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.

Mr Laurence has been sustained over these decades, he tells us, by ‘angry determination’. What has occasioned this anger? There have, it is true, been scholarly disappointments. For example, many items from the Shaw archive that had ‘inexplicably come into Loewenstein’s possession’ did not come into Mr Laurence’s, but were sold in 1953 and ‘scattered to the four corners of the scholarly world’, making his own task more adventurous. Nor did Loewenstein (before returning, a broken man, to Germany) let his successor see the preparatory work, amassed over some fourteen years, for his own bibliography. This, however, was not so serious a set back as it might have seemed. A few years ago I was lent Loewenstein’s oeuvre. It took the form of a shopping-bag stuffed with filing cards on which were marked the crabbed and wildly-sloping notes of Loewenstein’s authentically illegible hand. What to do with such trove? I decided, using a polite intermediary, to inflict it on Mr Laurence himself. But he, wise man, refused to be encumbered with such help.

In his introduction to this bibliography Mr Laurence likens himself to Childe Roland who ‘to the dark tower came’. It is difficult to know precisely what to make of this. Are we to deduce that, like Edgar, he has all these years pretended to be mad? Or that the bibliographer’s field has been as ravaged by fearful elements as King Lear’s heath? Perhaps, more romantically, Mr Laurence pictures himself as Browning’s supernatural knight, anxious and enigmatic, whose savage trample to the dark tower over the bones of his predecessors contained qualities both of triumph and loss. Certainly there appear to have been, aspects of a bad dream involved in his quest. He, too, must have looked backward at ‘the safe road’ once or twice. ‘But I made my bed,’ he wrote in 1963, ‘and by God I’m going to earn my sleep in it eventually.’ The stubborn accouchement was to persist for a further twenty years – and now at last he has been delivered of these handsome twins weighing one pound 11 ounces and one pound nine ounces apiece. It is enough.

These volumes have been impeccably devised. So far as I can judge, Mr Laurence is seldom unintentionally (and never intentionally) amusing. He fulfils Carlyle’s defininition of genius. He has tapped every source of information, from account books and income tax returns to shorthand diaries and royalty statements. He has gone through printers’ invoices, binders’ ledgers, minutes of Fabian sub-committees, folders of correspondence, marked files of newspapers. He has taken nothing for granted, studying watermarks, consulting stenographers, taking measurements, pursuing translations round the world and overtaking them. ‘It has been an interminable labour,’ he cries out at one point. But like Browning’s Childe Roland, he has gone relentlessly along this darkening path with its ‘gray plain all round’, its ‘starved ignoble nature’.

Let no one underestimate the difficulties with which Shaw presented Mr Laurence – God forbid that such an active writer should have ceased to publish since his death! Here, over 350 pages, are 311 of Shaw’s books and ephemeral publications (48 of them posthumous) listed, measured, described; here, over a further 300 pages, are 3975 contributions to periodicals; here, too, are the stereotyped postcards, the broadcasts, recordings, the proofs and rehearsal copies, the volumes edited by Shaw (including T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom), even the blurbs and misattributions; and finally more than three hundred works in several languages about GBS. One of the principal reactions to this meticulous compilation, perhaps unintended, is an upswelling of sympathy, an irresistible urge to pass the hat round, for the man who must assimilate this gigantic mass of material: I mean, of course, Shaw’s authorised biographer.

It would be wrong to conclude that Mr Laurence’s book tells us nothing new about Shaw. Towards the end of his life Shaw had confirmed that he was still at work: ‘what else can I do?’ But though it was known that he wrote profusely on subjects as various as censorship, corporal punishment, vegetarianism, prize-fighting, alphabetical reform, vaccination, feminism, music, and socialism for millionaires, it has never till now been known how much he published. The outpouring was phenomenal. He did not exaggerate when describing himself as a writing machine, and this has necessitated Mr Laurence turning himself into a tabulating machine. This is indeed bibliography as ‘an exacting science’. He has reproduced the full texts of statements under twenty-five words, included every sensible subject entry in his index, and produced a matchless research instrument for Shavian scholars. He compels salutation from us all. Before the business of criticism begins, this act of homage I here perform.

The spirit is not quite so perfect as the letter. The anger and artfulness sometimes jar a little. Like Childe Roland, Mr Laurence blows his own slug-horn. Referring to himself in the third person, he draws our attention to the fact that ‘the bibliographer has taken the licence to be as idiosyncratically obtrusive as Trollope in his novels.’ And in truth he does seem somewhat full of himself – literally so, with a couple of dozen entries of his own works and countless initialled references to his ownership of this tract or that flyleaf. He wobbles, too, between mathematical calculations and what we now call value-judgments. It is in this latter area that his sustaining anger has flourished most abundantly. The indexer of the Collected Plays with their Prefaces which Mr Laurence supervised is remembered as ‘appallingly negligent’; the printer of Flyleaves which Mr Laurence co-edited is accused of ‘a classic of misplaced humour’; Mr Laurence’s colleague Stanley Weintraub is arraigned for an inexplicable editorial decision (a telephone call might have elicited an explanation); the photographer Allan Chappelow is told off for using a ‘grandiloquent (and misleading) subtitle’ and producing ‘a cluttered compendium ... [with] a prolix commentary which all too often consists, inexplicably and exasperatingly, of paraphrasings’. As for poor Loewenstein, he is put in the dock not simply for incompetence but for theft and breaching the Trade Descriptions Act. What is inappropriate about such aggressive methods is that they do nothing to support Mr Laurence’s stated aim of making the work ‘as pleasantly readable as if Shaw himself had been the author rather than the subject’. A remorselessly polite and humorous man, Shaw never employed vituperation of this sort. It is a pity that something of the Shavian spirit has not invaded Mr Laurence after all these years. He is a great enough scholar to let in more generosity without letting down his standards – a skill at which Shaw himself was an adept.

