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.

Stanley Weintraub, who has edited all 12 diaries and the fragments from 1880 and 1917 into two stout volumes, gives the game away in his lively account of their provenance. When Shaw married Charlotte, he left his papers at his mother’s house in Fitzroy Square, where they lay neglected until Virginia Woolf and her brother Adrian took over the lease in 1907. A bookseller brought in to pick through the rubbish found the 1892 diary and returned it to Shaw, who put it on a shelf and forgot it. He made no effort to retrieve the others, which moved with his mother, passed at her death in 1913 to his sister Lucy, and on Lucy’s death to their aunt Arabella Gillmore, who took over Lucy’s house on Denmark Hill. When the house was bombed in the Blitz, Shaw’s cousin Georgina Musters dumped the contents in a warehouse to sort after the war. Only then were the diaries discovered and handed over to Shaw’s secretary, Blanche Patch, who spent her post-war leisure deciphering them. If she mentioned them to Shaw (she may not have), he appears to have shown no interest. Nor has anyone else, much, in the 36 years since Shaw’s death, except the predicted biographers. St John Ervine skimmed their scandalous cream in his ill-tempered centenary life in 1956. Other scholars have browsed them for background material, notably Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie in their book The Fabians. But it has taken until now for any publisher to be persuaded that a public wider than that of economic historians has been waiting to learn what Shaw paid for boot dubbing (threepence) and boots (nineteen-and-ninepence) a century ago.

Presumably Professor Weintraub persuaded the press of his own university to take the risk of publication by dint of the astonishing industry with which he and a platoon of helpers have managed to flesh out Shaw’s skeletal jottings with the context of Late Victorian London and its half-worlds of politics, music and journalism in which Shaw moved. Weintraub is not as immaculate an editor as Rupert Hart-Davis, nor his match as a stylist (in one footnote he refers to Shaw’s ‘massive disinterest in Scottish music’), but he comes close to rivalling Hart-Davis’s superb annotation of Oscar Wilde’s letters, tracking down and identifying a supporting cast of thousands. Did Shaw covertly admire a young Scandinavian lady at a tea-party given by one of his advanced admirers, Bertha Newcombe? Weintraub can tell us that Nellie Erichsen lived at 6 Trafalgar Studios, Manresa Road, Chelsea, illustrated several volumes of the ‘Highways and Byways’ series and translated a number of Strindberg’s plays with Edwin Björkman. Does Shaw dine with his neighbour George Wardle, manager of William Morris’s Merton works, in April 1887? Weintraub reminds us that Mrs Wardle, 26 years earlier, was acquitted in a sensational trial of the charge of murdering her lover. As Shaw grows more cavalier about keeping up the entries, Weintraub grows more assiduous, eking out Shaw’s bare notes of forward engagements with backward looks at the days in question from his letters or notices in the Saturday Review. At times the final diaries seem almost as much his work as Shaw’s, like the ‘autobiography’ pasted together from similar fragments which he redacted for Shaw some years ago.

His work has been prodigious. Nevertheless, readers faced with the customary princelet’s ransom now demanded for academic books on this scale are entitled to ask whether the results are worth the effort. After all, half a dozen biographers have already been over the ground for us. Without one of their volumes at one elbow, and Dan Laurence’s edition of Shaw’s letters at the other, the diaries themselves, however well annotated, will not yield a full picture of Shaw in his prime. It is true, as the books’ jackets claim, that we can learn the cost a hundred years ago of visiting Madame Tussaud’s, crossing the Channel, moving a piano, buying a typewriter ribbon and weighing yourself at a railway station. Apart from that, will the diaries tell anything new that we really want to know about Shaw?

The answer, after all cavils, is: yes, they will. A microscope picture of facial skin is less interesting than a portrait, but it conveys information a portrait can’t. It’s one thing to be told by biographers that the grinning old prophet who survives in newsreels was once a shy and cunning young Dubliner in exile. It’s another to track him down on his daily courses through the London of music halls, peasoup fogs and the dock strike, counting his pennies, spending one on a crossing-sweeper to save those new boots from mud and horse-droppings (even on nothing a year, he remains a member of the sweeper-tipping class), suddenly squandering seven on a piano arrangement of Rossini’s Semiramide. To save money, he walks everywhere, resorting to public conveniences (‘Lavatory man 1/-’) to wash and brush up before engagements. He tramps so vigorously from Bloomsbury to Hampstead, Hammersmith and Blackheath that it comes as a shock to learn that he had chronic difficulty rising before eleven and suffered regularly from migraines. The last, and his poverty, may have been contributing motives for his vegetarianism. For less than a shilling, he could dine on macaroni and cheese at the Porridge Bowl in Soho or the Orange Grove in St Martin’s Lane. After plays and concerts, he was happy with eggs and cocoa at home.

The tiny, painstaking reckonings at the end of each day grind on one’s nerves as they must have on his. You can feel his exhilaration when, with his share of the insurance paid at his father’s death in 1885, he walks out to be measured for his first Jaeger suit, ‘the first new garment I have had for years’. It cost him £5.15.0, and although he blamed its unaccustomed airiness for the cold he caught next day, he loved it so much that he tried, unsuccessfully, to buy a matching Jaeger hat a few weeks later.

