Molly’s Methuselah

Frank Kermode

  • Bernard Shaw. Vol. III: 1918-1950, The Lure of Fantasy by Michael Holroyd
    Chatto, 544 pp, £21.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3351 1

At the beginning of Mr Holroyd’s third volume Shaw, now 62, is expressing strong views, sensible but not attended to, on the conduct of the nation’s affairs in a difficult postwar period. He began this long last lap of life by campaigning for Ramsay MacDonald, and the other anti-Coalition candidates, in Lloyd George’s opportunistic general election of December 1918. He opposed the blockade of Germany, the demand for reparations and the hanging of the Kaiser. Most of the candidates he favoured, including MacDonald, failed to get elected, but he went on, undismayed, to write a combative pamphlet on the Peace Conference, calling the Treaty of Versailles ‘perhaps the greatest disaster of the war’. There was now nothing to be done in foreign affairs, he said, but to ‘face the question of the next war pending the consolidation of the League of Nations’.

He himself found plenty to do. The fact that ‘the whole world is ill’ required of him a great deal of public speaking. What now may seem more important, he wrote Heartbreak House, published in 1919 and first performed in 1920. He was now close to being as famous as it is possible for a writer to be; and without ceasing to live as an honest man he did nothing to change that. One the whole his last lap began quite promisingly.

It is well known that most people do not change much after sixty (or fifty, or thirty, whatever the speaker fancies) and it has been part of Mr Holroyd’s majestic effort to demonstrate that Shaw, always a victim of maternal neglect, never changed much from the time of his Dublin childhood to the end of his life, when none of the surrogates – including fame itself, and the people who because of it fussed over him with a solicitude not always disinterested – could any longer satisfy. Even when solicitude was entirely free of any suspicion of legacy-hunting, as with Lady Astor, it was still no good; nothing could make up for that mother. Finally he wanted to be rid of himself.

In his seventies he continued abnormally vigorous, writing a lot,[*] rewriting a lot (including several biographies of himself), and lecturing furiously and gratuitously on all his causes, mostly lost. He liked to broadcast, and wrote letters no less prodigally than before. He stayed friends with the Webbs and Wells, adored T.E. Lawrence (so did Charlotte) and was close to Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who happened to be a neighbour at Ayot (Shaw had an editorial hand in The Worst Journey in the World). And – a real proof of vigour – he made new friendships of remoter provenance: for example, with Gene Tunney the boxer, and with a nun in an enclosed order, Sister Laurentia, seeking rather absurdly to find a common religious ground with her, and expecting her to approve of The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God.

Still involved in politics, he chucked MacDonald and took up Mosley instead, supposing him to be the sort of strong world-changing type he admired, and a proponent of ‘the only practical alternative to fascism’. He continued to call himself a communist and would have preferred Mosley to take the Moscow line, but failing that the Mussolini line was better than anything we had. After 1933, he gave up Mosley but not Mussolini.

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[*] There was of course nothing new about this. The latest publication from that very efficient source of Shaw studies, the Pennsylvania State University Press, is a volume reprinting reviews written for the Pall Mall Gazette from 1885 to 1888: Bernard Shaw’s Book Reviews (511 pp., £50, October, 0271 007214). Edited by Brian Tyson, it is annotated with exemplary thoroughness. The reviews vary in seriousness with the subject; novelists are teased, though not Samuel Butler; the Society for Psychical Research is debunked and music and economics are strongly represented. The editor finds in these ephemera evidence that a dramatist was about to be born.