Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, Dodo Press, 2007
Out of the many biographies written about Oscar Wilde, one can find many an example of great literary and historical value and, as well, numerous instances of libel and slander that serve for nothing more than to degrade the author and ridicule his works. Being Mr. Wilde such a controversial figure, and one who suffered a meteoric fall from grace, it is no surprise that the variety of works concerning him differ so much in content and in degree of appreciation. He was one of the most talked about men of his day, a flamboyant example of the man-about-town—an author, indeed, who achieved a success almost unparalleled since the days when George Gordon Byron reigned over English and European letters.
Wilde was ever mingling with individuals and parties who rejoiced in jotting down everything he said and did; one of them was his friend Frank Harris, an author and journalist in his day, who was, as well, familiar and even intimate with numerous well-known figures of the late Victorian scene. It is no surprise then that he would be one of many to publish a biography on Wilde, this one under the title, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions.
Mr. Harris wrote his biography around the beginning of the twentieth century, not long after the celebrated author had passed away in Paris having completed, in England, a two year sentence of hard labor, on account of being found guilty of “gross indecency” before a Victorian court of law. Whether the work was well received or not it is impossible for the author of this review to confirm. Vyvyan Holland, Wilde’s son, once wrote that Boris Brasol composed one of the only two carefully considered lives of his father; perhaps Harris’s is the second one. That it was popular amongst readers there is no doubt of it, since Wilde was always the darling interest of the general populace and the aristocracy alike.
Harris’s biography covers the whole tenure of a lifetime spent in the throes of brilliancy, even when Wilde found himself at times in some of the darkest corners of the British Isles.
With a journalistic and anecdotal approach that introduces the work to the reader with a certain intimate tone that readily attracts and encourages one to continue, Harris begins by offering a glimpse of the life surrounding Wilde’s parents a few years before his birth. He makes a compelling case in showing how Oscar’s mother, Jane Wilde—an Irish nationalist, a poet herself, and a woman of considerable revolutionary talents—was the first to make a profound impression on the young aesthete, one that would ultimately drive him to pick up the pen and commit his mind to paper.
Some years later, when Wilde had taken his degree at Oxford, he traveled to Greece to heighten his sensibility and his appreciation for beauty and art, and finally settled in London, resolute in attaining literary success. From this point on, Mr. Harris, and many other well-known and not so well known personages, jump into the scene and become almost permanent fixtures in Wilde’s life, although none, obviously, is as ubiquitous as the young Lord Alfred Douglas, who would share a violent and intimate relation with the man who found him irresistibly attractive.
Wilde’s life in London is described sometimes in broad strokes and sometimes in minute detail, yet, above all, through and through. It is especially gratifying to read Mr. Harris’s recollections of Wilde as the conversationalist. These passages are certainly delightful, and do more justice in showing the character and temperament of Wilde than what any other biographer could do had he read every composition written by the eminent author and made use of all his imaginary faculties to render a portrait of the man. Winston Churchill was once asked whom he would like to meet and talk with in afterlife, and he replied, without hesitation, “Oscar Wilde”. After reading Mr. Harris’s recreation of Wilde’s virtuoso performances at parties and salons, one can begin to understand why.
In all cases, it appears that the relationship between Harris and Wilde was of a volatile nature, subject to change at the slightest turn of events. Mr. Harris does well to say that there were moments in Wilde’s life when he was guided by an almost divine generosity, but that they would inevitably subside during one season or another, and Wilde would become impertinent, vain, and somewhat grotesque in demeanor. These ungainly traits, Mr. Harris recalls, would become most acute when Lord Alfred Douglas was orbiting around Wilde’s sphere; it is obvious that the biographer never really did harbor much affection for the young and effeminate poet.
Having met Wilde when his theater productions were at the height of their popularity, it is only natural that Mr. Harris would dedicate a portion of his biography to relate not only how they affected the public taste at large but also to acknowledge the genius behind these productions. Certainly Mr. Harris had no qualms in admitting that, in spite of Wilde’s flagrant displays of flamboyancy at the time he was writing and producing these plays, he was consumed by a brilliancy that was impossible to deny. Wilde was in possession of an extremely receptive mind that could turn ordinary London life into a dazzling spectacle, he relates. From this, it is evident that, at times, Wilde could not separate the events of his life from the ones of his theater productions. In fact, as Mr. Harris describes, this could have been the factor that drove Wilde to become intimate with vulgar and lowlife individuals, since his plays were entirely void of characters of that nature.
Mr. Harris then naturally arrives at the events that led to the trial in which Wilde found himself trapped and at the mercy of the Marquees of Queensbury, John Douglas, father of young Lord Alfred, who made a resolute effort to humiliate him publicly and to send him to prison. As Mr. Harris describes it, Justice was never on the side of Wilde, not even from the very beginning. The trial was merely a facade to shatter Wilde prior to the iron door being slammed in front of his face. It is impressive how Mr. Harris managed to remember almost every episode of this most unsavory charade, though it could be deduced that the impact it had on the mind of those witnessing such events was not subtle enough to be forgotten easily. He gives Wilde credit for his composure during this ordeal, but makes it redundantly clear that there were moments where he blundered by letting himself be carried away by his own vanity. Genius, when not particularly understood or encouraged by the general populace is, as Mr. Harris alludes, a very dangerous attribute for a man to possess.
Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions is dotted with as much opinion from Mr. Harris about Wilde as with Wilde’s opinion about himself. In spite of this, there is enough room left to calibrate ones views about Oscar Wilde. If those views were of the enthusiastic kind—or of a fanatical degree, for that matter—then the work will temper them. If they were unflattering—or if repulsion was the dominant feeling—then the work will serve to show that even when Wilde could not avoid expressing himself, at times, in a manner that was not of the liking of the public, there were other traits that spoke volumes about his generosity and love for those around him.
Mr. Harris ends the work in a tone that confirms his desire for no other writer to ever face the shame, the punishment, and ultimately the utter humiliation that Oscar Wilde endured during and after his trial. He ends the biography on a bitter tone, and with good reason, since here was a man, a contemporary of Mr. Harris, who was endowed with rare gifts only to be punished for making use of them.
Perhaps critics and academics will not rank Frank Harris’s biography amongst the best that could be found on Oscar Wilde. However, it is one of the most intimate, and it will truly inspire the reader to reconsider the life of Wilde. And it will prove, as Mr. Harris so sincerely expresses, that the works and life of Oscar Wilde will do more for the reputation of England than all the conquests of a general, a soldier, or a king could ever accomplish.
By: John J. Carraway
Image: Aubrey Beardsley (1897), “The Climax”