Georgian eyes are smiling

Frank Kermode

  • Bernard Shaw. Vol. I: The Search for Love, 1856-1898 by Michael Holroyd
    Chatto, 486 pp, £16.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3332 5
  • Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters. Vol. IV edited by Dan Laurence
    Bodley Head, 946 pp, £30.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 370 31130 2
  • Shaw: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies. Vol. VIII edited by Stanley Weintraub
    Pennsylvania State, 175 pp, $25.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 271 00613 7
  • Shaw’s Sense of History by J.L. Wisenthal
    Oxford, 186 pp, £22.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 19 812892 4
  • Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol. III: 1903-1907 edited by Frederick Karl and Laurence Davies
    Cambridge, 532 pp, £35.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 521 32387 8
  • Joseph Conrad: ‘Nostromo’ by Ian Watt
    Cambridge, 98 pp, £12.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 521 32821 7

There were already good biographies of Shaw, notably those of Frank Harris and Hesketh Pearson, both of whom knew Shaw and had the benefit of his energetic interventions. Pearson in particular will not be easily supplanted. Nevertheless the archives of the world are full of Shaviana inaccessible before his death, and because there had not been a serious attempt since 1956 – the centenary year – the Shaw Estate sensibly decided that the time had come for a new biography, and invited Mr Holroyd to write it. It is not surprising that the work has preoccupied him for a great many years, nor that it will consist of three large volumes. This one takes Shaw from his birth in 1856 to his marriage in 1898, by which time he was already celebrated or notorious, but still near the beginning of his success as a playwright.

Holroyd, needing to make a decision about how and where to record his scattered and multitudinous sources, has thought it best to leave them out altogether from the three volumes of text, and, in due time, publish them separately. His motive, which is to avoid delay in publication and avoid also ‘charging general readers for an apparatus they will never use’, is generous enough, but the decision is still disappointing, for some of the interest lies in spotting what is new, and even general readers – a category authors are tempted to fashion in whatever image suits their book – might like to know where it came from. Shaw produced no formal autobiography but wrote freely about himself – for instance, in long patiently buoyant letters to the haplessly aspiring Professor Demetrius O’Bolger of Philadelphia, and in fake interviews, as well as in some of his published writings. There is also the shorthand diary he kept for 13 years. Much of this material is now accessible in print, but Holroyd must have trawled in many other waters, and we shall have to wait, perhaps a long time, for the record of his doing so.

To be done at once with these gentle criticisms: the subtitle, perhaps also devised to please the general reader, may raise a sigh or a yawn rather than quicken interest. It pertains, but so would ‘the flight from love’ or the like, and neither really gives much idea of the content of the volume. Holroyd is keen to map on to Shaw’s maturity his recollections of the ménage à trois in which he was reared. The interloper was the glamorous musician Vandeleur Lee, about whose origins Holroyd has a lot of interesting things to say. Lee had a miraculous voice-training method and is said, though not very credibly, to have been one of the models for Du Maurier’s Svengali. He was a bit shady, a bit of a rogue – a type Shaw habitually fell for and habitually treated with great generosity. In conscious or unconscious emulation he liked to attach himself to married couples. These triangles recur throughout his earlier life, and crop up in Candida and in The Devil’s Disciple. The wives would usually be attracted, but he seems not to have seduced them. In a well-known letter, used by Frank Harris in his biography and now given in its original form by Dan Laurence, Shaw claims to have no scruples in matters of sex, but at once goes on to admit he has two: he will take care not to get women into trouble, and he will refrain from cuckolding his friends. Here as elsewhere – in money matters, for instance – he observed his own rules very scrupulously.

Shaw wasn’t always candid enough about some aspects of his youth to satisfy biographers, and although he claimed that there was nothing between the great singing teacher and his mother but friendship and professional association he may all the same – as Holroyd conjectures – have had other ideas, and even fancied himself the son of the flamboyant Lee rather than of his wretched father; Beatrice Webb, it seems, was sure he was Lee’s son. What he certainly owed to Lee was his early knowledge of music, the principal positive educational attainment of his Dublin childhood. Other benefits were somewhat negative: his experience of performing badly at bad schools left him sceptical about normal education; his family, decayed aristocrats, gave him a hatred of snobbery, and Dublin a loathing of ‘state superstition’ and poverty.

