Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 23

His Judgments of Writers and of Women

He was an incomparable companion, perfectly amiable, yet vivid, and eager as a child, always interested and interesting. We awoke at Avignon and went out in pyjamas and overcoats to stretch our legs and get a bowl of coffee on the platform in the pearly grey light of early morning. After coffee and cigarettes he led the way to the other end of the platform, that we might catch a glimpse of the town wall which, though terribly restored, yet, when seen from a distance, transports one back five hundred years to the age of chivalry.

“How I should have loved to be a troubadour, or a trouvère, Frank; that was my true métier, to travel from castle to castle singing love songs and telling romantic stories to while away the tedium of the lives of the great. Fancy the reception they would have given me for bringing a new joy into their castled isolation, new ideas, new passions — a breath of gossip and scandal from the outside world to relieve the intolerable boredom of the middle ages. I should have been kept at the Court of Aix: I think they would have bound me with flower-chains, and my fame would have spread all through the sunny vineyards and grey olive-clad hills of Provence.”

When we got into the train again he began:

“We stop next at Marseilles, don’t we, Frank? A great historic town for nearly three thousand years. One really feels a barbarian in comparison, and yet all I know of Marseilles is that it is famous for bouillabaisse. Suppose we stop and get some?”

Bouillabaisse,” I replied, “is not peculiar to Marseilles or the Rue Cannebière. You can get it all along this coast. There is only one thing necessary to it and that is rascasse, a fish caught only among the rocks: you will get excellent bouillabaisse at lunch where we are going.”

“Where are we going? You have not told me yet.”

“It is for you to decide,” I answered. “If you want perfect quiet there are two places in the Esterel mountains, Agay and La Napoule. Agay is in the middle of the Esterel. You would be absolutely alone there except for the visit of an occasional French painter. La Napoule is eight or ten miles from Cannes, so that you are within reach of a town and its amusements. There is still another place I had thought of, quieter than either, in the mountains behind Nice.”

“Nice sounds wonderful, Frank, but I should meet too many English people there who would know me, and they are horribly rude. I think we will choose La Napoule.”

About ten o’clock we got out at La Napoule and installed ourselves in the little hotel, taking up three of the best rooms on the second or top floor, much to the delight of the landlord. At twelve we had breakfast under a big umbrella in the open air, looking over the sea. I had put the landlord on his mettle, and he gave us a fry of little red mullet, which made us understand how tasteless whitebait are: then a plain beefsteak aux pommes, a morsel of cheese, and a sweet omelette. We both agreed that we had had a most excellent breakfast. The coffee left a good deal to be desired, and there was no champagne on the list fit to drink; but both these faults could be remedied by the morrow, and were remedied.

We spent the rest of the day wandering between the seashore and the pine-clad hills. The next morning I put in some work, but in the afternoon I was free to walk and explore. On one of my first tramps I discovered a monastery among the hills hundreds of feet above the sea, built and governed by an Italian monk. I got to know the Père Vergile42 and had a great talk with him. He was both wise and strong, with ingratiating, gentle manners. Had he gone as a boy from his little Italian fishing village to New York or Paris, he would have certainly come to greatness and honour. One afternoon I took Oscar to see him: the monastery was not more than three-quarters of an hour’s stroll from our hotel; but Oscar grumbled at the walk as a nuisance, said it was miles and miles; the road, too, was rough, and the sun hot. The truth was, he was abnormally lazy. But he fascinated the Italian with his courteous manner and vivid speech, and as soon as we were alone the Abbé asked me who he was.

“He must be a great man,” he said, “he has the stamp of a great man, and he must have lived in courts: he has the charming, graceful, smiling courtesy of the great.”

“Yes,” I nodded mysteriously, “a great man — incognito.”

The Abbé kept us to dinner, made us taste of his oldest wines, and a special liqueur of his own distilling; told us how he had built the monastery with no money, and when we exclaimed with wonder, reproved us gently:

“All great things are built with faith, and not with money; why wonder that this little building stands firmly on that everlasting foundation?”

When we came out of the monastery it was already night, and the moonlight was throwing fantastic leafy shadows on the path, as we walked down through the avenue of forest to the sea shore.

“You remember those words of Vergil, Frank — per amica silentia lunæ — they always seem to me indescribably beautiful; the most magic line about the moon ever written, except Browning’s in the poem in which he mentioned Keats —‘him even.’ I love that ‘amica silentia.’ What a beautiful nature the man had who could feel ‘the friendly silences of the moon.’”

When we got down the hill he declared himself tired.

“Tired after a mile?” I asked.

“Tired to death, worn out,” he said, laughing at his own laziness.

“Shall we get a boat and row across the bay?”

