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.

Under all these appearances of irreducible vigour Shaw was doubtless already feeling the beginnings of decline. At 70 he suspected that he was ‘superfluous’. And he may have been aware that, paradoxical as it seems, his had been an unusually deprived life. Starting out with a much less than good enough mother, he made, at 40, a marriage not lacking in mutual respect and affection but entirely sexless, a marriage that in this obvious respect fell, like his mother, short of the norm. Holroyd traces various patterns of behaviour that had been formed long since. For instance, early scrimping made him both careful with money and, on occasion, honourably or quixotically generous. He invested his German royalties in the ruined industries of Germany, he gave his Nobel Prize away; all sorts of people from the Webbs to actors down on their luck and the sons of friends and lovers, were beneficiaries, sometimes on a quite sumptuous scale.

His love affairs were likewise démesurés, extravagantly impassioned yet almost sexless. He liked actresses best, perhaps because they could be loved histrionically, performance taking precedence over commitment. Ellen Terry was famous and generally adored, Stella Campbell was notorious and generally desired: but neither their fame and notoriety nor his own ensured consummation. There were other women, but nothing like an ample libidinal life, and Holroyd feels it right to regret that Shaw was deprived of that particular satisfaction. He even attributes Shaw’s later ‘politics of violence’ to sexual deprivation.

In his old age Terry and Campbell caused him much trouble and some real pain by wanting to publish his letters. This was the price of his own fame, and he minded most because the publication of his old epistolary excesses would wound his wife. (Stella defeated his opposition by a trick, perhaps in revenge for what she regarded as an unfair portrayal of her in The Apple Cart.) For his own part, he could cover his anxieties with his public antics, his paradoxes and jokes.

It is not surprising that people often didn’t know how to take him. The reception of Back to Methuselah, with its mixture of politics and Creative Evolution, was bewildered. Saint Joan, hardly the expected sequel, and in some ways out of character though hugely successful, was reasonably described by Yeats as ‘the brilliant mirror of a shallow time’. Each new play seemed designed to shake the loyalty of some adherents. Of course he had devoted disciples, people who were willing, against his advice, to produce Back to Methuselah in Birmingham, New York, Germany. But his metabiology made no more converts than his politics. Only when a very late and in some respects inferior work, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, appeared (in two sixpenny volumes) as the first Pelican paperback did he register a notable political success; Attlee, with uncharacteristic hyperbole, said it won him the 1945 Election.

If distinguished old artists must be classed as either mysterious sages like Sophocles and Yeats, or survivors producing dotages, as was said of Ben Jonson, I suppose Shaw would have to be fitted into the second category. He had always been lucid, splendidly persuasive though failing to persuade, but he now grew too wild for credit. Beatrice Webb, who had at first disliked him, then saw his value and took him on for life. She was always at hand to scold and restrain him, but as time went by her task became too difficult. At one important moment the influence ran the other way, when Shaw converted the Webbs to Stalinism.

One might have thought that a sense of failing powers would at least have induced him to give up actresses, but no, at 70 he had an interesting and rather risky affair with an American woman called Molly Tompkins, 42 years his junior. Fame can be aphrodisiac, but old age is normally not, and the latter will normally ensure the transience of any sexual attraction caused by the former. But Molly really wanted Shaw and went on doing so. ‘I am dazed by the violence of my desire for you,’ she wrote. And although his letters to her make it sound more of a joke than it was, he was also in love with her, and all the more anxious about hurting his wife. The lovers saw a lot of each other, sometimes observed, through binoculars, by the patient and vigilant Charlotte Shaw. Molly’s young husband, also a devoted Shavian, seems to have put up with all this fairly complacently, no doubt taking into consideration the antiquity as well as the celebrity of his rival. There are strong signs that Molly and the old man did make love, if only once, on his 71st birthday. He claimed at least the spiritual paternity of her son. ‘I have hoarded my bodily possessions so penuriously [parsimoniously?] that even at seventy I had some left,’ he wrote soon after, at the same time suggesting that she had now robbed him of that remnant.

Shaw was one of the greatest of all letter writers and the Tompkins file is as delightful in its way as the old raves to Stella, memories of whom must have been revived by Molly. The whole affair is curious beyond the disparity of age. There was in this still fundamentally shy person a tendency to go over the top. It shows in his attitude to his own fame, a nuisance in some ways but borne exultantly. One gets the feeling that he wanted to appear a fraud or a clown, and that the need sprang from self-criticism, bitter and appeasable only by scrupulous attention to the requirements of honourable behaviour, demands usually met in secret and dissimulated in public. Yeats admired and disliked him, admitting that he ‘could not fathom’ Shaw’s ‘generosity and courage’. The generosity was selective; he was good at finding reasons for not helping, yet very open-handed when he thought fit. The courage is the courage of performance; unpopular causes were espoused in absurdly provocative ways, as when in 1914 he advised the troops to shoot their officers and come home. On a visit to South Africa he used what was meant to be a megastar’s progress to preach communism. Moreover he warned South Africans that a civilisation based on slavery would inevitably collapse: ‘The next great civilisation will be a Negro civilisation.’ Thereupon the Cape Argus accused him of neglecting ‘moral values’ – but the outrage, it was thought, could be taken as a characteristic put-on, and the final verdict was that he was after all a charming old gentleman.