While doing various jobs of a clerkly sort, he soaked himself in opera, and grew confident, though possibly no more than many other young men, of some sort of future greatness. At 20, having moved with the family to London, he was ghosting music criticism for Lee and writing stories, book reviews and part of a play about Jesus. The ‘pale, private Shaw’ he then was decided to be a writer, and doggedly worked at novels held to be so immoral, so ‘disagreeable and perverse’, that no one would publish them. Already a vegetarian, a teetotaller, a clothes reformer and a champion of women’s rights, he was studying the realities of London life and Late Victorian society, disgusted with the falsity of conventional accounts, seeking always the hard facts, yet always, in his own way, an aesthete. His arguments for vegetarianism have ethical and hygienic components but are mainly aesthetic (one remembers how pleased he was with Almroth Wright’s observation that hygiene was fundamentally a matter of aesthetics). They are also cogent: if sound argument ever prevailed over prejudice we should, under Shaw’s influence, have given up meat long ago.

Along with all this he was seriously studying socialism; fired by Henry George, he was instructed mainly by Marx, whom he actually read (in French). Soon he was an indispensable Fabian. He worked like the devil – it is quite a relief to find him talking about his ‘inveterate laziness’, and to learn that on some days he ‘did practically nothing’. But on such days he must have been working at the construction of a harder and more complex personality, a new Shaw who was always joking yet always in earnest, and always fascinating – handsome in his Jaeger suit and in the beard he grew to cover a smallpox scar.

He made interesting rather than close friends. Holroyd gives a fine account of his relationship with the amiable Ibsenite William Archer. Shaw, working as an art critic, would go with Archer to the shows. ‘He didn’t know much about painting then,’ said Archer, ‘but he thought he did, and that was the main point.’ It was the same, perhaps, with women He devoted some of his scant leisure to flirting with them, and they usually found his gallantries at once comical, infuriating and hard to resist. But he was 29 before he lost his virginity, to a friend of his mother’s 15 years his senior. This affair was satisfactory to begin with, despite, Holroyd thinks, a pregnancy crisis: but Shaw was incapable of the attentiveness called for, and it ended in tears. Remembering this debacle, he later took a strong line about feminine demands on him, somewhat in the manner of Dick in The Devil’s Disciple.

Among those he tormented were Edith Bland, whose husband Hubert was unfaithful. Failing to get Shaw into bed, she made her famous complaint: ‘You had no right to write the Preface if you were not going to write the book.’ Then there were Annie Besant, May Morris (especially after her marriage) and Florence Farr, for whom he had a rival in Yeats. Another whose marriage he triangulated was Janet Achurch: yet another, on whom he worked mostly by letter, was Ellen Terry. And there were more actresses, among them Mrs Patrick Campbell, some married and some not. He had a taste for actresses, and for other distinguished women. He refused to follow the way of the world and ‘substitute custom for conscience’, but some thought his sexual preferences, however proper by his own lights, liable to be destructive, even self-destructive. Beatrice Webb (over whose marriage he innocently hovered) spoke harshly of his brand of philandering. She had begun by disliking him, but came to know his value, and did not want him spoiled; in 1897 she complained that ‘his sensuality has all drifted into sexual vanity – delight in being the candle to the moths – with a dash of intellectual curiosity to give flavour to his tickled vanity. And he is mistaken if he thinks it does not affect his artistic work. His incompleteness as a thinker, his shallow and vulgar view of many human relationships ... all these defects come largely from the flippant and worthless self-complacency brought about by the worship of rather second-rate women.’ She was much relieved when (at the end of this volume) a sudden serious illness seems to have forced Shaw to stop fooling about with a first-rate woman, Charlotte Payne-Townshend – a generous benefactor of the Fabians, whose money was seed corn for the London School of Economics – and marry her (‘I proposed to make her my widow’). Holroyd’s account of this side of Shaw’s life is admirable. His prose occasionally takes on the vitality of Shaw’s, as if he were closely paraphrasing, which at times he presumably is. We shall see, in due course.

