckily her crazes don't last long. She's a very good-natured creature. You'll be seeing quite a lot other, as a matter of fact. She lives near Northolme, and takes her lunches there.'

Northolme was a guest-house on the other side of the island where I was planning to spend the greater part of my seven weeks' visit to the Colony.

I was indeed to see quite a lot of her. Every day at lunch for seven weeks; under the worst conditions that is to say, with an attempt being made at general conversation by seven people sitting at solitary tables, talking across a room, each about five feet from the other; those lunches were relieved, however, by occasional visits to her bungalow.

It was a minute contraption: almost a 'prefab', except that it had a veranda and no labour-saving gadgets. Built of wood, roofed with corrugated iron, two-roomed, with a shower and a kitchenette, it was all she needed: it was all anyone required in the tropics. You do not need heavy upholstered furniture that damp and heat and cockroaches will eat away. You do not need pictures. You want your wall space to be windows so that every way you turn you can look out at the continually changing panorama of cloud and seascape against a foreground of palm and sand, of rock and mountain. All you need of a bungalow in the tropics is that it should be cool and clean and neat and rainproof. Hers was all of that.

She had light linen curtains and fibre mats. A few photographs; a collection of shells; a three-shelf bookcase. I glanced at it. A row of Book Society selections. I ran my eye along them. It is the fashion to sneer at Book Clubs: but glancing over the choices of a dozen years, I could see few among those I had not already read that I would not be glad to read. She was apologetic on their account. 'It's the best one can do out here, I had quite a library once, before I married; I left all my best books in England. I didn't want them ruined by the climate. The depository where they were stored was bombed.'

At the end of the top row was an uneven collection of volumes with stained and battered bindings - Palgrave's Golden Treasury the Everyman Shakespeare, the Oxford Book of English Verse, A Shropshire Lad, Dowson's Poems.

'I wonder how many copies of that there are in this colony", I said.

She smiled. 'I used to think him the greatest poet of all time. I used to write sonnets in his style.'

'Most of us have.'

'I got mine published.'

'Really. Where?'

'Vanity Fair.'

Vanity Fair. That was an echo from quite a long way back. In its own way it had had a rather special cachet. But my memory could not precisely place it. The tide had been used upon both sides of the Atlantic. It suggested Conde Nast. But that was in the 1920s, and in America. I could not remember when the English edition left the news-stands.

'Who was the editor then?' I asked.

'Frank Harris.'

I made a rapid calculation. Frank Harris held so many posts. The Evening News, the Fortnightly, the Saturday. Then just before World War I, that most improbable of ventures Hearth and Home with Hugh Kingsmill as his assistant. Vanity Fair must have been about 1906 [1907-10, in fact. AA]. That would place the Colonel's Widow in the middle sixties. Well, that tallied.

'Did you ever meet him?' she asked.

I shook my head. 'But I heard a good deal about him.'

When I arrived in April 1918, as a prisoner-of-war at the Kriegagefanginenlager, Karlsruhe, it was to find Hugh Kingsmill, who had been captured fifteen months earlier, a third of the way through a novel of which Frank Harris was, if not the hero, the central character. It was published later by Chapman & Hall under the title The Will to Love. It was a witty and satiric novel, and, had it been published a few years later when the public mind had been acclimatized by Aldous Huxley and Michael Aden to flippant satire it might have had a considerable success. It described the seduction by Harris of a schoolmaster's daughter, and ended with Harris blackmailing die father to the extent of £2,000. The picture of Harris is so vivid that when I hear people talk of Harris, I am confused between the Harris of fact and fiction. Maybe Kingsmill's Harris was the more real picture.

'I met him several times,' she said. 'I was just back from my finishing school in Paris. I sent him some poems. He asked me to call on him. Then he asked me out to lunch.'

'Where did you lunch?'

'The Café Royal.'

