Francis Bret Harte
The history of Frimley, perhaps, can be told from its street names. I had long wondered why a street nearby, Bret Harte Road, was so named. I had heard of the American novelist and poet, Francis Bret Harte (1836 – 1902), but was somewhat puzzled why of all the minor league literary figures some benighted town planner hit upon this one as the name for a pretty non-descript suburban road. All became clearer when I walked through the graveyard of St Peter’s church.
My attention was taken by a rather solid, coffin shaped memorial with a cross carved into the top of it and with bollards and a chain around it. It looks a rather brutalist, in your face kind of memorial. On the front of the memorial is inscribed “Bret Harte”, his birth and death dates and the words, “death shall reap the braver harvest”. Yes, there was no doubt about it – this was the last resting place of an American literary figure.
The Bret Harte I was familiar with wrote short stories about the picaresque characters who were lured to California in search of gold in the late 1840s. Whilst serving as assistant editor of the North Californian he wrote a shocking editorial detailing the horrors of between 80 and 200 Wiyots at the village of Tuluwat. “A more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilised people”, he wrote. “Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds”. Such was the furore his words caused that he was forced to flee to San Francisco.
Bret Harte was a friend of Mark Twain, at least for part of his life. He moved back to the East coast – he was born in Albany – and then in 1878 he accepted a post as American consul in Krefeld in Germany. By that time he had fallen out disastrously with Twain who did his best to scupper Harte’s chances of a diplomatic career. Twain wrote of him, “Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery…To send this nasty creature to puke upon the American name in a foreign land is too much”.
Twain may have had a point. In the 24 years that Harte was in Europe – he took a consulate position in Glasgow and then settled in London – he never invited his wife and children to join them nor visited them, although he sent regular financial contributions. It was in the Camberley area that Harte contracted throat cancer, dying in 1902 and buried in Frimley.
But Twain wasn’t finished with him yet, publishing a damning indictment of him in his autobiography. Twain characterised Harte and his writing as insincere, claiming that the miners’ dialects he used in his stories never existed other than in Harte’s imagination. Calling him the Immortal Bilk, Twain accused him of borrowing money with no intention of repaying it and financially abandoning his wife and children. And he was once a friend!
There are some more famous figures at rest in the graveyard of St Peter’s whom we shall exhume, figuratively, over the coming weeks.