This is in many ways an excellent biography by a young writer which presents a readily digestible picture of Douglas' life. Where it touches on Frank Harris, though, it is more useful for presenting Douglas' view of the events in which they were both involved than as a dispassionate summary: Murray tends to lean on Douglas' own accounts in these matters. He is scrupulous in citing his sources, however, which at least makes it easier to make up ones own mind as to where the truth lies.
A life in three parts
Douglas' life was a fascinating one, which might be summed up as occurring in three distinct phases. In the first phase, of his childhood and young manhood, he was the spoilt child, who grew into an enthusiastic homosexual and became the lover and companion of Oscar Wilde. In his reaction to Wilde's death, however, he underwent a conversion to a vehemently intolerant combination of heterosexuality, Christianity, political conservatism and anti-semitism, in which cause he took to publishing violent attacks on his supposed enemies, including former friends such as Robert Ross and More Adey. The third phase of his life came after he was imprisoned for making a libel against Winston Churchill: somehow prison exorcised his anger and hatred against Wilde and others: he came out a gentler, kinder soul, at last able to admit his own faults and tolerate those of others.
Murray is particularly interested in Douglas the poet, and includes a number of his verses. Judging by what is printed here Douglas was a limited talent who chose a similarly limited form - the Petrarchan sonnet - to work in. He was capable on occasion of turning out something that touches the reader, but too often he was vituperative or bitter, and was not always successful in overcoming the rhythmic constraints of his chosen form, one that anyway rarely seems natural in English.
Douglas versus Harris
But to turn to the subject of Harris, Murray lays five specific charges at his door which I feel are worth dealing with in some detail. He says:-
- That Harris swindled Douglas out of £2,000 by selling him worthless shares. The shares in question were in Harris' hotel business. Harris' deception was in allowing Douglas to think he would be a co-investor with Harris, while in fact these were Harris' own shares. At the time, Harris sincerely expected his business to be a success but was in desperate need for cash, hence this manoeuvre. Not so much fraud as sharp practice, but hardly Harris' finest hour - one can understand Douglas' anger.
- That on one occasion Douglas and Harris had a physical altercation of some kind. Who instigated the fight is unclear, though it would seem that Harris had the better of it. If, as Murray suggests, it was Douglas' grievances over the Wilde biography that were behind it then it is more likely that Douglas attacked Harris, in which case he can earn little sympathy (Harris was also twenty years older than Douglas at the time, as Aleister Crowley's fictionalised eyewitness account points out). Murray makes two comments, about Harris "being a liar since birth" and "being always a bully" that are hardly justified by this incident - especially since he refrains from similarly characterising Douglas, who at this time of his life was busily attacking real and imagined enemies, frequently by concocting or repeating outrageous libels. (It is true however that Douglas eventually repented his lies, while Harris did not).
- That Harris stole the idea for his play Mr and Mrs Daventry from Wilde. It is almost bizarre that Murray would think this, since the facts are hardly open to dispute. Wilde sold the idea to Harris - cheaply, it is true; Harris wanted Wilde to write the first act but Wilde could, or would, not, so Harris ended up writing the entire play himself. After it was produced he found that Wilde had sold the same idea in one form or another to a number of different people, to whom he was forced to pay compensation. Wilde then complained that Harris had taken away one of his means of getting income! Would Harris have used the idea if he had known that it was one of Wilde's money-making schemes? Knowing how generous Harris was to Wilde - when he was flush - I doubt it.
- That Harris libelled Douglas in his biography of Wilde. In his book, Harris describes Douglas as insolent, bold, reckless and spoiled; and implies that he was a fatally bad influence on Wilde. Of course Douglas could not be expected to like this picture of himself, but it is not inconsistent with the facts as we know them, nor with the views of others, including Richard Ellmann, Wilde's most eminent recent biographer. One might also mention that Harris, unlike Douglas, had consistently defended Wilde's reputation. Of course, there are lies in the Oscar Wilde biography but these are generally matters of Harris exaggerating his part in events.
- That Harris behaved badly over the Oscar Wilde biography when he wanted to get it published in England. Harris knew that Douglas would sue him for libel if he attempted to publish it in England, so attempted a reconciliation. Harris wanted to publish the book as it stood, correcting the bad impression of Douglas through a new preface and footnotes. Initially the negotiations went well, but the preface was the sticking point - an initial version that Douglas was happy with was then rewritten by Harris. Douglas took umbrage and had the original preface published separately, including Harris' contributions, without his permission.
In trying to determine what happened I have compared Murray's account of this with that of Tobin and Gertz and they contradict each other, but each reproduces only part of an extensive correspondence (some of which of course may have been lost). What seems to be the case is that Douglas and Harris each accused the other of making libellous assertions, while both were guilty of lack of tact and ill-tempered posturing. Certainly neither comes out of the affair well. There is more about this business on my Harris and Wilde page.
At the Café Royal
A final note, on a famous and well-documented incident. This occurred just before Wilde's fatal law suit against Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde asked Harris to testify on his behalf and arranged to meet him at the Café Royal to discuss the matter. Also present were Bernard Shaw and Douglas. Harris told Wilde that the law suit was a terrible error, accurately predicting that it would fail and then expose him to prosecution. Shaw agreed with Harris' view. Harris advised Wilde to drop the case and go abroad instead, but Douglas grew angry and accused Harris and Shaw of being no friends of Wilde. Douglas and Wilde then left. Murray makes the extraordinary assertion that "as it was, Shaw and Harris came to see that their advice would have been good in the short term for Wilde, though perhaps not for his reputation in the eyes of future generations". Given that their advice, if followed, might have saved Wilde from two years in prison under a brutal regime, the consequent ruin of his health, the collapse of his marriage, separation from his children and an early death, this seems a heartless viewpoint, to say the least.
Douglas later contended (in his note that Harris reproduced in the 1930 edition of Oscar Wilde) that if he had been called in the libel case Wilde would have won it. His belief was founded on the assumption that he could show his father to be a bully and a madman and thereby win the sympathy of the jury, even though he knew that the supposedly libellous accusation against Wilde was true. This belief was reinforced by his early successes in the law courts on his own account. But this is the view of an egomaniac - Harris was right that the risk to Wilde was too great. For all his protestations, Douglas' eagerness to prosecute was more motivated by his violent animosity towards his father than a consideration of Wilde's best interests.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the never-ending dispute between Harris and Douglas, Murray's biography is always lucid and readable. If he is not always sceptical enough in his interpretation of his sources - especially when the source is Douglas himself - that is a fault he shares with many more established biographers.
Scribbled by Alfred Armstrong 12 years 1 month ago