In these years Shaw’s playwrighting had to be done in the spare time left by journalism and all his other exhausting activities. To give a fair notion of these activities was probably the biographer’s hardest task, and he does it well, with interesting detail about Shaw’s work as a vestryman in St Pancras. He campaigned against housing policy, vaccination and other evils; for honesty in local government, for independence in relation to a Parliament which forced wrong decisions on weak councils, and for the infiltration, first at local level, of socialist ideals: ‘The little Socialism we have is gas and water Socialism. And it is by extension of Gas and Water Socialism that industry will be socialised.’ (He might not have been surprised by the present Whitehall domination of St Pancras, though he would hardly, in his least optimistic mood, have foreseen the abolition of gas and water socialism.) In this public career he cut a certain dash, achieving only a little, but as much as he could have expected; and, as Holroyd says, he picked up a lot of information that would he useful to him as a dramatist.

This biography is unlikely to change our general idea of the younger Shaw, but it enriches and complicates the detail, making the image somewhat darker by emphasising the insecurities that lay under the enormous affable assurance of the superman. Having found that the one reliable drug was work, he became addicted to it – reading and writing almost incessantly, studying music and economics, making himself expert in a wide variety of useful subjects, producing a mass of journalism of all sorts as well as his early plays, and writing long eloquent letters on every conceivable topic and occasion.

It might be said that the period covering the lives of Shaw (1865-1950) and Conrad (1857-1924) was not only the last age of letter-writing – the telephone was slowly taking over – but also its great age, a terminal flowering of the genre. It was still necessary to write letters and still possible to discourse fluently and informally on the matter in hand, which might be deeply personal or merely a means of setting up a meeting next day (or even on the same day). People would normally write without a thought of subsequent retrieval and collection – letters were simply the main instrument of civilised intercourse. The postal service was cheaper and more efficient than ever before or since. Paper was cheap, and no one yet thought it inconvenient or laborious to write with a pen. Typewriters, thought appropriate only to mechanical business tasks, were manipulated mostly by female labour: indeed, the word was used not only of the machine but of the typist. The first occurrence of this word recorded in OED – the T volume was compiled in 1917 – is dated 1885 and still enclosed in quotes, though by 1890 a Society of Typists existed to examine ‘type writer operators’, and the word in its full later sense was around by 1902. Its association with women workers was sometimes demonstrated in the spelling ‘typiste’. Such persons were not often used for private correspondence (the later Shaw was an exception, being rich enough to have a personal secretary and having acquired a mastery of shorthand). Until quite recently, and perhaps still in some old-fashioned circles, a prejudice lingered against the use of machines for friendly or intimate letters, but at the same time personal communications from word-processors are growing more common. On the principle that the more time-saving devices there are the less time one has to spare (for a business machine converts everything into business), long, easy, digressive letters presumably don’t get written except by deliberate archaists.

It doesn’t of course follow that in the age of Shaw everybody, or even very good writers, wrote marvellous letters. The new Conrad volume provides a convincing demonstration of the contrary. Conrad is by comparison with Shaw amazingly limited, almost entirely absorbed by his own admittedly awful problems, and especially by his distaste for the business of writing and his desperate shortage of cash.

Shaw had cash in quantities, though in his last years he imagined the Labour Government was mulcting him to the point where he paid more in tax than he earned: his allusions to this iniquity are uncharacteristically unfacetious. But these senescent grumbles form a very small part of his colossal correspondence, which, since he was, as he admitted, almost the most famous man in the world, people tended to preserve. The earliest surviving letter is dated 1872, the latest 1950.

This fourth and final volume of the Laurence edition covers the last twenty-five years of Shaw’s life, and although he grumbles a bit about an increasing tendency to forgetfulness and deafness there is only a little diminution in the vast range of his interests, the vigour of his epistolary prose, or, for that matter, his memory. Most of the 740 letters in this volume are newly published. Of course they represent only a small proportion of what is extant, and the selection is bound to be criticised by those who have frequented the archives and can claim to know almost as much about the material as Laurence himself. But everybody else is likely to feel that he has done a patient and devoted job in transcribing – even shorthand that sometimes reverted to ‘antiquated grammalogues’ or put dots and hooks in the wrong positions – and in elucidating carefully but without pedantry letters containing allusions to all manner of forgotten issues and interests. The list of acknowledgments to libraries, collectors and executors around the world fills three large pages and gives one a faint idea of the labour involved. Laurence mutters a bit about some carping reviews of the earlier volumes, but, having made available one of the finest collections of letters in English, he could afford to ignore them.

