Power-Seeker

Frank Kermode

  • Bernard Shaw. Vol. II: The Pursuit of Power by Michael Holroyd
    Chatto, 422 pp, £18.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3350 3

Having followed Shaw on a largely unsuccessful pursuit of love in Volume I, Mr Holroyd in his second instalment sets him off on what turns out to be an equally frustrated pursuit of power. It may seem curious that we are being asked to regard a man of such dazzling achievement as repeatedly failing in his aims, and at this stage we can only speculate about what he will be pursuing and not catching up with in Volume III. However that may be, Mr Holroyd regards the quest for power as his subject’s principal activity and ‘growing obsession’ during what might be thought, and is so named by the blurb, his prime, from 1898 to 1918 – that is, from his early forties to his early sixties.

These were certainly strenuous years. Cleopatra’s rebuke to Antony, when he was amazed at the speed of Octavius’s approach – ‘celerity is never more admired/ Than by the negligent’ – should hang in pokerwork over our desks, or flash onto our computer screens when we Quit, but even writers not habitually lazy are right to be astounded by the work the great ones get through, the more so when they do it without giving up everything else.

Shaw’s way was to take more things on rather than give anything up. He read a lot, was out in the evenings, and had many passionate avocations: motor-cars, cameras, religion, music, actresses, travel. But it is an important part of Holroyd’s argument that Shaw sacrificed one notable avocation, or kindly satisfaction – namely, sex. At the beginning of this volume we find the hero newly married, but sick. A suspiciously long series of accidents and illnesses postponed consummation for so long that abstinence became the very basis of the union, and so it remained. Holroyd has a good deal to say about the relation between Shaw’s negative marital practice and his abundantly positive theory, which had of course to allow for occasional sex. In fact, he was in his way extremely interested in sex, not only, as it were, philosophically, as in Man and Superman and other plays, but in the ludic side of it in real life. He thought society rather than he was in an absurd muddle about it. And it seems that he himself found more enjoyment in writing self-sending-up love-letters, supplemented by occasional moments of teasing dalliance with actresses and other devotees, than in doing what others would regard as the real thing.

It is touching, therefore, that Love, outlawed by his metabiological programmes, had its revenge, striking him down, with Murdochian violence, when he contemplated the attractions of Mrs Patrick Campbell. He had flirted with other actresses, but did not carry the pursuit to its end; with Stella, his first Liza, he committed himself, but this pursuit also failed and she slipped from his grasp. Despite his theoretical contempt for ‘romantic’ love, he seems to have been quite badly hurt. And in a way it is a comfort to know that, at any rate once, love made him weep his pints like you and me.

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[*] Shaw’s passion for photography is the subject of Bernard Shaw on Photography, by Bill Jay and Margaret Moore (Equation, 146 pp., £12.95, 1 85336 107 0). They reprint 12 essays of Shaw’s, full of obsolete technical jargon which they expertly elucidate. It gave Shaw manifest pleasure to know the technical terms of a new and rapidly developing art, which he thought at least the equal of painting and wholly preferable for portraits. The book contains a good number of Shaw’s own photographs, including the one of Rilke, and some of them very interesting. It’s a pity that despite his mastery of the jargon he was technically quite inept, and though many of his works survive many more were ruined by his clumsiness.