Finest People

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Letters from Margaret: Correspondence between Bernard Shaw and Margaret Wheeler 1944-50 edited by Rebecca Swift
    Chatto, 279 pp, £13.99, November 1992, ISBN 0 7011 4783 0

In 1944 GBS was a widower of 89, dying, as we like celebrities to do, in public, and still in receipt of hundreds of letters every month from admirers, enquirers, beggars and cranks. They were in search, sometimes of money, more often of sympathetic magic. To many of them Shaw sent printed reply cards which he had ready on a wide range of subjects.

In 1944 Margaret Wheeler, a Workington housewife of 35 with four small children, set herself to attract Shaw’s serious attention. Her husband, a teacher, was serving with the Indian army, and Margaret, who was a strong-minded and resourceful woman, felt she needed help and advice of the highest quality. The fact that her problem was likely to be outside Shaw’s experience mattered not at all, for he was established as an oracle. ‘Surely there’s no need for me to remind you of the hold you have on the minds and affections of the finest people of our time.’ She began, however, by writing to him about one of his obsessions which (having started as early as 1901) had grown stronger in these last years, the phonetic English alphabet. Shaw’s reply card on this subject dismissed any reforms based on the traditional letters. ‘Such schemes should not be sent to Mr Shaw.’ Margaret’s suggested alphabet did use them, and she received a card, but on it were a few written words of mild encouragement.

Margaret, too, as it turned out, was obsessed. In her second letter she came to her real point, introducing to him ‘a problem of my own which has been haunting me – or maybe it was the other way round and I haunted the problem – for the past seven years.’ When her daughter Peggy had been born in a Nottingham nursing home she had been swapped in error – so Margaret believed – for another little girl, Valerie Rylatt, born on the same day. Getting no satisfaction from doctors or nurses, she kept in touch, with a strange mixture of hostility and friendship, with the Rylatts. There was, of course, no DNA fingerprinting in the Forties, but it would not have been much use to her in any case; although she and her husband took all the available genetic tests, the Rylatts understandably refused, both for themselves and for Peggy. Peggy, meanwhile, grew up tall and brown-eyed in a short, fair haired, blue-eyed family. Margaret (whom she thought of as her honorary aunt) pressed on relentlessly with her campaign.

Rebecca Swift, who has edited this correspondence, says that Shaw’s interest was caught – a ‘score’, as he pointed out himself, for Margaret – because of his ‘life-long fascination with unconventional family set-ups, orphans, changelings’. She attributes this in part to his mother’s desertion, when she followed her music-teacher lover from Ireland to England. This may be so, although orphans and changelings are also a mainstay of Gilbert and Sullivan, and of the popular Victorian theatre in general. Shaw was certainly sympathetic, but it seems to me that what he appreciated most was the theatrical quality of the situation and its openness to paradox. He is tempted, he tells Margaret, to write a play on the subject of the Judgment of Solomon in which the woman who gives up her child in order to save it is not the real mother, who has always disliked hers. Again, although he accepts that Peggy is Margaret’s true daughter, he suggests that it might well be better if she went on living with the Rylatts in Nottingham – better, that is, for Margaret. ‘In 12 short years there will be no Peggy, but, instead, a budding woman fighting for her independence against a tyrant mother, and needing a sympathetic unauthoritative aunt above all things ... And that is all I have time for tonight.’

As the correspondence grew, Margaret Wheeler came to feel an exasperated love for Shaw. He, in turn, was cautiously attracted to Margaret. She seemed one of his own kind, a grammar-school girl, ‘born able to read’, who had gone out to work at 16 because there was not enough money for art college, but who had always wanted to write or paint. She was the eldest of 12; the girls helped in the house when they got back from their jobs; the boys didn’t. In the Twenties the home was still what Shaw had called it in Maxims for Revolutionists – the girl’s prison, the woman’s workhouse. Margaret struck a deal, Rebecca Swift tells us, with her mother. She handed over more than half her wages, on the understanding that she didn’t have to do housework.