It is easy to see that Shaw irritated people in late as in early life. Being vain and assertive, or finding it convenient to wear a mask of assertive vanity, he writes in the same breezily authoritative tone on virtually any topic, including one or two that he was not on the face of it particularly well-qualified to undertake. Yet the collection leaves one full of admiration for the man’s character as well as his casually exact prose. He claimed that although letter-writing had used up years of his working life, ‘none of the letters was unnecessary (no time for that) ...’ Writing letters was important work. He wrote, sometimes at length, to complete strangers who sought his advice on their lives. He replied profusely – usually with sharply remembered detail, always with authority and relentless good humour – to letters from people curious about the London theatre of his youth, or anything else on which his age and fame made his opinion worth seeking. And as one reads it is hard to avoid the doubtless over-simple judgment that Shaw was not only a fantastically well-informed man, but also a good man.

In a letter of 1928 he writes thus to Ada Tyrrell, whom he had known in his youth:

My life has rushed through very quickly: I have seen very little of anyone who has not worked with me. Except with my wife I have no companionships. I spring to intimacy in a moment, and forget in half an hour. An empty life is peopled with the absent and the imagined: a full one has to be cleared out every day by the housemaid of forgetfulness or the air would become unbreathable.

But he kept up – by letter – with his old Fabian intimates, the Webbs and Wells, and had a joky intimacy with persons as diverse as Lady Astor, Virginia Woolf and the heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. He was sporadically in touch, affectionate and censorious, with Mrs Patrick Campbell, and kept a kindness for scapegraces such as Lord Alfred Douglas and Frank Harris, in whose biography of Shaw the subject had interfered so heavily and helpfully.

Being rationally opposed to the entire political, social and sexual order of the times, Shaw was professionally candid on subjects such as sex and death, which might make him seem more like Harris than he really was. His candour is without salacity or pride of conquest. In the letter mentioned above he lectures Harris (who set up as an expert on the subject) about copulation: it is not ‘a personal relation’, and if he were to recount every affair in his life Harris would still be no wiser about his personal, or even his sexual, history. ‘You would only know what you already know: that I am a human being.’ Except, perhaps, in having no notion of sex as a guilty thing, yet in having remained ‘a continent virgin’ till the age of 29.

Rather unusually, he understood that ‘chastity can be a passion, just as intellect is a passion,’ and this, I think, tells one a good deal about him. Despite his brilliance as a debater, and despite what Beatrice Webb called his vulgarity, he often had an intuitive understanding of attitudes he could not share or even repudiated. He was irreligious in the most obvious sense, unless worshipping the Life Force is a form of religion; he disliked almost everything about Christianity. Yet he was on friendly terms with famous parsons like Dick Sheppard and W.R. Inge, and had a rather remarkable correspondence with a nun called Sister Lawrentia. Her disapproval of his Little Black Girl in Search of God upset him, and when he asked her to pray for him he obviously meant it. A report of her death proving false, he remarked that he felt ‘a soul had been dragged back from felicity. Which is queer, as of course I don’t believe anything of the sort.’

Not believing anything of the sort, he had his own way (and a very good way it was) of offering condolence to the bereaved. He told the newly-widowed Mrs Frank Harris to begin another life at once ‘with the wisdom garnered from your first experiment’, and enclosed a cheque for immediate expenses, since ‘death does not always select a convenient moment when there is plenty of ready money in the house.’ There is characteristic sense and generosity in this, as there is in his letter to Esmé Percy, who had asked for a loan on a post-dated cheque. Percy got, along with some good advice about the dangers of such cheques, a flat refusal – ‘I shall not lend you a farthing’: but he also got a present of £100.

Shaw refused to be intimidated by death, remarking that this was a family trait. ‘Why does a funeral always sharpen one’s sense of humour and rouse one’s spirits?’ he asks, returning from his mother’s. ‘This one was a complete success.’ He enjoyed his sister’s cremation, admired the lovely garnet flames provided by his mother, and went behind the scene to watch the crematorium workers sorting her ashes. In the present volume he has also to record the death of his wife: ‘People who cry and grieve never remember. I never grieve and never forget.’ So he remembers being inconsiderate towards his unsatisfactory father (‘unlucky, untrained and unsuccessful’) and says he understands why Dr Johnson stood bareheaded in the rain at Lichfield to atone for a similar fault.