So, when, in his wilder old age he grew too fond of recommending shooting as a means to economic and eugenic reform, Beatrice Webb might reprove him, but most people took it as more Shavian fooling, one more display of paradox, cheek and fantasy, which is why the wretched last play Geneva was a popular success. The political paradoxes were taken to be no more serious than the campaign for spelling reform, which, however, had serious posthumous effects in the litigation over Shaw’s will.

In these years Shaw travelled with Charlotte all over the world and was royally received everywhere from Hollywood to Shanghai. His refusal to please his hosts was the way he pleased them. Like the Beatles, he was more famous than Jesus Christ and as capable as they were of boasting about it. ‘His digressions and lapses into buffoonery had grown more frequent,’ says Holroyd, ‘and his flights from reality more extreme.’ Speaking of The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, he neatly describes its message as Surrealpolitik. Beatrice Webb hated the late plays with their slapstick and knockabout, which was reflected in Shaw’s own capers. Holroyd enjoys the moments of pure farce, as when it emerged that the immense crowd that welcomed Shaw at the Moscow station was actually there to greet a football team. Such absurdities also delighted Shaw, and aided what Holroyd calls the flight into fantasy. He had always loved a funeral and had a wonderful time as a pall-bearer at Hardy’s. Immediately after the death of his very old friend Archer he was photographed shamelessly dancing the tango. He gave every sign of enjoying the cremation of Jane Wells, and his conduct hurt Wells so much that he took posthumous revenge in his obituary, attributing Shaw’s behaviour to ‘the mental and moral consequences of prolonged virginity’.

In old age he wrote incessantly, negotiated paperback rights, took a keen interest in movies. He had his mini-Bayreuth at Malvern, and out of that developed a friendship with Elgar – persuading the BBC to commission a Third Symphony from him. His correspondence, which occupied so much of his writing time, included long autobiographical letters to the absurd Irish-American scholar and would-be biographer Demetrius O’Bolger (a Shavian name). It took Shaw quite a while to discover that O’Bolger was, as Holroyd puts it, ‘a complete duffer’. He wrote the book five times without winning Shaw’s endorsement and then suddenly died. ‘I do not know whether to be glad or sorry,’ said Shaw. However, his long letters to the duffer about his early life are important documents for the biographer.

He had enough energy left to delight in a new avatar of his favourite male type, the charmingly wild, demanding, unreliable Gabriel Pascal, who was at last to get Shaw decently into the cinema. Blanche Patch, Shaw’s unimpressionable secretary, testified that he had ‘never met a human being who entertained him more’.

But even for the most energetic of men life cannot for ever be sprightly running. He grew deaf, and as age came on he had a renal or prostate problem which he found shaming. Another unavoidable charge on old age is the death of contemporaries. Beatrice Webb and Charlotte Shaw both died in 1943. His wife’s death prompted him as usual to flippancy; it ‘set me free’, he said. But he could not prevent himself from crying in the street.

The last years were perhaps no more depressing than must be the case. The last hopeless reform proposals were for the Coupled Vote, the final gesture of a veteran feminist; a Parliamentary candidate would be constituted of two persons, a man and a woman, which would make representation at Westminster exactly equal for the sexes. The vultures gathered: Tompkins again, and two rather Pinterian operators, Lowenstein and Wardrop. They demanded and sometimes got what they wanted; loyal friends and servants resented them. The rich old man had to deal with many ‘dismal money matters’. He broke with Trebitsch, his extravagant German translator, now a refugee and wanting Shaw to provide him with the very high standard of living he had enjoyed in the past. Eventually Shaw began not to want to see anybody, even pretty actresses, even old friends. ‘I do not want to see ANYBODY. Keep away EVERYBODY.’ He spoke so faintly that he could barely be heard saying ‘if only I could die. I want to die and I can’t.’ Eventually, weeks after the fall that brought on the end, he did. He had asked for a private funeral, which would have prevented the sort of joking he went in for at the funerals of others. But the press came, and also representatives of the women’s movement, who were dispersed by the police.

Holroyd’s work is not finished, since there is to be a further volume devoted to references, at least ten thousand of them. However, he seems to have used Shaw’s own efficient filing system, and the much needed appendix will doubtless appear with the same promptitude as this admirable third volume.

[*] 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.