At every stage, she was a battler. ‘You are what experienced men call a dangerous woman,’ Shaw told her. ‘This does not matter with me. I have been a dangerous man myself.’ For her, he summoned up his old familiar battery of enormous compliments and adroit insults. She was ‘a joyous creature, a charmer’, who belonged to the small percentage (say 10 per cent) of intelligent women. He was giving a performance, but it must have meant a great deal to him that Margaret was not. She wanted no recommendations, no legal advice, certainly no money, although he estimated the resale value of his postcards at six shillings each. She never asked to meet him. She wanted only to listen and to be listened to. Charles Wheeler was still overseas, and Shaw saw himself, or pretended to, as a senile version of the ‘Sunday husband’ he had been, in the 1890s. to May Morris.

In 1945, however, Charles came home, and although the problem of the Mixed-Up Babies was still unsettled, Margaret turned to Shaw for sympathy on much wider – and at the same time more familiar – grounds. For the past four years she had managed, like millions of wives, to raise her family on soldier’s pay, but she had disposed of her own life, and if there was any spare time, it was hers. Now, however, Charles and his relations, and indeed her own, expected her to devote herself, without remission, to her home. Every year, she calculated, she made 1825 beds, cooked, served and washed up after 24 x 365 meals, walked approximately three thousand miles and swept up several tons of dust. ‘When I tell them that I must have some time to myself or I shall dance upon the house tops and scream aloud, they talk about sending for the doctor, – one of them even suggested two doctors.’ The time was needed for thinking, reading, perhaps writing. Shaw had told her that it was not possible to do more than two hours’ creative literary work at a stretch. She asked, then, for an uninterrupted two hours.

Although Shaw could not resist referring to Beatrice Webb – who had said that household management should take no more than thirty minutes a day – and to ‘Russian women’ who did a fulltime job on top of everything else, he was ready with a solution. Everyone, he reminded Margaret, including himself, had to endure a good deal of monotony, but ‘Nature (alias Providence) makes it bearable.’ If Providence fails, ‘the only way to get rid of housework and mothering is simply not to do it, and either keep servants or just leave it undone, like Mrs Jellyby. If you do this latter the results will soon force Charles and the kids to do it themselves and wait on you.’ Emphatically he advised her to start writing – something, he insisted, which he had never done before. ‘Do not let me down!’ This was in 1949. The following October, before Margaret, who was pregnant again, could put his advice into practice, Shaw died at Ayot St Lawrence.

On his 70th birthday the Times had declared itself amazed ‘that wit so keen could flash from heart so kind.’ The truth about Shaw’s generosity had been out for some time, although he inclined at the end of his life to concentrate on small individual cases. With Margaret he took considerable pains, sending one of her pen-and-ink drawings to Time and Tide (where Lady Rhondda rejected it with the ease of long practice), and refusing to destroy some of Margaret’s letters, although he thought keeping letters a ‘mischievous habit’. ‘Your way of putting the stuff together is the right way.’ Only – and this was a profound compliment – he must persuade her to be professional. She must learn to write, not to please herself, but for money.

Margaret is now 85. Hers is a story without conclusions, without, so to speak, an Act Three. In the Fifties she studied pottery and sculpture at Carlisle College of Art. Meanwhile the two girls, Valerie and Peggy, both married, have long since accepted that they are changelings, but no further scientific tests or legal steps have ever been taken. At the end of the book Rebecca Swift prints her interviews with Martin (Margaret’s son), and with Valerie and Peggy. Here Margaret appears in rather a different light. ‘We kids got rather fed up with these lengthy missives’ – this is Valerie – ‘as Mum would still be in her housecoat at midday, writing to Shaw, as she always told us,’ but from no member of the family is there any blame for Margaret’s obsessive struggles to put the tragic mix-up straight. ‘I did feel that Margaret had treated me differently,’ says Valerie. ‘It was impossible for her to hide the fact I wasn’t naturally hers.’ But she adds: ‘I’d defy anybody who has a cuckoo in the nest, to give that cuckoo the same amount of love, care, affection and time as the others.’ ‘Margaret was absolutely right to do what she did, for her own sake, and mine, and Val’s,’ says Peggy. ‘There was a lot of trauma along the way, but she didn’t let it stop her,’

The girls’ tolerance seems a match for Shaw’s benevolence, and indeed for Michael Holroyd’s: he suggested the idea of the book to Swift. In fact, the total effect of Letters from Margaret, in spite of the painful nature of her struggle, is one of radiant good nature, almost disconcerting at the latter end of the 20th century.