Skip to main content

Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris and Oscar Wilde


According to Philippa Pullar, Robert Sherard was 'obsessed by Wilde'. He regarded Harris' biography as a travesty, and in a spirit of outrage he wrote this book to expound his view. His own judgement, though, was clouded by prejudice and thus his debunking of Harris itself requires a sceptical reading.

Sherard was a friend of Wilde's and one of his early biographers, hero-worshipping Wilde to the point of insanity, despite being by nature vehemently anti-homosexual. Sherard had met Harris and had some respect for him, particularly for sticking by Wilde at his most unpopular, but when he read Harris' life of Wilde in its French translation he was appalled.

What most appears to have triggered Sherard's fury against Harris' biography was Bernard Shaw's very public endorsement of it: Shaw's recorded opinion that it was 'the best life of Wilde' would, Sherard felt, give it far more credibility than it deserved; so accordingly he set about righting what he saw as Shaw and Harris' great wrong against Wilde's memory.

His book is quite substantial and its argument too detailed to deal with properly here. It has a strong air of mania about it, written in language heightened and odd, with each point belaboured at length amidst a lot of rather pointless digression. Wilde had once with a sense of pity described Sherard as 'insane' in one of his letters to Robert Ross, a verdict bolstered by the tone of this work.

Nevertheless, Sherard did succeed in putting together a fairly strong case, whose principal points may be summarised as follows:

  1. That Harris had largely plagiarised Sherard's own biography of Wilde as well as works by Gide and others.

    Yes. Sherard claimed that he would not have minded this had Harris' work not been so flawed in other respects; the charge of plagiarism is fairly made: Harris was not a great one for original research and Sherard prints passages from his and Harris' lives of Wilde which are convincingly parallel.

  2. That Harris had exaggerated and invented episodes of Wilde's homosexuality to make his book more luridly scandalous.

    Not entirely. Harris undoubtedly emphasised the sexual aspects of Wilde's life, but Sherard, who had not even suspected that Wilde was a homosexual until his trial - and at times seemed to entertain the idea that even yet he somehow was not one - was averse to any description of Wilde's sex life. Harris may have invented much of what he recounts but Wilde's letters to Robert Ross and others reveal that he was an active homosexual for much more of his life than Sherard will allow.

  3. That Harris had embroidered his own part in events to make himself appear more important in Wilde's life.

    Yes. Harris certainly was not present at many of the incidents where he purports to have been; and, as Sherard showed, Harris in some cases copied details of events from others' works, substituting himself for the actual participants.

  4. That Harris had made himself appear more lavishly generous to Wilde than in fact he was.

    Not proven. Wilde's letters show Harris to have been his frequent benefactor, much more so than Sherard allowed. Possibly - even probably - there was some exaggeration, but it needs a more careful examination of the evidence than Sherard's.

  5. That Harris had omitted certain important episodes of Wilde's life

    Yes. Given Harris' lack of research it is not surprising that he omitted much of significance. There were several periods in Wilde's life that Harris knew little about and which he skated over in his book. (Interestingly, Richard Ellman makes the same criticism of Sherard's biography of Wilde).

  6. That Harris had misdrawn Wilde's character by making him appear much more weak and degenerate than he was.

    Not proven. Wilde could indeed be weak and self-indulgent, as his later letters show. Whether he let his guard down to Harris so much when they were alone together is of course impossible to establish, though it would be fair to assume that Harris' recollection would not be entirely reliable. Sherard would anyway not have been satisfied with anything less than a saintly portrayal of his hero.

  7. That Harris had wrongly labelled Lord Alfred Douglas as Wilde's corrupter.

    Not proven. Douglas almost certainly encouraged a more reckless expression of Wilde's sexuality, and introduced him to Alfred Taylor's circle where he first met 'rough trade', but while it is arguable that Wilde would have gone that route anyway, Sherard actually believed that Douglas had had no homosexual relationship with Wilde at all: Harris was somewhat closer to the truth.

  8. That Harris had also wilfully misrepresented other members of Wilde's family and circle, in particular his brother Willie.

    Not entirely. While some of what Harris said was undoubtedly innaccurate, Sherard's view was that any criticism of Wilde's family was out of place; as if any biography of Wilde should be a tribute, to be posthumously vetted by Wilde's ghost - with Sherard acting as spiritual medium.

Sherard's argument with Harris - and it has to be said in his defence that there are many errors of fact in Harris' life of Wilde - would be a great deal more convincing if someone saner than he had edited out all the irrelevances. For example, he makes great play of the fact that Harris had apparently attempted to interest various people in making a film of Wilde's life and that Harris had inflated the sales of his book. But Sherard was anyway unable to weigh evidence objectively: where he was unable to find confirmation of something that Harris said, he assumed Harris was a liar; when Harris quoted a letter from Wilde that contradicted Sherard's view, it must have been a forgery.

And according to Sherard Harris' errors were all malicious lies rather than honest mistakes; the irony of this is that Sherard's book is itself full of errors - no doubt honestly made. For example Sherard pooh-poohs Harris' claim to have been Wilde's host in the 1883-84 period, saying that the dinners must have been meagre as Harris was a mere impoverished reporter on the Evening News: in fact at the time Harris was the editor of that paper.

A couple of further examples: Sherard dismisses out of hand the idea that Harris had a boat at Erith ready to take Wilde to France before his final trial, but Richard Ellman in his life of Wilde says that Yeats' Autobiography and Ada Leverson's Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde and Reminiscences of their Author back Harris' story to some degree; Sherard also spends some pages arguing that Esterhazy, the villain of the Dreyfus affair, would never have confessed his guilt to Wilde and Harris over dinner, but Ellman again produces evidence that this event occurred - albeit Harris was not actually there. (Presumably Harris had heard the story from Wilde at some time; as usual in his version of it he was present at the time).

Despite Sherard's ramblings and unreliability there is much of interest in this book, not least the observation - new to me - that Frederic Carrel's malicious John Johns was largely based on Maupassant's Bel-Ami. But for a more balanced assessment of Harris' life of Wilde, I would advise referring to Ellman.

Selected editions
T. Werner Laurie