Thoughts On Frank Harris’ Biography “Oscar Wilde”

When: 1915
Where: England
Who: Frank Harris, Author of Oscar Wilde by Frank Harris, page 71Dell Publishing Co. Inc., 750 Third Avenue, New York 17, NY., First Dell printing – October 1960, Printed in the U.S.A.

Frank Harris, in “Oscar Wilde”, page 71.
“The road to power or influence in England is full of pitfalls and far too arduous for those who have neither high birth nor wealth to help them. The natural inequality of men instead of being mitigated by law or custom is everywhere strengthened and increased by a thousand effete social distinctions. Even in the best class where a certain easy familiarity reigns there is circle above circle, and the summits are isolated by heredity.”

I am reading this biography of Oscar Wilde with mixed feelings. This biography is not a sugary affair, and the quotations are ones I had not heard repeated by the popular media. The book paints a picture, and I will share some of the passages, that impressed themselves upon me, at the end of this post.   I do have some sympathy for the character Oscar Wilde, who suffered as a scapegoat. But, aside from that, I found that the more I read about Oscar Wilde in this book, the less I thought of him as a member of the human species. My whelming opinion is not at all concerned with his sexual preferences or activities, I take no issue with right to choice. We are all entitled, in my opinion, to our right to choice; and that is where Oscar presents a paradox to my way of thinking.

Oscar Wilde seems of a type in my opinion, that I knew well in my university days.  A common type this, found in the halls of academia; from a a privileged background, harbouring tolerance only when afforded the postiion of largess and sometimes not even then. There was no tolerance for any person or line of thought that did not render due deference to invisible and rigid class distinctions.  An example as to what I refer: An award winning scholar at the Univeristy said to me, as we walked down a pleasant tree lined street, of a homeless man in the gutter near the scholars affluent home, that the homeless man was “all right”, because he “knew his place in the scheme of things”.  The scholar thought himself the pinnacle of tolerance as he uttered these words, with great pride of self. Thankfully the man in the gutter did not hear this, a small blessing.

That was one of the many things I wish I had not heard during my years of graduate study, only because I wish that the attitudes did not exist; but since they did exist, I was also glad that I had heard them, so as to be aware of the machine that is called “education”.  But I digress, for this story, although not all that far from privileged circles, within which Oscar Wilde circulated, is not about Oscar; to me though, the story does imply the ubiquitous and largely invisible nature of class distinctions in a Canadian University.

Some interesting quotes concerning Oscar Wilde:

Sir Edward Sullivan, quoted by Frank Harris, memories of school days, Trinity College, Dublin, in “Oscar Wilde” page 26.
“When in the head class together, we with two other boys were in the town of Enniskillen one afternoon and formed part of an audience who were listening to a street orator.  One of us, for the fun of the thing, got near the speaker and with a stick knocked his hat off and then ran for home followed by the other three.  Several of the listeners, resenting the impertinence, gave chase, and Oscar in his hurry collided with an aged cripple and threw him down – a fact which was duly reported to the boys when we got safely back.  Oscar was afterwards heard telling how he found his way barred by an angry giant with whom he fought through many rounds and whom he eventually left for dead in the road after accomplishing prodigies of valour in his doubtable opponent.  Romantic imagination was strong in him even in those schoolboy days; but there, was always something in his telling of such a tale to suggest that he felt his hearers were not really being taken in…”

Oscar Wilde to Frank Harris, in “Oscar Wilde” page 69.
“The poor are poor creatures… and must always be hewers of wood and drawers of water.  They are merely the virgin soil out of which men of genius and artists grow like flowers.  Their function is to give birth to genius and nourish it.  They have no other raison d’être… Don’t talk to me, Frank, about the hardships of the poor.  The hardships of the poor are necessities, but talk to me of the hardships of men of genius, and I could weep tears of blood…”

Oscar Wilde to Frank Harris, in “Oscar Wilde” page 83
“The pleasure men take in denigration of the gifted is one of the puzzles of life to those who are not envious.”

