Frank Harris

Year: 
1975

This is undoubtedly the best biography we have to date, if we judge it by how close we are brought to the historical truth about Harris. Pullar evidently performed a huge amount of research in the course of writing this book, and the results show on every page. Where there are contradictions in accounts of events, and this happens more often than not with Harris, she shows us if not a final truth, for that is often impossible to discern, but in which direction the truth may lie. If she sometimes may err in giving Harris the benefit of the doubt, then that is a corrective to so many previous versions in which Harris ended up always painted as the villain.

Why is Harris' life-story so difficult to tell accurately? The events did not happen so very long ago, and he was so memorable and so visible that there are a multitude of recollections of him, by notable individuals often considered reliable witnesses. Of course Harris himself must stand as the principal unreliable witness: there is plenty of evidence of his enfabulation of himself. He seemed to need to be perceived as even more extraordinary, even more incredible, than he was in actuality. He had a core of insecurity that he grew into an a monstrous pearl of vanity. One of his greatest talents was as an actor, and he played a single role: that of HARRIS.

But Harris' continual reworking of himself does not explain all the incompatible accounts of events throughout his life. The noted tendency of memory to mislead is insufficient explanation in this case. Between the witnesses there is some fundamental agreement: all describe his physical appearance in much the same terms; his shortness of stature is mentioned, his dandyish, somewhat nouveau riche mode of dress, his booming, deep, magnificent voice, the rather ugly face half-hidden by the caddish moustache. All agree on his ability to talk, overpoweringly, though opinion is divided as to whether this was an attractive trait. And here is the essence of the thing: Harris attracted and repelled in almost equal measure. Such a man as he was, free of speech and uncaring of the listener's sensibilities, must make enemies. Enemies, great and small, will take every chance to slight the reputation of the subject of their enmity. They will magnify his flaws. They will deny his merits. They will spin, to use the mot de nos jours, every yarn so that it becomes the rope with which to hang him.

As an example, take the case of Wilde and the missing money.  Just before Wilde was due to be released from prison, Harris promised him a cheque for £500, but in the event had to withdraw his promise. Wilde was furious and wrote a rancorous letter to his friend More Adey including the words 'The Frank Harrises of life are a dreadful type. I hope to see no more of them'. To quote Pullar: "This passage has often been quoted to illustrate what a cad Harris was. But previous writers on Harris have failed to point out how bitter and egocentric Wilde was, and how everyone else comes in for equally vituperative attacks. It is also not indicated that Harris' financial affairs improved toward the end of May and that Wilde wrote to him from the Hôtel Sandwich in Dieppe: 'Just a line to thank you for the lovely clothes and for the generous cheque...'". Other examples abound, but she is not merely interested in rehabilitating Harris: for instance while Vincent Brome manages to convince himself that Harris had indeed been a cowboy, she argues successfully that this was highly unlikely. (Brome's argument that Harris must have had the experiences he describes because they are so realistic is ultimately specious in any case - have all great writers of Westerns actually lived the life? One thinks of J. T. Edson, who wrote dozens of cowboy novels without leaving his native Yorkshire).

Pullar is no portrait painter: if we see Harris clearer then it is largely due to her efforts in removing inconsistencies. Her efforts must have been exhausting. In any case she has earned the lifelong gratitude of all Harrisians for her pains in transforming Harris from a fabulous monster back into a believable human being.

(Philippa Pullar died of cancer in 1997, as I discovered from an online article about her last days.)

Selected editions: 
Publisher: 
Hamish Hamilton
Year: 
1975
Country: 
UK
Pagination: 
xii, 419
Binding: 
Cloth.
Notes: 
Publisher: 
Penguin
Year: 
2001
Country: 
UK
Binding: 
Paperback.
Notes: