Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

My Coldness Towards Oscar in 1897

(See page 408)

When I talked with Oscar in Reading Gaol, he told me that the only reason he didn’t write was that no one would accept his work. I assured him that I would publish it in The Saturday Review and would pay for it not only at the rate I paid Bernard Shaw but also if it increased the sale of the journal I’d try to compute its value to the paper and give him that besides. He told me that was too liberal; he would be quite content with what I paid Shaw: he feared that no one else in England would ever publish his work again.

He promised to send me the book “De Profundis” as soon as it was finished. Just before his release his friend, Mr. More Adey, called upon me and wanted to know whether I would publish Oscar’s work. I said I would. He then asked me what I would give for it. I told him I didn’t want to make anything out of Oscar and would give him as much as I could, rehearsing the proposal I had made to Oscar. Thereupon he told me Oscar would prefer a fixed price. I thought the answer extraordinary and the gentle, urbane manner of Mr. More Adey, whom I hardly knew at that time and misunderstood, got on my nerves. I replied curtly that before I could state a price, I’d have to see the work, adding at the same time that I had wished to do Oscar a good turn, but, if he could find another publisher, I’d be delighted. Mr. More Adey assured me that there was nothing in the book to which any prude even could object, no arrière pensée of any kind, and so forth and so on. I answered with a jest, a wretched play on his French phrase.

That night I happened to dine with Whistler and telling him of what had occurred called forth a most stinging gibe at Oscar’s expense. Whistler’s mot cannot be published.

A week or two later Oscar asked me to get him some clothes, which I did and on his release sent them to him, and received in reply a letter thanking me which I reproduce on page 583.

In that same talk with Oscar in Reading Gaol, I was so desirous of helping him that I proposed a driving tour through France. I told him of one I had made a couple of years before which was full of delightful episodes — an entrancing holiday. He jumped at the idea, said nothing would please him better, he would feel safe with me, and so forth. In order to carry out the idea in the best way I ordered an American mail phaeton so that a pair of horses would find the load, even with luggage, ridiculously light. I asked Mr. More Adey whether Oscar had spoken to him of this proposed trip: he told me he had heard nothing of it.

In one letter to me Oscar asked me to postpone the tour; afterwards he never mentioned it. I thought I had been treated rather cavalierly. As I had gone to some expense in getting everything ready and making myself free, I, no doubt, expressed some amazement at Oscar’s silence on the matter. At any rate the idea got about that I was angry with him, and Oscar believed it. Nothing could have been further from the truth. What I had done and proposed was simply in his interest: I expected no benefit of any kind and therefore could not be cross; but the belief that I was angry drew this sincere and touching letter from Oscar, which I think shows him almost as perfectly as that still more beautiful letter to Robert Ross which I have inserted in Chapter XIX.

From M. Sebastian Melmoth, Hotel de la Plage, Bernavol-sur-Mer, Dieppe.

June 13, ‘97

MY DEAR FRANK:

I know you do not like writing letters, but still I think you might have written me a line in answer, or acknowledgment of my letter71 to you from Dieppe. I am thinking of a story to be called “The Silence of Frank Harris.”

I have, however, heard during the last few days that you do not speak of me in the friendly manner I would like. This distresses me very much.

I am told that you are hurt with me because my letter of thanks to you was not sufficiently elaborated in expression. This I can hardly credit. It seems so unworthy of a big strong nature like yours, that knows the realities of life. I told you I was grateful to you for your kindness to me. Words, now, to me signify things, actualities, real emotions, realised thoughts. I learnt in prison to be grateful. I used to think gratitude a burden. Now I know that it is something that makes life lighter as well as lovelier for one. I am grateful for a thousand things, from my good friends down to the sun and the sea. But I cannot say more than that I am grateful. I cannot make phrases about it. For me to use such a word shows an enormous development in my nature. Two years ago I did not know the feeling the word denotes. Now I know it, and I am thankful that I have learnt that much, at any rate, by having been in prison. But I must say again that I no longer make roulades of phrases about the deep things I feel. When I write directly to you, I speak directly: violin variations don’t interest me. I am grateful to you. If that does not content you, then you do not understand, what you of all men should understand, how sincerity of feeling expresses itself. But I dare say the story told of you is untrue. It comes from so many quarters that it probably is.

I am told also that you are hurt72 because I did not go on the driving-tour with you. You should understand, that in telling you that it was impossible for me to do so, I was thinking as much of you as of myself. To think of the feelings and happiness of others is not an entirely new emotion in my nature. I would be unjust to myself and my friends, if I said it was. But I think of those things far more than I used to do. If I had gone with you, you would not have been happy, nor enjoyed yourself. Nor would I. You must try to realise what two years cellular confinement is, and what two years of absolute silence means to a man of my intellectual power. To have survived at all — to have come out sane in mind and sound of body — is a thing so marvellous to me, that it seems to me sometimes, not that the age of miracles is over, but that it is just beginning; that there are powers in God, and powers in man, of which the world has up to the present known little. But while I am cheerful, happy, and have sustained to the full that passionate interest in life and art that was the dominant chord of my nature, and made all modes of existence and all forms of expression utterly fascinating to me always — still I need rest, quiet, and often complete solitude. Friends have come to see me here for a day, and have been delighted to find me like my old self, in all intellectual energy and sensitiveness to the play of life, but it has always proved afterwards to have been a strain upon a nervous force, much of which has been destroyed. I have now no storage73 of nervous force. When I expend what I have, in an afternoon, nothing remains. I look to quiet, to a simple mode of existence, to nature in all the infinite meanings of an infinite word, to charge the cells for me. Every day, if I meet a friend, or write a letter longer than a few lines, or even read a book that makes, as all fine books do, a direct claim on me, a direct appeal, an intellectual challenge of any kind, I am utterly exhausted in the evening, and often sleep badly. And yet it is three whole weeks since I was released.

Had I gone with you on the driving tour, where we would have of necessity been in immediate contact with each other from dawn to sunset, I would have certainly broken off the tour the third day, probably broken down the second. You would have then found yourself in a pitiable position: your tour would have been arrested at its outset: your companion would have been ill without doubt: perhaps might have needed care and attendance, in some little remote French village. You would have given it to me, I know. But I felt it would have been wrong, stupid, and thoughtless of me to have started an expedition doomed to swift failure, and perhaps fraught with disaster and distress. You are a man of dominant personality: your intellect is exigent, more so than that of any man I ever knew: your demands on life are enormous: you require response, or you annihilate: the pleasure of being with you is in the clash of personality, the intellectual battle, the war of ideas. To survive you, one must have a strong brain, an assertive ego, a dynamic character. In your luncheon parties, in the old days, the remains of the guests were taken away with the débris of the feast. I have often lunched with you in Park Lane and found myself the only survivor. I might have driven on the white roads, or through the leafy lanes, of France, with a fool, or with the wisest of all things, a child: with you, it would have been impossible. You should thank me sincerely for having saved you from an experience that each of us would have always regretted.

Will you ask me why then, when I was in prison, I accepted with grateful thanks your offer? My dear Frank, I don’t think you will ask so thoughtless a question. The prisoner looks to liberty as an immediate return to all his ancient energy, quickened into more vital forces by long disuse. When he goes out, he finds he has still to suffer: his punishment, as far as its effects go, lasts intellectually and physically just as it lasts socially: he has still to pay: one gets no receipt for the past when one walks out into the beautiful air. . . .

I have now spent the whole of my Sunday afternoon — the first real day of summer we have had — in writing to you this long letter of explanation.

I have written directly and simply: I need not tell the author of “Elder Conklin” that sweetness and simplicity of expression take more out of one than fiddling harmonics on one string. I felt it my duty to write, but it has been a distressing one. It would have been better for me to have lain in the brown grass on the cliff, or to have walked slowly by the sea. It would have been kinder of you to have written to me directly about whatever harsh or hurt feelings you may have about me. It would have saved me an afternoon of strain, and tension.

But I have something more to say. It is pleasanter to me, now, to write about others, than about myself.

The enclosed is from a brother prisoner of mine: released June 4th: pray read it: you will see his age, offence, and aim in life.

If you can give him a trial, do so. If you see your way to this kind action, and write to him to come and see you, kindly state in your letter that it is about a situation. He may think otherwise that it is about the flogging of A.2.11., a thing that does not interest you, and about which he is a little afraid to talk.

If the result of this long letter will be that you will help this fellow prisoner of mine to a place in your service, I shall consider my afternoon better spent than any afternoon for the last two years, and three weeks.

In any case I have now written to you fully on all things as reported to me.

I again assure you of my gratitude for your kindness to me during my imprisonment, and on my release.

And am always

Your sincere friend and admirer

OSCAR WILDE.

With regard to Lawley

All soldiers are neat, and smart, and make capital servants. He would be a good groom: he is, I believe, a 3rd Hussars man — he was a quiet, well-conducted chap in Reading always.

Naturally I replied to this letter at once, saying that he had been misinformed, that I was not angry and if I could do anything for him I should be delighted: I did my best, too, for Lawley.

Here is his letter of thanks to me for helping him when he came out of prison.

Sandwich Hotel, Dieppe.

MY DEAR FRANK:

Just a line to thank you for your great kindness to me — for the lovely clothes, and for the generous cheque.

You have been a real good friend to me — and I shall never forget your kindness: to remember such a debt as mine to you — a debt of kind fellowship — is a pleasure.

About our tour — later on let us think about it. My friends have been so kind to me here that I am feeling happy already.

Yours,

OSCAR WILDE.

If you write to me please do so under cover to R.B. Ross, who is here with me.

In the next letter of his which I have kept Oscar is perfectly friendly again; he tells me that he is “entirely without money, having received nothing from his Trustees for months,” and asks me for even £5, adding, “I drift in ridiculous impecuniosity without a sou.”

71 His letter was merely an acknowledgment that he had received the clothes and cheque and was grateful. I saw nothing in it to answer as he had not even mentioned the driving tour.

72 I felt hurt that he dropped the idea without giving me any reason or even letting me know his change of purpose.

73 I think this was true; though it had never struck me till I read this letter. Later, in order to excuse himself for not working, he magnified the effect on his health of prison life. A year after his release I think he had as large a reserve of nervous energy as ever.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wilde/oscar/harris/appendix4.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30