“How splendid! of course, let’s do it,” and we went down to the landing stage. I had never seen the water so calm; half the bay was veiled by the mountain, and opaque like unpolished steel; a little further out, the water was a purple shield, emblazoned with shimmering silver. We called a fisherman and explained what we wanted. When we got into the boat, to my astonishment, Oscar began calling the fisher boy by his name; evidently he knew him quite well. When we landed I went up from the boat to the hotel, leaving Oscar and the boy together. . . .

A fortnight taught me a good deal about Oscar at this time; he was intensely indolent: quite content to kill time by the hour talking to the fisher lads, or he would take a little carriage and drive to Cannes and amuse himself at some wayside café.

He never cared to walk and I walked for miles daily, so that we spent only one or at most two afternoons a week together, meeting so seldom that nearly all our talks were significant. Several times contemporary names came up and I was compelled to notice for the first time that really he was contemptuous of almost everyone, and had a sharp word to say about many who were supposed to be his friends. One day we spoke of Ricketts and Shannon; I was saying that had Ricketts lived in Paris he would have had a great reputation: many of his designs I thought extraordinary, and his intellect was peculiarly French — mordant even. Oscar did not like to hear praise of anyone.

“Do you know my word for them, Frank? I like it. I call them ‘Temper and Temperament.’”

Was his punishment making him a little spiteful or was it the temptation of the witty phrase?

“What do you think of Arthur Symons?” I asked.

“Oh, Frank, I said of him long ago that he was a sad example of an Egoist who had no Ego.”

“And what of your compatriot, George Moore? He’s popular enough,” I continued.

“Popular, Frank, as if that counted. George Moore has conducted his whole education in public. He had written two or three books before he found out there was such a thing as English grammar. He at once announced his discovery and so won the admiration of the illiterate. A few years later he discovered that there was something architectural in style, that sentences had to be built up into a paragraph, and paragraphs into chapters and so on. Naturally he cried this revelation, too, from the housetops, and thus won the admiration of the journalists who had been making rubble-heaps all their lives without knowing it. I’m much afraid, Frank, in spite of all his efforts, he will die before he reaches the level from which writers start. It’s a pity because he has certainly a little real talent. He differs from Symons in that he has an Ego, but his Ego has five senses and no soul.”

“What about Bernard Shaw?” I probed further, “after all he’s going to count.”

“Yes, Frank, a man of real ability but with a bleak mind. Humorous gleams as of wintry sunlight on a bare, harsh landscape. He has no passion, no feeling, and without passionate feeling how can one be an artist? He believes in nothing, loves nothing, not even Bernard Shaw, and really, on the whole, I don’t wonder at his indifference,” and he laughed mischievously.

“And Wells?” I asked.

“A scientific Jules Verne,” he replied with a shrug.

“Did you ever care for Hardy?” I continued.

“Not greatly. He has just found out that women have legs underneath their dresses, and this discovery has almost wrecked his life. He writes poetry, I believe, in his leisure moments, and I am afraid it will be very hard reading. He knows nothing of love; passion to him is a childish illness like measles — poor unhappy spirit!”

“You might be describing Mrs. Humphry Ward,” I cried.

“God forbid, Frank,” he exclaimed with such mock horror I had to laugh. “After all, Hardy is a writer and a great landscape painter.”

“I don’t know why it is,” he went on, “but I am always match-making when I think of English celebrities. I should so much like to have introduced Mrs. Humphry Ward blushing at eighteen or twenty to Swinburne, who would of course have bitten her neck in a furious kiss, and she would have run away and exposed him in court, or else have suffered agonies of mingled delight and shame in silence.

“And if one could only marry Thomas Hardy to Victoria Cross he might have gained some inkling of real passion with which to animate his little keepsake pictures of starched ladies. A great many writers, I think, might be saved in this way, but there would still be left the Corellis and Hall Caines that one could do nothing with except bind them back to back, which would not even tantalise them, and throw them into the river, a new noyade: the Thames at Barking, I think, would be about the place for them. . . . ”

“Where do you go every afternoon?” I asked him once casually.

“I go to Cannes, Frank, and sit in a café and look across the sea to Capri, where Tiberius used to sit like a spider watching, and I think of myself as an exile, the victim of one of his inscrutable suspicions, or else I am in Rome looking at the people dancing naked, but with gilded lips, through the streets at the Floralia. I sup with the arbiter elegantiarum and come back to La Napoule, Frank,” and he pulled his jowl, “to the simple life and the charm of restful friendship.”

More and more clearly I saw that the effort, the hard work, of writing was altogether beyond him: he was now one of those men of genius, talkers merely, half artists, half dreamers, whom Balzac describes contemptuously as wasting their lives, “talking to hear themselves talk”; capable indeed of fine conceptions and of occasional fine phrases, but incapable of the punishing toil of execution; charming companions, fated in the long run to fall to misery and destitution.

Constant creation is the first condition of art as it is the first condition of life.

