Well, was he?

A.N. Wilson

  • Bernard Shaw: The Ascent of the Superman by Sally Peters
    Yale, 328 pp, £18.95, April 1996, ISBN 0 300 06097 1

What do we make of Shaw, the most ephemeral Great Man of early 20th-century literature? Naturally, he received the Nobel Prize, and he made himself very rich twice over, partly by writing perky, harmless plays, partly by marrying money. His outstanding virtue as a man was that he could be immensely kind: he was generous to spongers and – a big plus on anyone’s marksheet because it was so rare – was prepared to stick up for Wilde at the time of Oscar’s fall from grace. As a youngish and middle-aged man, he devoted hours of his time to the largely unrewarding work of a councillor in the St Pancras Ward of London. Thanks to Shaw, the first ladies’ lavatory in England was constructed at the top of Parkway in Camden Town. The campaign to build the loo was in its way an archetypally Shavian act of philanthropy, provoking gratifying howls from Tory shopkeepers and local residents who believed that such a provision offended against public decency. Nowadays, the (increasingly elderly?) fans who clamber from their charabancs for matinée productions of Major Barbara or The Doctor’s Dilemma have more cause to be grateful to GBS than they know. After all, thanks to the existence of public lavatories for women, the fans can settle back for two or three hours of facile paradox and wholly unmemorable epigram, safe in the knowledge that they can be in all senses ‘comfortable’.

It is no accident mat Shaw continues to survive, if that is the right word, at respectable theatres in Chichester, Malvern and Shaftesbury Avenue. This supposedly dangerous socialist with his red beard, carefully-maintained Irish accent and equally carefully-nurtured anti-bourgeois views was always the political equivalent of a flirt. His claim, made in the 1880s, that ‘I was a coward until Marx made a communist of me’ sounds stirring enough. On 13 November 1887 the 31-year-old Shaw took part in the famous, and illegal, demonstration for free speech which came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The march set out from Clerkenwell Green, Annie Besant and Shaw being among the many who carried banners. Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx and the other leftist intellectuals remained for the duration of the demo, which was interrupted not merely by the police but also by Scots Guards with bayonets fixed. Shaw commended the bravery of the women on the march, and mocked the cowardice of the men. Annie Besant was the ‘heroine’ of the day, he told a meeting later that evening. He cynically and cheerfully admitted later that he had ‘skedaddled and never drew rein’ at the first hint of fisticuffs. He quoted with appreciation R.B. Cunninghame Graham, who said that Shaw was ‘the first man to run away from Trafalgar Square on Bloody Sunday’. (Cunninghame Graham went to prison as a result of the riot.) This is all of a piece with Shaw, once the youthful Fenian, having not the smallest desire to live either in the Irish Free State or the Irish Republic. Similarly, his gerontic adulation of Stalin and Hitler seems prefigured by his remark in 1908: ‘if there is to be any shooting, the Fabian intends to be at the state end of the gun.’

For all the fervour with which Shaw was read by young socialists in the early years of this century, his political stances now seem absurd garments, acquired, like the celebrated all-in-one Jaeger suit, as a way of playing to the gallery, shocking but half-delighting the bourgeoisie on whom his fortunes as a playwright depended. Extremely staid middle-class people can always sniff out and enjoy adventurous ‘views’ which pose no threat to them whatsoever. Dr Gustav Jaeger, one of the many medical crack pots of his age, developed the Sanitary Woollen System in the mid-1880s. His famous garments included woollen sheets – more hygienic, naturally – and digital socks, which resembled gloves for the feet. The garments were designed to encourage perspiration, which drew out ‘poisons’ from the skin: wool, according to Jaeger, absorbed and gave off ‘natural vapours’, Already a keen vegetarian, Shaw adopted Jaeger’s ideas, and his clothes, with alacrity. Passionately sceptical of conventional medical developments – he denounced Edward Jenner’s idea of vaccination as a mere ‘stunt’ which was ‘nothing short of attempted murder’ – he was prepared to believe, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say adopt, the ludicrous ideas of Dr Jaeger.

To celebrate the death of his unloved father, who died neglected and poverty-stricken in Dublin in 1885, and to spend the insurance money which this event brought his way, Shaw went to Jaeger’s shop in the West End of London and ordered the yellow knitted all-in-one suit, ‘the first new garment I have had for years’. In this peculiar defiance of mourning, purchased in the month of August, he might have been expected to perspire as freely as Dr Jaeger could have hoped, particularly since he also kitted himself out with Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen Braces, Woollen Shirt and Woollen Coat. Plenty to draw out the poisonous vapours there, it might be supposed, but the interesting thing is that none came, suggesting at the very least a cold fish if not – to stretch or mix a metaphor – someone without much inside him.