Yes, of course it would be the Café Royal, in the Domino Room, with its red plush banquettes, its mirrors, its gilt columns, its faded panels, and its frescoed ceiling; the Café Royal with all its memories of Wilde and Ruskin; and Harris, dapper and dark, declaiming in his great booming voice of the great men he had entertained there, dazzling her with Ills sense of power and importance, yet every now and again playing his other role of the unappreciated genius, ranting against the tycoons of Fleet Street, 'the Penguin Professors' who had no fire in their veins, who could never understand 'out of what dark forests of the tortured soul the sacred fires of art are lit'; then turning to the girl beside him, identifying her with his tirades. 'I can speak of all this to you, you will understand. I can tell it from your poems.'

'And I suppose he pointed out to you all the well-known, people that were lunching there.'

She nodded eagerly.

That was the fascinating thing about him, he knew everyone. Shaw, Wells, Middleton, George Moore; not only poets and painters, but politicians; men of affairs. He was wonderful company; I've never known anyone who could talk as he did.'

I nodded. They had all said that.

And underneath it all, yes, whatever anyone may say, underneath it all he was so fine,' she hurried on. 'He had such high ideals. I asked him once why he had written so little. He said that he did not care to publish anything that was not good enough to be set beside Maupassant and Turgenev.' She paused. She looked at me rather shyly 'What do people think of him nowadays?' she asked.

I hesitated. I was not certain if I was the right person to be asked that question I had just passed my fifty-second birthday and one of the more disconcerting of my recent experiences has been the discovery that topics and personalities that once formed part of the rough material of conversation now mean nothing at all to the younger generation. I suppose this happens to everyone at fifty. but possibly it has happened to me in a more marked degree By publishing a novel in my teens, I got off to a flying start; I found myself at the age of twenty associating with and meeting on equal terms men ten to fifteen years older than myself. Of the men I met most frequently in the early 1920s, not many are still alive. Harold Monro, Ralph Straus, C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, Luke Hansard, Norman Davey, W. J. Turner, Hugh Kingsmill, W. L. George, Stacy Aumonier, A. G. Macdonell, David Woodhouse, Edgar Walmisley - one by one they have gone.

In addition, the course of events was telescoped even more by the Second War than it had been by the first. During my last weeks in Mahe I had several lively and stimulating conversations with the wife of the new Administrator, Susan Bates. She is young, the mother of three children, vivid, pretty, with a lean, taut figure and a lean, taut mind. I was surprised at first by the contempt with which she dismissed the lighter novelists and playwrights of the 1930s. 'They've nothing to say to me,' she said. By our third meeting I had found a partial explanation for her disdain. Born in 1923, and sixteen years old when the war began, she had never known as an adult person any other world than that of rations, uniform, queues, barracks, short- ages, with happiness snatched at during the thirty-six hours of a week-end leave; brought up in the cold climate of necessity she had needed mentally something to try her teeth on, a hardier fare, a tougher nourishment than that which had sustained her seniors.

I have lived so much out of London since the autumn of 1941 that this was the first time I had met, long enough to cross swords with an Englishwoman both of her age and mental calibre. It was an exciting experience. I had not realized how different is the young Englishwoman who grew up during the war both from her immediate predecessors and from her contemporary opposite number in America. I asked Susan how she would grade Frank Harris.

'Never heard of him,' she answered.

Probably it would have been surprising if she had. Most books went out of print during the war; only a fortunate few have been re-issued or found their way into Pan, Penguin, and the Pocket Libraries. The only book by Frank Harris that is still obtainable - and that only overseas - is My Life and Loves, and maybe as soon as a sufficient quantity of titles plus cochon have been discovered, it will slide out of print. In a few years Harris may be a mere legend, to become possibly, in view of his frequent appearances in the memories of his contemporaries, the subject of a valedictory New Yorker profile, like the Wilson Mizner one. To have achieved as much is to have achieved something. But it is a great deal less than Harris expected for himself; or rather than what he appeared to be expecting for himself. One never knew with Harris. That was the whole problem about him. He was such a liar.