I asked him one day if he remembered the terrible passage about those “eunuchs of art” in “La Cousine Bette.”

“Yes, Frank,” he replied; “but Balzac was probably envious of the artist-talker; at any rate, we who talk should not be condemned by those to whom we dedicate our talents. It is for posterity to blame us; but after all I have written a good deal. Do you remember how Browning’s Sarto defends himself?

“Some good son

Paint my two hundred pictures — let him try.”

He did not see that Balzac, one of the greatest talkers that ever lived according to Théophile Gautier, was condemning the temptation to which he himself had no doubt yielded too often. To my surprise, Oscar did not even read much now. He was not eager to hear new thoughts, a little rebellious to any new mental influence. He had reached his zenith, I suppose: had begun to fossilise, as men do when they cease to grow.

One day at lunch I questioned him:

“You told me once that you always imagined yourself in the place of every historic personage. Suppose you had been Jesus, what religion would you have preached?”

“What a wonderful question!” he cried. “What religion is mine? What belief have I?

“I believe most of all in personal liberty for every human soul. Each man ought to do what he likes, to develop as he will. England, or rather London, for I know little of England outside London, was an ideal place to me, till they punished me because I did not share their tastes. What an absurdity it all was, Frank: how dared they punish me for what is good in my eyes? How dared they?” and he fell into moody thought. . . . The idea of a new gospel did not really interest him.

It was about this time he first told me of a new play he had in mind.

“It has a great scene, Frank,” he said. “Imagine a roué of forty-five who is married; incorrigible, of course, Frank, a great noble who gets the person he is in love with to come and stay with him in the country. One evening his wife, who has gone upstairs to lie down with a headache, is behind a screen in a room half asleep; she is awakened by her husband’s courting. She cannot move, she is bound breathless to her couch; she hears everything. Then, Frank, the husband comes to the door and finds it locked, and knowing that his wife is inside with the host, beats upon the door and will have entrance, and while the guilty ones whisper together — the woman blaming the man, the man trying to think of some excuse, some way out of the net — the wife gets up very quietly and turns on the lights while the two cowards stare at her with wild surmise. She passes to the door and opens it and the husband rushes in to find his hostess as well as the host and his wife. I think it is a great scene, Frank, a great stage picture.”

“It is,” I said, “a great scene; why don’t you write it?”

“Perhaps I shall, Frank, one of these days, but now I am thinking of some poetry, a ‘Ballad of a Fisher Boy,’ a sort of companion to ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’ in which I sing of liberty instead of prison, joy instead of sorrow, a kiss instead of an execution. I shall do this joy-song much better than I did the song of sorrow and despair.”

“Like Davidson’s ‘Ballad of a Nun,’” I said, for the sake of saying something.

“Naturally Davidson would write the ‘Ballad of a Nun,’ Frank; his talent is Scotch and severe; but I should like to write ‘The Ballad of a Fisher Boy,’” and he fell to dreaming.

The thought of his punishment was oft with him. It seemed to him hideously wrong and unjust. But he never questioned the right of society to punish. He did not see that, if you once grant that, the wrong done to him could be defended.

“I used to think myself a lord of life,” he said. “How dared those little wretches condemn me and punish me? Everyone of them tainted with a sensuality which I loathe.”

To call him out of this bitter way of regret I quoted Shakespeare’s sonnet:

“For why should others’ false adulterate eyes

Give salutation to my sportive blood?

Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,

Which in their wills count bad what I think good?”

“His complaint is exactly yours, Oscar.”

“It’s astonishing, Frank, how well you know him, and yet you deny his intimacy with Pembroke. To you he is a living man; you always talk of him as if he had just gone out of the room, and yet you persist in believing in his innocence.”

“You misapprehend me,” I said, “the passion of his life was for Mary Fitton, to give her a name; I mean the ‘dark lady’ of the sonnets, who was Beatrice, Cressida and Cleopatra, and you yourself admit that a man who has a mad passion for a woman is immune, I think the doctors call it, to other influences.”

“Oh, yes, Frank, of course; but how could Shakespeare with his beautiful nature love a woman to that mad excess?”

“Shakespeare hadn’t your overwhelming love of plastic beauty,” I replied; “he fell in love with a dominant personality, the complement of his own yielding, amiable disposition.”

“That’s it,” he broke in, “our opposites attract us irresistibly — the charm of the unknown!”

“You often talk now,” I went on, “as if you had never loved a woman; yet you must have loved — more than one.”

“My salad days, Frank,” he quoted, smiling, “when I was green in judgment, cold of blood.”

“No, no,” I persisted, “it is not a great while since you praised Lady So and So and the Terrys enthusiastically.”

