Tuesday 14 February 2017

Frank Harris: 'Had he not been a thundering liar...'

I need hardly remind my readers that today is Ss Cyril and Methodius' Day. It is also, probably, the anniversary of the birth of Frank Harris in, probably, 1855. I say probably because, thanks to Harris's compulsive self-mythologising, almost nothing in his early life story can be reliably identified as fact. The year of his birth might have been 1856, or as early as 1852, and the place might have been Tenby in Wales rather than the more generally accepted Galway in Ireland. Whatever the facts, young Harris (who in later life would reminisce about his schooldays at Rugby, while wearing an old Etonian tie) at some point attended the grammar school at Ruabon, North Wales.
 Here's Hugh Kingsmill, Harris's first biographer, on young Frank's schooldays:
'On what foundation of actual fact Harris has erected the super-structure of his youthful triumphs, even the most indulgent reader of his autobiography will pause to wonder. At the age of thirteen he was already in the school cricket eleven; he had learnt Paradise Lost by heart in a week; as Shylock he had anticipated the particular piece of business so much applauded fifteen years later in Henry Irving's rendering of that part; he had made love to a girl his own age in church, and had come within measurable distance of overpowering a French governess in a rustic summer-house; he had rejected the supernatural element in religion, but hoped to profit by the example of Christ's life [!]; he had awakened to the beauty of nature, and at all times of day and night, he tells us, caught glimpses that ravished him with delight and turned his being into a hymn of praise and beauty; and he had thrashed the school bully, a boy of seventeen or eighteen, the captain of the cricket eleven.'
 Not long after, Harris ran away from school and set sail for America, where various adventures, actual and fictitious, awaited him, including a spell working at the Fremont House hotel in Chicago, where the protagonist of Bryan Appleyard's Bedford Park first comes across him. But that's another story...
 'Had he not been a thundering liar,' Time magazine reflected in 1960, 'Frank Harris would have been a  great autobiographer...  he had the crippling disqualification that he told the truth, as Max Beerbohm remarked,  only "when his invention flagged".' Talking of Max Beerbohm, here is one of his choicest caricatures of Harris: 'Had Shakespeare asked me...'

1 comment:

  1. Just caught up with this post a year late, but since I'm going to talk about the date of Harris's birth that would seem fit.
    There is actually little doubt about the 1856 date because of the 1871 census, where Harris is listed at his school in Wales and assigned an age of 15 years. This evidence also serves to put the kibosh on much of his early adventures because it's the same year as the Chicago fire so there's no way he could have spent a year as a hotel clerk AND have become a cowboy between coming to the US in (say) June and witnessing the fire that same October.