Much of his strenuous walking was to free lectures. He attended them omnivorously: in October 1886 he heard lectures on ‘The Evils of Free Trade’, ‘Can Socialists be Christians?’, ‘Thought in Holland’ and ‘Primitive Aryan Communities’, as well as lecturing himself on ‘Socialism and Radicalism’, ‘The Division of Society into Classes’, ‘The Unemployed’ and ‘Interest – its Nature and Justification’. Reading the lists brings home the extent to which he made London, the city itself, his university. Its seminars were the dozen literary and debating societies to which he subscribed: the Dialectical, Zetetical, Bedford and Argosy, Annie Gilchrist’s Marxist Reading Circle in Hampstead, the Shelley, Browning and New Shakespeare Societies presided over by W.J. Furnivall. The Museum was its library, with its free desks, paper, pens and warmth, and the company of fellow students such as William Archer, Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas and Edith Nesbit, who dragged him out through the portico on 26 June 1886, to declare her passion for him. (‘A memorable evening!’ he jotted tersely.) The last group, the Fabians, gradually displaced all the others to become the centre of his life: they were his college, club, commune and Brudersbund. It was they who brought him to flower, indulging him as their brilliant, outrageous college clown and show-off. It helps to explain the playwright Shaw became, perhaps, if one thinks of him performing for London and its audiences as generations of clever, calculatedly bumptious undergraduates, from Mackworth Praed to Kenneth Tynan, have performed to their alma maters at Oxford and Cambridge.

With the same energy that he gave to his belated education, he flung himself into the other activities that young men discover at university. On his 29th birthday he was introduced to sexuality by his mother’s friend, the artistic widow Jenny Patterson. ‘I did not take the initiative in the matter,’ he wrote, but neither did it come as a total surprise. A week earlier he had purchased a packet of condoms (‘French letters 5/-’) and taken them home to examine, ‘which extraordinarily revolted me’. By the early Nineties, however, when he was dividing his attentions between Mrs Patterson and the actress Florence Farr, he had overcome his revulsion to the extent of buying his supplies in fifty-shilling quantities. Possibly it was his habit of accounting for every penny spent which led him to scribble figures, usually ones or twos, after notations of visits to Mrs Patterson’s house in Brompton Square, and sometimes after visits by her to his mother’s. One winter night in 1885, he walked her home across frozen Hyde Park and fell on the ice, pulling her down with him. A circled ‘one’ follows in the margin. Whether it refers to an event then and there, or later, is not made clear.

In 1890 Shaw began his concurrent wooing of Florence Farr, plying furtively between new love and old until the night of 4 February 1893, when Mrs Patterson burst into her rival’s house in Ravenscourt Park and made the scene which Shaw instantly turned to advantage (‘I kept patience and did not behave badly or urgently’) as the opening of his play The Philanderer. He also paid court, with varying seriousness, to Annie Besant, May Morris, Janet Achurch and Bertha Newcombe, who painted his best portrait at this age, defying hecklers with hands on hips and beard blazing. But the person he saw most regularly in these years, the diaries show, and displayed the most settled affection for, was Graham Wallas. The two bachelors of the inner Fabian ‘junta’, they would walk back together from meetings, perhaps share a late pot of tea or cocoa, and if conversation had not flagged, walk a few streets further. In February 1892 he went to hear Wallas lecture on Chartism at South Place Chapel. ‘Walked home with Wallas after the lecture, which ended in his walking home with me.’ If Shaw burned a fire in his study to finish a late review, Wallas might come and read beside him companionably: part of the cost of being a 19th-century intellectual was having to heat rooms where you worked alone. Youngest of a family of sisters, Wallas was often ill, and Shaw would look in to make sure one of the sisters was nursing him properly. Once, when a snowstorm caught them after dinner at the Webbs, Shaw walked from Grosvenor Street to Westminster to find a cab and send it back for Wallas. Wallas was one of the two witnesses, and the only friend from the Fabian inner circle, invited to Shaw’s wedding in 1898.

‘A strange, warm-hearted young man,’ Beatrice Webb wrote of Wallas, ‘with a bright intelligence, not much beyond commonplace except in its social fervour.’ It seems to have been that fervour which drew him together with Shaw. Their socialism had an emotional, almost religious basis lacking in that of the Webbs or, later, H.G. Wells. In his Fabian essay on property, Wallas describes the ‘dreary squalor’ of the English industrial working class, then the new and nobler life socialism could bring them. ‘Socialism hangs above them as the crown hung in Bunyan’s story above the man raking the muck heap – ready for them if they will but lift their eyes.’ It is the same Bunyanesque rhetoric that Shaw brings to his vision of London as hell, miraculously capable of regenerating itself into heaven, in Widowers’ Houses, Mrs Warren’s Profession and Major Barbara. His diaries bear witness to that emotion, focused on the image of the great, appalling city, in its flat noting of the miles he and his friends walked across it every Sunday to preach the creed of socialism in remote working-class backwaters, and then to Hammersmith for Sunday dinner with the creed’s prophet and patriarch, William Morris, and his family. (Morris, surely, not Stewart Headlam, inspired the hearty socialist vicar in Candida, with the cruel madonna of a wife ready to betray him with a poet.) If it was his university, it also became the heart of his religion: his symbol of sin and redemption, the great conspiracy of exploitation, misery and wrong which he and his comrades would build into a new Jerusalem. It would be consoling to believe that there are a few young men like them, dreaming similar dreams, walking the garbage-strewn streets and breathing the limousine-poisoned air of Margaret Thatcher’s capital.