Aubrey Beardsley, quoted by Frank Harris, memories of school days, Trinity College, Dublin, in “Oscar Wilde” page 87
“…Imperial Rome, in the Rome of the later Caesars. “Don’t forget the simple pleasure of that life, Oscar”, said Aubrey, “Nero set Christians on fire, like large tallow candles, the only light Christians have ever been known to give,” he added in a languid, gentle voice.”… ”
“the naked expression of lust and cruelty in Beardsley’s drawings showed that direct frankness displeased him, for he could hardly object to the qualities which were making his own Salome world famous.”

Frank Harris on English Justice, in “Oscar Wilde” page 150
“The Lord, the millionaire and the genius have all the same reason for standing up for each other, and this reason usually effective. Everyone knows that in England the law is emphatically a respecter of persons. It is not there to promote equality, much less is it the defender of the helpless, the weak and the poor; it is a rampart for the aristocracy and the rich, a whip in the hands of the strong.”

Frank Harris during prison visit to the Reading Goal where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, page 213
Frank Harris: “I should rebel,” I cried, why do you let it break the spirit?”
Oscar Wilde: “You would soon be broken, if you rebelled here. Besides it is all incidental to the System. The System! No one outside knows what that means. It is an old story, I’m afraid, the story of man’s cruelty to man.”
Frank Harris: “But you ought to tell it all,” I said, “that perhaps the purpose you are here for; the ultimate reason.”…
Oscar Wilde: “Oh, no, Frank, never. I would need a man of infinite strength to come here and give a truthful record of all that had happened to him. I don’t believe you could do it; I don’t believe anybody would be strong enough. Starvation and purging alone would break down anyone’s strength. Everybody knows that you are purged and starved to the edge of death. That’s what two years’ hard labour means. It’s not the labour that’s hard. It’s the conditions of life that make it impossibly hard. They break you down body and soul. And if you resist, they drive you crazy…. But, please! Don’t say I said anything; you’ve promised, you know you have. You’ll remember, won’t you!”

To be continued, and edited over and over again as the book is read.

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
attributed to Bishop George Berkeley
1685 – 1753

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5 Responses to Thoughts On Frank Harris’ Biography “Oscar Wilde”

  1. Steve-Paul says:

    Interesting perspective on Wilde, who is generally represented as a victim and nothing but.

    Strongly recommend Harris’s autobiography My Life and Loves. A mammoth read. Talk about a go-getter and a self-starter who overcame a lot of social disadvantages himself.

  2. Maggie says:

    That is on my list Steve-Paul! Harris is a far more interesting character than Oscar, he writes with passion and compassion. Oscar’s friendship with him is one of Oscar’s few redeeming qualities, in my opinion thus far.

  3. Kate says:

    Class distinctions were all too common in the society of Oscar’s day. It would have been rare to find a person of “higher” class who had much understanding of or sympathy for the plight of the poor. Or for women, for that matter, who were not permitted to earn their own livings and still hold their heads up. Oscar was a product of his times, for sure; in spite of his own sufferings, I don’t know that he had any compassion for those who suffered in different ways.

  4. Maggie says:

    Kate, if there is any sign of genuine compassion for the “other” in the biography I will find it, I live in hope and read with optimism.

  5. Maggie says:

    I have just read the first volume of Frank Harris’s autobiography, the first volume of four. It describes his teenage years, and I do hope in later volumes, when greater in age, he assumes more insight and appreciation for females, beyond mere anatomy.

    It may seem a wonderful thing, that someone would lust after one’s body without attachment or interest in the mind and soul that lives there. I can only speak for myself, when I observe the superficiality of physical joining when it is detached from personal regard.

    Were it not for a photograph of Mr. Harris (taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn) I might have been left with the impression that he was merely a ruthless predator. There is no cruelty in his eyes, making him ignorant rather than predatory. Teenagers are known for being almost consumed by their own feelings and desires.

    As disappointed as I have been with Mr. Harris in the first volume of his autobiography, I have hopes for what he will become in the following three volumes.