His urge to give advice was irrepressible. He lectured typographers on typography, publishers on publishing, lawyers on the law, copyright experts on copyright, Sir James Pitman on shorthand, Winston Churchill on political history, Edward Elgar on music, Gabriel Pascal on film direction, John Reith on the BBC, and especially actors on acting (he was fond of them much in the way one is fond of children: they needed discipline as well as praise). His tone is often what might have been found offensive had people not come to expect it as part of the Shavian act, and many must have come to see that he was often generous and sage as well as pretending to be both, and also denying it.

During these years he naturally had quite a lot to say about Fascism and Nazism, and although doctors, physiologists, soldiers and many other venerated professions had good cause to deplore him, it is probably for his views on Mussolini and Hitler that he is always likely to get the worst press. His attitude to National Socialism was roughly that as a socialist he himself had decided against world revolution in favour of national revolution, so that he, and all who made that choice, were in fact National Socialists themselves. He was distinctly soft on the dictators (‘Fascism, or the organisation of the State as a hierarchy of industrial and professional corporations, is right as far as it goes,’ he tells a German acquaintance in 1933, ‘but these organisations must own industry and the land’). His continuing failure to understand what was happening in the world is shown by a letter about Munich, where he argues that once it seemed clear that the British were really going to fight, ‘Musso’ pulled Hitler up pretty sharp and made him accept Chamberlain’s terms. Geneva must be his biggest theatrical faux pas. Somebody should study the revisions he made to it in 1938 and 1939, without making it any better. Yet at the time it seemed quite good fun – more of the old fellow’s paradoxes, nothing serious.

He repeatedly criticised the Nazis for wasting their energies on a silly persecution of socialists and Jews, regarding anti-semitism as a foolish and temporary aberration, essentially unrelated to Fascism, and very bad for Germany’s international reputation. In 1938 he remarked that ‘Musso’ had let him down by turning anti-semite, but he also told Beatrice Webb that states have the right to make eugenic experiments ‘by weeding out any strains that they think undesirable, though in such a manner as not to shock civilisation by such misdemeanors as the expulsion and robbery of Einstein’. A year later we find him telling Ashley Dukes and the League of Dramatists that he wouldn’t subscribe a percentage of one day’s royalties to a fund for Jewish refugees (set up by Baldwin). Finally, ‘Belsen was obviously produced by the incompetence and breakdown of the military command.’

On Stalin he seems merely gullible. ‘With his Georgian eyes and frank smile ... the lady killer as far as looks go, he is said to be a model of domesticity ... Instead of making himself President he remains a nondescript nobody.’ He was impressed when Stalin told Lady Astor of his indignation that the English beat their children, and charmed by the courtesy with which he himself was received. What is one to make of all this? First, that Shaw’s politics, though in his youth directly related to practical issues, grew more and more abstract. Moreover he lacked what Henry James called the imagination of disaster: he could reduce the camps, and perhaps Stalin’s purges, to abstract politics or eugenics. Possibly the strain of anti-semitism woven into the social fabric of his youth had blunted his sense of Jewish suffering. Orwell remarked that up to 1933, though not later, anti-semitism might be regarded as a silly but venial aspect of social snobbery. Shaw repeatedly and credibly denied that he was an anti-semite, but was incapable of being very upset about the activities of those who were. Their practical eugenics seemed a bit rough, their concentration camps badly run because they were left to the dregs of the officers’ mess. A certain refusal to care is part of the Shavian style, incident to a calculated disregard for ordinary opinion. On most matters we’d still say he was ruthless on the right side, but hardly on this one.

It is sometimes said that World War One was the critical moment of his life – a purge which had no possible eugenic justification and hardened all the feeling. He could not suffer the effect of the second with quite the same force. He was old, and somewhat preoccupied with his own celebrity, which was of an intensity unmatched by any author since, except perhaps Solzhenitsyn. When he travelled, as he often did, he saw rather little and met only the nobs. Though he knew so much about everything, in one sense he knew very little about these new terrors. It is easier for us to see the horrors of Fascism and eugenics than it was for many people in the Thirties. But however strongly one would wish to do it, his case is not easy to defend. As he himself had written almost half a century before that Belsen letter, ‘the worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.’

His fame may have receded somewhat over forty years, but people are still finding out more about what he knew. Holroyd remarks that Shaw ‘has been posthumously most industrious over the last dozen years or so’, and there seems to be no slackening. There is the Shaw annual, edited by another learned and dedicated American Shavian, Stanley Weintraub; the current issue contains essays about Mozart’s influence on Don Juan in Hell, Shaw’s attitude to Ireland, aviation, religion and Churchill, with much else, including reviews of new books on Shaw and a ‘continuing checklist of Shaviana’, running to 12 pages of small print. Though he is far from alone among his contemporaries in attracting much scholarly attention, Shaw, with his enormous output and variety of skills and interests, offers more scope than most. J.L. Wisenthals monograph deals with one such interest, studiously examining the backgrounds of Ceasar and Cleopatra, Saint Joan, and In Good King Charles’s Golden Days, and extending the discussion to many other plays. He looks for the roots of Shaw’s thinking about history in Carlyle, Macaulay, Nietzsche, Buckle, Marx and others, including John Stuart Stuart-Glennie, a philosopher of history hitherto unheard of by me, though Shaw found him in some respects superior to Nietzsche. The book gives one a good notion of the scope of Shaw’s historical knowledge as well as of the limitations he inherited from Victorian historiography. The Shaw industry flourishes.

Shaw’s letters can be hilarious, but few other writers produce epistolary hilarity, and Conrad certainly doesn’t. He was far less copious than Shaw – the present edition includes all his known letters – and was less interested in arguing and instructing than in his toothache, gout, malaria, eczema, neuralgia, depression, shortage of cash, and ‘the atrocious misery of writing’. Added to his personal problems were his wife’s ailing knees and heart, and his son Borys’s almost continuous illnesses. He wrote repeatedly to his agent Pinker, demanding various kinds of service and urgent supplies of money in a rather peremptory way, almost as of nobleman to tradesman, except that he also says things like ‘I daren’t even wish myself dead.’ To Wells he complains of ‘creeping imbecility’, and, hearing that Ford Madox Ford is in trouble, he is quick to point out that his state is ‘just as bad in its way’. His correspondence with Roger Casement brings out the best in him; he was most at ease with men of action like Casement or Cunninghame Graham. His letters to the press – for example, a protest against the precensorship of plays – can’t compare with Shaw’s on similar issues.

If necessary, we can remind ourselves that he was in most respects a greater artist than Shaw, and that what he was writing, with all manner of slow torment, at the time of these miserable letters, was Nostromo. On 3 September 1904 he tells Garnett: ‘I write you these lines just to say that Nostromo is finished; a fact upon which my friends may congratulate me as upon a recovery from a dangerous illness.’ Though eloquent on their cost, he rarely says much about his books as such, and it is interesting to find him thanking W.H. Chesson for a review of The Secret Agent which told him something about his talent that he says he had not himself been aware of – his taste for ‘the bizarre – or that which is idiotic with force and egotism’. It isn’t easy to conceive of Shaw supposing that his work had senses or qualities he wasn’t aware of. But one can see why the critical labour of expounding and illuminating Conrad, which calls for more delicacy and penetration than the exposition of Shaw, continues to attract so many students.

They will be glad to have Ian Watt’s little book, which is informative, authoritative and unaffected. It is part of the Cambridge ‘Landmarks’ series, ugly outside but valuable within, that includes Wolfgang Iser’s distinguished ‘maverick’ volume – disregarding the series guidelines for presentation – on Tristram Shandy (the best choice, of course, for such a volume), and more regular treatments – of L’Etranger by Patrick McCarthy, and of The Tale of Genji by Richard Bowring – with a great many more to come. So far, Shaw is absent from a list which includes Dickens, Homer, Dante, Rousseau, Goethe, Woolf, Constant, Balzac, Mann and Tolstoy: so it is as well that he is being taken care of elsewhere.