One sign of this curious misalliance between GBS and the leading Shavian of our age has been the use of dedications. Shaw believed that the practice of dedicating books really derived from the beggar’s petition and that, except in special circumstances, it should be discontinued. He almost never dedicated his own books to people – an exception being The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, which (misspelling her name) he dedicated to his sister-in-law, who had asked for a few thoughts on socialism for her Study Circle and who therefore became ‘the intelligent woman to whose question this book is the best answer I can make’. Mr Laurence, however, has made it his practice to dedicate Shaw’s letters, collected and fugitive pieces to his own family, friends and others. But this bibliography, which is essentially Mr Laurence’s own work, should be treated as an exception. His dedication to Rupert Hart-Davis and his wife is a fitting vote of thanks to the man who (as the letters to George Lyttleton indicate) has encouraged him since the mid-1950s.

In future, such labour as this must increasingly be supplied by technology. The ‘bog, clay and rubble, and the stark black dearth’ that Mr Laurence has had to tread is not beneficial for human nature, and leads to ‘penury, inertness and grimace’. So far as is humanly possible, these volumes are free from errors and omissions, though Mr Laurence invites readers to sent reports of flaws to his publishers. He will already have noticed a couple of misprints, and it will save postage to make one or two observations and suggestions here.

Included among ‘Works edited by Shaw’ are the biographies of him by Frank Harris and Hesketh Pearson in which GBS was a major collaborator. Mr Laurence endorses Shaw’s statement that he destroyed the evidence of his collaboration in Harris’s book (and wished to do so with Pearson’s) because of copyright difficulties, though this in point of law is invalid, it being open to Shaw to donate his copyright to both biographers. The text of Archibald Henderson’s second biography of Shaw, Playboy and Prophet, also shows considerable rewriting by Shaw which Henderson silently incorporated. It should therefore be promoted to this section. It would be useful, too, in the case of Pearson’s book, to add that the best edition, with a decent index and interesting Introduction by Richard Ingrams commenting on the collaboration, was brought out in 1975 by the publishers of Jane’s Fighting Ships.

By placing his own bibliography as the final item in ‘Works on Shaw’, Mr Laurence has created one or two difficulties, having omitted a number of other books – Stanley Weintraub’s The Unexpected Shaw (1982), for example, and the second and third volumes of The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies – that were published a year or two before his own. Most to be regretted among these overlooked works are the two pamphlets on Shaw by Margery Morgan that came out during 1982 as Numbers 274 and 276 in the series ‘Writers and their Work’. Margery Morgan’s previous books on Shaw and Granville-Barker are well-known and highly-regarded. It is impossible to imagine an account of Shaw’s writings occupying less than a hundred pages that would excel these two short comprehensive pamphlets. Lucid, subtle, well-focused and proportioned, they are the culmination of many years’ thought and feeling. Yet they are unknown, partly because the publisher, who recently took over the series from Longmans and the British Council, has listed them so that they are regularly confused on the bookseller’s microfiche with Number 1 in the series, the out-of-date and out-of-print essay by A.C. Ward first published in 1950. To obtain Ms Morgan’s two-part survey it is pretty well necessary to travel to Windsor and hammer at the doors of Profile Books, which wears its name exceeding low.

Particularly attractive are the blank pages in Mr Laurence’s volumes which, pending a second edition, enable readers to keep the record up-to-date. One of the first books to be added is A.M. Gibbs’s The Art and Mind of Shaw. Professor Gibbs contributed a useful little work on Shaw to Oliver and Boyd’s ‘Writers and Critics’ series in 1969. Then he was at the University of Leeds; now he is at Macquarie University, Sydney. At no time has he been part of the inner circle of Shavian critics, and this has perhaps helped to preserve his fresh eye for some of the material. For his exploration of Shaw’s dramatic art he has gone to the manuscripts of the plays at various libraries in America and Britain, and returned with a number of original insights. He charts Shaw’s development from naturalism to comic and tragi-comic fantasy, and shows how he was simultaneously a borrower and an innovator. Shaw emerges from this reassessment less as a propagandist playwright for socialism and creative evolution than as a dramatist with an awareness of open-ended possibilities and irreducible complexity. Professor Gibbs is particularly good at revealing the sub-text of the plays through his analysis of the narrative stage directions and the cancelled passages in the original drafts. His pages on the incest theme in Mrs Warren’s Profession, on the emotional castrator as Virgin Mother in Candida, and the sea as an image of subconscious feeling in You never can tell, are especially percipient. There is evidence, however, that the book has waited a long time with the printer (in Hong Kong) and publisher (‘throughout the world’). The early texts that Professor Gibbs set out from Australia and circled the world to see have been available at one’s fireside in the Garland facsimile editions for almost two years.

When Eric Bentley published his masterly short ‘reconsideration’ of Shaw’s work in 1947, he commented on the vast production and meagre quality of Shavian criticism. Reading through what had been written was, he said, ‘a gruelling experience’. Since then the Shaw industry has increased its production. There is much too much on GBS – no wonder readers are intimidated. But during the last twenty years some of the criticism has attained a far higher standard, and this is helping to establish Shaw’s identity as a modern writer. Two factors have been largely responsible for the re-evaluation that is currently taking place. First is the absence of Shaw’s persistent management of his own reputation through his and other people’s writings; and secondly, replacing this, there has been the presence of Dan Laurence’s inexhaustible engines of scholarship.