“Lady — — ” he began gravely (and I could not but notice that the mere title seduced him to conventional, poetic language), “moves like a lily in water; I always think of her as a lily; just as I used to think of Lily Langtry as a tulip, with a figure like a Greek vase carved in ivory. But I always adored the Terrys: Marion is a great actress with subtle charm and enigmatic fascination: she was my ‘Woman of no importance,’ artificial and enthralling; she belongs to my theatre —”

As he seemed to have lost the thread, I questioned again.

“And Ellen?”

“Oh, Ellen’s a perfect wonder,” he broke out, “a great character. Do you know her history?” And then, without waiting for an answer, he continued:

“She began as a model for Watts, the painter, when she was only some fifteen or sixteen years of age. In a week she read him as easily as if he had been a printed book. He treated her with condescending courtesy, en grand seigneur, and, naturally, she had her revenge on him.

“One day her mother came in and asked Watts what he was going to do about Ellen. Watts said he didn’t understand. ‘You have made Ellen in love with you,’ said the mother, and it is impossible that could have happened unless you had been attentive to her.’

“Poor Watts protested and protested, but the mother broke down and sobbed, and said the girl’s heart would be broken, and at length, in despair, Watts asked what he was to do, and the mother could only suggest marriage.

“Finally they were married.”

“You don’t mean that,” I cried, “I never knew that Watts had married Ellen Terry.”

“Oh, yes,” said Oscar, “they were married all right. The mother saw to that, and to do him justice, Watts kept the whole family like a gentleman. But like an idealist, or, as a man of the world would say, a fool, he was ashamed of his wife; he showed great reserve to her, and when he gave his usual dinners or receptions, he invited only men and so, carefully, left her out.

“One evening he had a dinner; a great many well-known people were present and a bishop was on his right hand, when, suddenly, between the cheese and the pear, as the French would say, Ellen came dancing into the room in pink tights with a basket of roses around her waist with which she began pelting the guests. Watts was horrified, but everyone else delighted, the bishop in especial, it is said, declared he had never seen anything so romantically beautiful. Watts nearly had a fit, but Ellen danced out of the room with all their hearts in her basket instead of her roses.

“To me that’s the true story of Ellen Terry’s life. It may be true or false in reality, but I believe it to be true in fact as in symbol; it is not only an image of her life, but of her art. No one knows how she met Irving or learned to act, though, as you know, she was one of the best actresses that ever graced the English stage. A great personality. Her children even have inherited some of her talent.”

It was only famous actresses such as Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt and great ladies that Oscar ever praised. He was a snob by nature; indeed this was the chief link between him and English society. Besides, he had a rooted contempt for women and especially for their brains. He said once, of some one: “he is like a woman, sure to remember the trivial and forget the important.”

It was this disdain of the sex which led him, later, to take up our whole dispute again.

“I have been thinking over our argument in the train,” he began; “really it was preposterous of me to let you off with a drawn battle; you should have been beaten and forced to haul down your flag. We talked of love and I let you place the girl against the boy: it is all nonsense. A girl is not made for love; she is not even a good instrument of love.”

“Some of us care more for the person than the pleasure,” I replied, “and others —. You remember Browning:

Nearer we hold of God

Who gives, than of His tribes that take, I must believe.”

“Yes, yes,” he replied impatiently, “but that’s not the point. I mean that a woman is not made for passion and love; but to be a mother.

“When I married, my wife was a beautiful girl, white and slim as a lily, with dancing eyes and gay rippling laughter like music. In a year or so the flower-like grace had all vanished; she became heavy, shapeless, deformed: she dragged herself about the house in uncouth misery with drawn blotched face and hideous body, sick at heart because of our love. It was dreadful. I tried to be kind to her; forced myself to touch and kiss her; but she was sick always, and — oh! I cannot recall it, it is all loathsome. . . . I used to wash my mouth and open the window to cleanse my lips in the pure air. Oh, nature is disgusting; it takes beauty and defiles it: it defaces the ivory-white body we have adored, with the vile cicatrices of maternity: it befouls the altar of the soul.

“How can you talk of such intimacy as love? How can you idealise it? Love is not possible to the artist unless it is sterile.”

“All her suffering did not endear her to you?” I asked in amazement; “did not call forth that pity in you which you used to speak of as divine?”

“Pity, Frank,” he exclaimed impatiently; “pity has nothing to do with love. How can one desire what is shapeless, deformed, ugly? Desire is killed by maternity; passion buried in conception,” and he flung away from the table.

At length I understood his dominant motive: trahit sua quemque voluptas, his Greek love of form, his intolerant cult of physical beauty, could take no heed of the happiness or well-being of the beloved.

“I will not talk to you about it, Frank; I am like a Persian, who lives by warmth and worships the sun, talking to some Esquimau, who answers me with praise of blubber and nights spent in ice houses and baths of foul vapour. Let’s talk of something else.”

42 He lived till November, 1910.

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