Georgian eyes are smiling

Frank Kermode

  • Bernard Shaw. Vol. I: The Search for Love, 1856-1898 by Michael Holroyd
    Chatto, 486 pp, £16.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3332 5
  • Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters. Vol. IV edited by Dan Laurence
    Bodley Head, 946 pp, £30.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 370 31130 2
  • Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies. Vol. VIII edited by Stanley Weintraub
    Pennsylvania State, 175 pp, $25.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 271 00613 7
  • Shaw’s Sense of History by J.L. Wisenthal
    Oxford, 186 pp, £22.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 19 812892 4
  • Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol. III: 1903-1907 edited by Frederick Karl and Laurence Davies
    Cambridge, 532 pp, £35.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 521 32387 8
  • Joseph Conrad: ‘Nostromo’ by Ian Watt
    Cambridge, 98 pp, £12.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 521 32821 7

There were already good biographies of Shaw, notably those of Frank Harris and Hesketh Pearson, both of whom knew Shaw and had the benefit of his energetic interventions. Pearson in particular will not be easily supplanted. Nevertheless the archives of the world are full of Shaviana inaccessible before his death, and because there had not been a serious attempt since 1956 – the centenary year – the Shaw Estate sensibly decided that the time had come for a new biography, and invited Mr Holroyd to write it. It is not surprising that the work has preoccupied him for a great many years, nor that it will consist of three large volumes. This one takes Shaw from his birth in 1856 to his marriage in 1898, by which time he was already celebrated or notorious, but still near the beginning of his success as a playwright.

Holroyd, needing to make a decision about how and where to record his scattered and multitudinous sources, has thought it best to leave them out altogether from the three volumes of text, and, in due time, publish them separately. His motive, which is to avoid delay in publication and avoid also ‘charging general readers for an apparatus they will never use’, is generous enough, but the decision is still disappointing, for some of the interest lies in spotting what is new, and even general readers – a category authors are tempted to fashion in whatever image suits their book – might like to know where it came from. Shaw produced no formal autobiography but wrote freely about himself – for instance, in long patiently buoyant letters to the haplessly aspiring Professor Demetrius O’Bolger of Philadelphia, and in fake interviews, as well as in some of his published writings. There is also the shorthand diary he kept for 13 years. Much of this material is now accessible in print, but Holroyd must have trawled in many other waters, and we shall have to wait, perhaps a long time, for the record of his doing so.

To be done at once with these gentle criticisms: the subtitle, perhaps also devised to please the general reader, may raise a sigh or a yawn rather than quicken interest. It pertains, but so would ‘the flight from love’ or the like, and neither really gives much idea of the content of the volume. Holroyd is keen to map on to Shaw’s maturity his recollections of the ménage à trois in which he was reared. The interloper was the glamorous musician Vandeleur Lee, about whose origins Holroyd has a lot of interesting things to say. Lee had a miraculous voice-training method and is said, though not very credibly, to have been one of the models for Du Maurier’s Svengali. He was a bit shady, a bit of a rogue – a type Shaw habitually fell for and habitually treated with great generosity. In conscious or unconscious emulation he liked to attach himself to married couples. These triangles recur throughout his earlier life, and crop up in Candida and in The Devil’s Disciple. The wives would usually be attracted, but he seems not to have seduced them. In a well-known letter, used by Frank Harris in his biography and now given in its original form by Dan Laurence, Shaw claims to have no scruples in matters of sex, but at once goes on to admit he has two: he will take care not to get women into trouble, and he will refrain from cuckolding his friends. Here as elsewhere – in money matters, for instance – he observed his own rules very scrupulously.

Shaw wasn’t always candid enough about some aspects of his youth to satisfy biographers, and although he claimed that there was nothing between the great singing teacher and his mother but friendship and professional association he may all the same – as Holroyd conjectures – have had other ideas, and even fancied himself the son of the flamboyant Lee rather than of his wretched father; Beatrice Webb, it seems, was sure he was Lee’s son. What he certainly owed to Lee was his early knowledge of music, the principal positive educational attainment of his Dublin childhood. Other benefits were somewhat negative: his experience of performing badly at bad schools left him sceptical about normal education; his family, decayed aristocrats, gave him a hatred of snobbery, and Dublin a loathing of ‘state superstition’ and poverty.

While doing various jobs of a clerkly sort, he soaked himself in opera, and grew confident, though possibly no more than many other young men, of some sort of future greatness. At 20, having moved with the family to London, he was ghosting music criticism for Lee and writing stories, book reviews and part of a play about Jesus. The ‘pale, private Shaw’ he then was decided to be a writer, and doggedly worked at novels held to be so immoral, so ‘disagreeable and perverse’, that no one would publish them. Already a vegetarian, a teetotaller, a clothes reformer and a champion of women’s rights, he was studying the realities of London life and Late Victorian society, disgusted with the falsity of conventional accounts, seeking always the hard facts, yet always, in his own way, an aesthete. His arguments for vegetarianism have ethical and hygienic components but are mainly aesthetic (one remembers how pleased he was with Almroth Wright’s observation that hygiene was fundamentally a matter of aesthetics). They are also cogent: if sound argument ever prevailed over prejudice we should, under Shaw’s influence, have given up meat long ago.

Along with all this he was seriously studying socialism; fired by Henry George, he was instructed mainly by Marx, whom he actually read (in French). Soon he was an indispensable Fabian. He worked like the devil – it is quite a relief to find him talking about his ‘inveterate laziness’, and to learn that on some days he ‘did practically nothing’. But on such days he must have been working at the construction of a harder and more complex personality, a new Shaw who was always joking yet always in earnest, and always fascinating – handsome in his Jaeger suit and in the beard he grew to cover a smallpox scar.

He made interesting rather than close friends. Holroyd gives a fine account of his relationship with the amiable Ibsenite William Archer. Shaw, working as an art critic, would go with Archer to the shows. ‘He didn’t know much about painting then,’ said Archer, ‘but he thought he did, and that was the main point.’ It was the same, perhaps, with women He devoted some of his scant leisure to flirting with them, and they usually found his gallantries at once comical, infuriating and hard to resist. But he was 29 before he lost his virginity, to a friend of his mother’s 15 years his senior. This affair was satisfactory to begin with, despite, Holroyd thinks, a pregnancy crisis: but Shaw was incapable of the attentiveness called for, and it ended in tears. Remembering this debacle, he later took a strong line about feminine demands on him, somewhat in the manner of Dick in The Devil’s Disciple.

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