Hugh Kingsmill published later a biography of Harris, but I fancy that he got nearer to the real man in The Will to Love; he explained there not only Harris's deficiencies but also his qualities. He had Harris's pugnacity, his brashness, his vulgarity, his pushingness, his dishonesty, his boasting, his untruthfulness. Yet he had his other side, his moments of talent as a writer - 'Elder Conklin' is a real short story - his flashes of intuition as a critic - he was one of the first to see the man Shakespeare behind die dramatist; his sincere respect for literature. Harris's snobbery was fantastic, but he placed the artist high in his hierarehy; it was better to be a poet than a duke. There was again his disinterested desire to be of help to writers, his fits of loyalty - he was a good friend to Wilde - and above all there was his immense vitality.

Arriving in London at the age of twenty-six, unknown, half educated, penniless, he was within two years editor of the Evening News. Very little later as editor of the Saturday Review, then a very powerful Tory paper, he was entertaining in his house in Park Lane many of the most prominent social and political personalities of the day. He went everywhere and saw everyone, and yet found time and energy both for his own writing and the conduct of innumerable intrigues. It had been suggested that his rapid progress was based like Maupassant's Bet-Ami on his success with women, and his first wife was a wealthy woman. But he was more than just another adventurer. He was a man of immense potentialities: yet it was all ruined - or mainly ruined - by the lie within himself.

Wilde said of him, 'Frank has dined in every house in London- once.' He could capture ground with a sudden assault, but he could not hold it. He lost his friends, betrayed their trust-no one could rely on him; and that same noisiness, that ill-bred forcefulness that made him socially intolerable, spoilt him as a writer. His actual writing is poor. I did not realize quite how poor it was till I com- pared the French with the English version of My Life and Loves. His books are only readable because their subject matter is sensational. He had in The Man Shakespeare something new and definite to say. In several of his short stories he struck an exciting plot. In his Portraits he wrote intimately and indiscreetly of persons about whom one is inquisitive. Unfortunately you cannot believe a word he says.

His anecdotes about Maupassant's priapism and Carlyle's impotence are typical. He takes two rumours which probably have a basis in fact and makes them the subject of a confession. The men who are reported to have made these confessions are no longer in the world to contradict him or defend themselves. And who could believe the scene where he pretends to have been completely ignorant of Wilde's inclinations until the scandal broke? His memoirs are valueless as history. If he survives as a legend, as part of a pattern, as a motif in die mosaic of literary history during the close of the nineteenth and the opening of the twentieth centuries - that is the most that can be hoped for. But his effect in 1906 on a twenty-year-old poetess must have been apocalyptic. He was then in the middle fifties. Though his political career was ruined, his literary reputation was still untarnished. He had not yet alienated many of his more worth-while friends. He was, however, conscious of the tide's turn against him. He needed the adulation of the young to restore his self-esteem. He took trouble over the very young.

'Did you always lunch at the Café Royal?' I asked her.

'Except the last time. We lunched at Kettner's then.' She paused, hesitated. "Is Kettner's going still?' she asked. It was very flourishing, I told her.

'Is it still the same kind of place?'

'I suppose it is.'

'He took me to a private room.'

'I'm not sure if you'd find those still.'

Dinners in private rooms in restaurants went out with the modern flat. I saw the tail-end of their vogue. They would seem very unhygienic to a generation that is used to the centrally heated amenities of the modem apartment building, but there was a rakish rococo air about the whole procedure - the curtained stairway, the discreet waiters, the eighteenth-century engravings, the chaise-longue - that provided its own special stimulus; married couples got a kick out of going there and being mistaken for what they weren't.

'If that was your last lunch, I gather it wasn't a success,' I said.

She smiled, then flushed. 'I'm afraid he must have thought me very childish; girls weren't so sophisticated then. Ann Veronica seemed a very daring book. And besides, that room; it was tiny; I felt so big and clumsy. He was a little man, you know.'

She paused, smiled wryly. 'I must have been a disappointment to him. He never asked me out again. But he printed my poems: the poems I sent him afterwards. I was very happy about that. I should have been miserable if I'd thought he only accepted them because lie had thought I was the kind of girl who might-' She checked; there was an abstracted look upon her face. 'Did you read My Life and Loves'?' she asked.

I nodded.

