Man of Many Lives

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Does anyone today know who Frank Harris was? Are his novels and biographies read at all now? A hundred years ago he was acknowledged ‘by all great men of letters of his time to be . . . greater than his contemporaries because he is a master of life’, or so wrote the critic John Middleton Murry. George Meredith likened his novels to Balzac’s, and Bernard Shaw his short stories to Maupassant’s – high praise which was somewhat deflated by the discovery that one story had actually been lifted from Stendhal. But no one would have been more astonished at his disappearance as a great man of letters than Frank Harris himself. ‘Christ goes deeper than I do,’ he explained, ‘but I have had wider experience.’

I first heard of Frank Harris from the biographer Hesketh Pearson. When he was young he had praised Harris as being ‘the most dynamic writer alive’. This praise diminished over the years and Pearson never wrote a Life of Harris. But Harris made several comic appearances in my biographies. It was difficult to avoid him. There have been half a dozen published Lives of him and he makes many appearances in other writers’ autobiographies. He seems also to have inspired several characters in works of fiction. Ford Madox Ford presented him in The Simple Life Limited (1911) as George Everard, ‘his horrible unique self ’. In Frederick Cassel’s novel The Adventures of John Johns (1879) there is a caricature of him becoming editor of a newspaper by seducing the proprietor’s wife. In George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1897) he appeared as Hardfur Huttle, ‘a man who did all the talking’ and came out with the most alarming ideas. H. G. Wells used him in his science-fiction novel The War in the Air (1907) as Butteridge, ‘a man singularly free from false modesty’ who believes ‘all we have we owe to women’. It is surprising that a man with so many fictional lives seemed to disappea

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About the contributor

Michael Holroyd’s first book, politely turned down by fifteen publishers, was Hugh Kingsmill (1964).

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