Shaw tests the ice

Ronald Bryden

  • Bernard Shaw: The Diaries 1885-1897 edited by Stanley Weintraub
    Pennsylvania State, 1241 pp, £65.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 571 13901 9

In his last will, made the year before he died, Shaw let his modesty hang out for once. He left his diaries, with his account books, cheque stubs, box-office statements and business records, to the London School of Economics. Their only interest, he said, would be to economic and legal historians, and occasional biographers, ‘seeking documentary evidence as to prices and practices during the period covered by my lifetime’. He was not, he recognised, one of nature’s diarists. He lacked the confessional itch of a Boswell, the bureaucrat’s recording instinct of a Pepys. Only once, during the dark years of the Great War, did he turn the scrutiny of his art, like Virginia Woolf, upon himself. In January 1917 he started a detailed journal of his life at Ayot St Lawrence with his wife Charlotte. On 9 January he had to record a difference between them. He tried to amuse Charlotte with news of a marital scandal in provincial musical circles. She was unamused and offended by his levity: she took his bohemian tolerance of such things as sign of ‘a deplorable looseness in my own character’. He abandoned the subject and, the following day, the diary. Clearly he could not keep it truthfully without some betrayal of his wife. He had not the first loyalty to self of which great diarists are made.

He used diaries in the stationer’s sense: to keep track of engagements and weekly expenses. His first, kept for six months in 1880 while working for Edison Telephone, records little but shillings and pence spent in the company’s service, on stamps, bus-fares, advances to colleagues, haircuts and boot-cleaning. (A kind of salesman, soliciting ‘way-leaves’ to run wires over premises, he had to look spruce.) When Edison sold out to Bell, he gladly gave up both job and journal. When he resumed diary-keeping in 1885, his circumstances had changed, but not his motives. After nine lonely years studying and writing novels in the British Museum, he had acquired a bustling social life as a result of his conversion to socialism. Suddenly, his days were filled with more speaking engagements, committee meetings, deadlines, and advanced ladies misled by his serio-comic Irish gallantries, than he could keep straight any longer in his head.

In an effort to reduce this chaos to order, he kept diaries from 1885, when he turned 29, until 1897. In the space for each day, he would jot down forthcoming lectures, concerts and social arrangements. Later, he would record in shorthand how in fact he had spent the day. Each entry would end up with a short account of receipts and expenditures: ‘Dinner 10d. Stamp 1d. Pall Mall Gazette 1d. Train to Hampstead Heath 3d. Haircut etc 9d. Rec’d: Mother 3/6.’ As he grew busier, conscientiousness about both engagements and entries waned. Sometimes he made entries weeks after the event, admitting that he no longer remembered clearly. Then in 1897 Charlotte Payne-Townshend, with her private fortune, burden of leisure, and passionate need for a cause to offer them to, appointed herself his unpaid secretary and, in due course, put in order his dishevelled social and sexual lives for good. The year before they married, the diaries peter out.

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