Inexhaustible Engines

Michael Holroyd

  • Bernard Shaw: A Bibliography, Vols I and II by Dan Laurence
    Oxford, 1058 pp, £80.00, December 1983, ISBN 0 19 818179 5
  • Bernard Shaw. Vol. I: 1856-1907 by Margery Morgan
    Profile, 45 pp, £1.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 85383 518 7
  • The Art and Mind of Shaw: Essays in Criticism by A.M. Gibbs
    Macmillan, 224 pp, £20.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 333 28679 0

What is a bibliography? For Bernard Shaw it was a directory whose natural subscribers were to be found among librarians, biographers, critics and occasionally the authors themselves. He regarded its aim as the production of opus lists that would be useful to specialists. Such an attitude, his own bibliographer informs us, was appallingly inadequate, revealing ‘a man who had no understanding or respect for the responsibilities of scholarship’. To Dan Laurence, bibliography is something other. Where Shaw had observed only a harmless drudge, Mr Laurence sees ‘an exacting science’, a work that may be ‘treated artfully’, and the culmination (like an elevation to the peerage) of a lifetime’s achievement.

It was nevertheless Shaw’s blindness to the beauties of bibliography that opened the way for Mr Laurence’s magnum opus. Shaw’s dislike of bibliolatry (vented in Caesar’s ‘Let it burn’ on hearing that the library of Alexandria was in flames) thwarted several potential bibliographers during his life, and their labours (which Mr Laurence describes as ‘unintentionally amusing’ and ‘eccentrically devised’) did not amount to very much. Lamentably, Shaw kept no systematic record of his prolific journalism, which he admitted ‘was all over the place, out of sight and out of mind’. Those who set out to retrieve these pieces and fit them into a pattern did not long survive Shaw’s own eccentric help and paradoxical encouragement.

The most pathetic case was that of Fritz Loewenstein – ‘a determined man’, Mr Laurence calls him, though I see him rather as a desperate man. He had been given a doctorate by the University of Würzburg for a thesis on Japanese prints early in the 1920s. Ten years later he came to England. ‘I am a Jewish refugee,’ he appealed to Shaw, ‘I am married and have three children. I am as poor as a church mouse and make at present my living as a motor mechanic-trainee.’ He appointed himself Shaw’s bibliographer and to his hero’s dismay founded the Shaw Society, whose main duty according to GBS was to ‘leave me alone’, and according to Loewenstein ‘to keep your memory live and prevent priceless goods from slipping into oblivion’. Shaw, who had become bored to extinction with the phenomenon of GBS, longed for oblivion. But in 1944, after his wife’s death, his house at Ayot St Lawrence began to fill with contending ‘helpers’ bitterly accusing one another of helping themselves to Shavian relics, such as cuttings from GBS’s beard. ‘Cut a wisp off the nearest white dog,’ Shaw advised, ‘it will do just as well.’

In his disenchantment with the human species, it was sometimes amusing for Shaw to observe the animated quarrels of his acolytes. Loewenstein, a stout, dark middle-aged man with a homely if forceful expression, matching bowler hat and moustache, was a Wellsian figure who fitted nicely into this houseful of rival eccentrics, most of whom loathed him. He was not, like Shaw’s secretary Blanche Patch, an employee, but ostensibly a professional bibliographer doing a job for a fee. He gave himself the title of Shaw’s ‘official bibliographer and remembrancer’; and Shaw gave him the job of office boy (‘a unique opportunity’, Mr Laurence calls it), sorting the ‘old rubbish’ that might otherwise have been thrown out. It seemed to Shaw that Loewenstein positively enjoyed duties that would have driven anyone else out of his wits.

Perhaps they did drive him witless. In any event, though Loewenstein was still in place when Shaw died in 1950, he was barred from Shaw’s house by the Public Trustee and refused payment of a small sum he claimed Shaw had promised to enable him to finish his labours. On 23 November 1952, at a meeting of the Shaw Society, he publicly relinquished work on the bibliography – and young Dan Laurence, then a college graduate assistant, stood up and announced that he would undertake the job. Thirty-one years and 15 days later it was published.

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