'They say, don't they, that the things which you regret in middle age are not the things you've done but the things you haven't done. That's not always true, you know. I was so glad I hadn't, when I read that book. I used to wonder sometimes when I read his other books and when I read about him, whether if I had behaved differently he might not have been a different person. There was so much that was fine in him. It all seemed to be going to waste. I might have saved him. But when I read that book, oh, it was all so materialistic, all that love-making and no conception of what love might be. I realized that I couldn't ever have made the slightest difference. It was too late, or I was the wrong person. I don't know which. Anyhow, I was very glad I hadn't.'

'You never saw him again, not after that last lunch?'

She shook her head. 'Very soon after that I went out to India: my sister was married to a civil servant.'

'You did not say good-bye?'

'I didn't tell him I was going. I dramatized myself. I pictured myself writing a tremendous poem on the way out. He'd be astonished to get an envelope in my handwriting with an Indian postmark. Then he'd read the poem. He'd be even more astonished. He'd feel guilty and ashamed. "I never realized she was capable of that," he'd think. My next poems would be better still. He'd be impatient to get me back. He'd write me beseeching letters. I'd go on postponing my return. That's how I'd punish him, for his own good. You know how a young girl daydreams.'

'And it didn't turn out that way at all?'

She laughed. 'The third day out I met the man I married.'

'And you wrote no more poems?'

'I wrote no more poems.'

 

Her bungalow was only five minutes' walk from Northolme. Most weeks I would drop in there for a gossip. Sometimes after lunch she would take her coffee on my veranda. Our conversation always came round to the same topics, the poets and personalities of die Edwardian decade. She could not ask me too many questions, about Wells and Bennett and Ford Madox Hueffer, and those 'left-overs' from the '90s - Symons, Le Gallienne, Davidson. What had happened to them all? 'I've not talked in this way for forty years,' she said.

It was probably in the main for that reason that now she talked of them so voraciously. But also it was in part, I think, because the early part of her life was now at the end becoming more real to her than the long middle section. In The Linden Tree J. B. Priestley had a moving conversation between an old man and a young girl, in which something was said about truth being found among the very young and the very old; they were nearer to 'the way in and the way out'. Perhaps 'the Colonel's Widow' was becoming again the young girl who had written Dowsonian sonnets. I began to wonder which was mattering more to her in retrospect - the long stretch of worthily spent years when she had been an irreproachable mem-sahib, or the months when she had lunched with a rake in the Domino Room at the Café Royal.

How long had it all gone on? I asked her. About a year. And how often had they met? Nine times. She was living in the country it had not been easy for her to get up; she was closely chaperoned. Her parents would have been shocked to know that she was lunching with a married man. There was no telephone in her parents' house. Very few private houses did have telephones. 'But of course we wrote each other letters.' Or rather, I fancy, she wrote him letters and he acknowledged them.

It was not difficult to picture the situation. The poems that even though imitative had a quality of freshness; that would make an editor say: 'Well, there's a hundred to one chance she may amount to something'; poems that were promising enough, since they were signed with a girl's name, to make a man like Harris feel curious about their author. As she came into the office, a large wholesome-looking girl with fine eyes, fresh colouring and an engaging mixture of shyness and self-confidence, it was easy to guess how Harris thought, 'Yes, this is worth my time.'

He had many irons in the fire, so many plans and projects, literary, financial, amatory. But he was always ready to slip in one more iron, waiting for the appropriate moment. He was in no hurry. And then one day a mood of irritation, of loneliness, the need to rehabilitate himself in his own esteem would make him decide. 'It's high time I brought that thing to a head.' So he had booked the private room at Kettner's.

She had never been more than a sideshow; one scene in an un- important sideshow, and when she had been 'childish' he had shrugged his shoulders. There were so many who were not childish. He probably barely noticed the cessation of her manuscripts and letters. Within two years if he had remembered her name, he would have found it hard with the mind's eye to recall her features. He would have been surprised could he have foreseen that half a century hence, in 1950, the year for which he had prophesied this own apotheosis, almost the only person south of the Red Sea to whom he was still a living influence was the girl be had lunched once at Kettner's.

She kept referring to him in her conversation. 'As Frank used to say ...', 'Frank told me once...' All her original observations were put in that way into quotation marks.

'The artist suffers for the eventual benefit of mankind. The crucifixion is a symbol of the artist's treatment by the masses.'

'That sounds like Frank Harris,' I remarked. She flushed, 'Well it's true, isn't it? And after they've persecuted him all his life, they bury him in the Abbey.'

A direct echo out of Harris. He had set the imprint of his mind on her. I thought of the heroine of Hugh Kingsmill's novel. Though he had altered all the circumstances, he told me whom he had had in mind. He showed me the letter of congratulation that she wrote him when the book was published. I have followed her career. It has brought her renown and riches, a successful marriage and proud progeny. How much of it does she owe to Harris; how often does she think of Harris, and in what way? So I brooded as I listened to her predecessor repeating sentiments whose truth had become discredited because they had been mouthed so often by one whose whole philosophy was warped with self-deception.

It was on that note of query that I had planned to end this sketch. I bad half written it in my mind, during my walks along the shore, when something altogether unexpected happened; one of those storms in a teacup that make life in a small community at the same time stimulating and exasperating.

A guest at her house had noticed in the kitchen a collection of spills made out of the pages of a book. Opening out the spill he had noticed that the book in question was The Struggle for World Power - a sociological study written by John Strachey, in his pro-Moscow period. 'That's an expensive way of making spills,' he said.

'It's all that book's worth,' she retorted. 'To be burnt page by page.'

Her guest repeated the incident at the club. It quickly went the rounds. Finally it reached the ears of the Librarian. 'But that's a book she took out of the club library. She said she'd lost it. She was very apologetic. She paid the purchase price of it. Pretty decent of her, I thought, as we'd had it for years, and it was half in pieces. She lost two other books at the same time. She paid for both of them as well.'

'What were the books?'

'I can't remember now. I'll have to check.'

They were both Left Book Club publications. The inference was obvious. She had been weeding out the Library.

"I wonder if she's been doing the same thing at the Carnegie?" someone asked.

Enquiries were made; and it was found she had. Das Kapital had gone, and John Reid's Ten Days that Shook the World.

A member of the Club Committee called on her. She made no attempt to conceal her action. She admitted it and proudly. 'When you see a poisonous snake you kill it. Books like that should be kept under lock and key.' The club was on the whole indignant. Who was this silly old fool to decide what they could read and what they couldn't? That was the worst of these Indian Army people. Thought they owned the universe; all that mem-sahib nonsense.

So they argued. But something assured me that it was not the mem-sahib side of her that had turned a Left Book Club treatise into spills.

Next time I saw her I asked her what had started her on this anti-Communist campaign. 'Their censorship," she said, 'their muzzling of the artist. There's no health in a country where an artist isn't free to speak out of his own heart.'

Muzzling of the artist. That was not 'the Colonel's Widow' speaking: any more than it had been 'the Colonel's Widow' who had wanted to found an orphanage. Her resentment sprang from a far earlier training: a loud brash voice booming across a restaurant.

'But aren't you yourself imposing your own censorship?' I said. 'Hasn't the other side a right to express its own opinions?'

She shook her head. 'Not when it's the voice of evil speaking. There was a fierce, resolute expression in her eye. At that moment she was a Colonel's Widow. They'll expect me to resign from the club I suppose. But I don't care,' she said. 'It'll be a nuisance and I shall miss if, but I mustn't let myself worry about that. She paused, and her expression changed, became soft and tender, so that for a moment I could see a flash of the girl that she had been - the girl who had written poetry, who had listened adoringly to the booming voice. - 'I don't care whatever any of them say. I'm right, I know I am, Frank would have said I was.'

Afterword

What would Harris actually have thought of the actions of the Colonel's widow? Here's an extract from what he says in My Life and Loves about Das Kapital :

The first book, indeed, all the theoretical part, seemed to be brain-cobwebs loosely spun; but the second book and the whole criticism of the English factory system was one of the most relentless and convincing indictments I had ever seen in print. No one who ignores it should be listened to on social questions.

I'm not sure he'd have entirely minded being so misunderstood, though: it would have given him the chance to compare himself, as he often liked to do, with that other misread and persecuted figure: Jesus Christ.

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