He adopted the clothes in the belief, apparently borne out in practice, that they would make him odourless. Shaw was obsessed by personal cleanliness. When Beverley Nichols met him in 1929, appropriately enough at Malvern (home of Victorian quack medicines), he exclaimed: ‘The cleanliness of the man! He was like snow and new linen sheets and cotton wool and red apples with the rain on them. One felt that he must even smell delicious, like hay or pears.’ Trying to persuade a friend to adopt vegetarianism, Shaw once assured him that his own evacuations were ‘entirely odourless’. It was eating meat which would make them malodorous, and if he were to ‘pass such a motion, I should give myself up for dead’. In the Twenties, when Shaw was getting into the stride of that spindly senescence which seemed his natural or true age, he was hoping that ‘one day we shall live on air, and get rid of all the sanitary preoccupations which are so unpleasantly aggravated by meat-eating.’

If evacuation without odour seems too predictable a trope for the general literary effect of Shaw – me fact mat his plays leave so little trace in the mind – another metaphor might be the long, reasonably happy and apparently sexless marriage with Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who belonged to that class from which Shaw felt excluded by the alcoholism and improvidence of his immediate forebears: the Protestant Irish gentry. For all his frequent and often passionate flirtations with women – mainly actresses, but a few political activists provided they were sufficiently ‘interesting’ – Shaw either did not or could not go further than the first stage. One of these women, Edith Nesbit, furiously told him, ‘you had no right to write the preface if you were not going to write the book’ – and it seems quite appropriate that she should link Shaw’s failure to deliver with the unsatisfactory nature of his writings. (The Prefaces to the plays are indeed better than the plays themselves. Reading those to The Doctor’s Dilemma and Saint Joan in particular, one is led to expect masterpieces, the constant whimsical comparison of himself to Shakespeare, whose name he annoyingly misspelt, only pointing up the terrible thinness of what appears on stage.) The greatest affair of all was with Ellen Terry. The only time he touched her was on the first night of Captain Brassbound’s Conversion when he kissed her hand. It was, Shaw said, ‘a wholly satisfactory love affair ... Let those who may complain that it was all on paper remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue and abiding love.’

Shaw’s only certain physical involvement with another human being was an affair with Jenny Patterson, an Irish widow some fifteen years his senior, who was a friend of his unsatisfactory mother Bessie. It was Jenny who instituted the physical side of proceedings as a treat on his 29th birthday. ‘This,’ Shaw said, ‘was my first connection of the kind. I was an absolute novice.’ The affair drifted on, causing more misery to Jenny than it ever did to Shaw, who rather enjoyed tormenting her with his other flirtations – all with women.

This state of things makes the task of Sally Peters something of a challenge, since she has undertaken to write a study of Shaw – part biography, part literary analysis – very much from the psychosexual point of view. This might seem analogous to an attempt to trace the importance of linguistic philosophy in the life of George VI; but the attempt of a clever person to make bricks without straw is never without interest, particularly since it is the very absence of evidence which Dr Peters finds so suspicious in the first instance. You might have thought that a more interesting book could have been made out of Shaw’s passion for boxing, and indeed Peters’s best chapter is on this subject; but her meticulous and winy account of Shaw’s obsession with this all-male sport and his own rather improbable career as a heavyweight in 1883 are themselves only prefaces.

Shaw’s life has been documented with such prodigious thoroughness that it would seem unlikely that a trudge through this by now achingly familiar material could produce anything new. Happily Peters, as she informs her readers artlessly, ‘follows the example of current gay theorists’, so that her thesis comes to her readymade. She is therefore able to make this in many ways agreeable book appear to possess a point rather than being merely the highlights of Holroyd réchauffé.

Some time in the 1890s, a ‘secret society’ – Peters’s phrase – was formed, mainly of literary and professional types, with the aim of liberalising the attitude of the law to homosexuals. They called themselves the Order of Chaeronea, after the battle at which Philip of Macedon slew three hundred young male comrades. Shaw’s membership of the Order has been overlooked by his other biographers, but given his generally liberal attitudes to sexual ethics it is not surprising that he belonged. Havelock Ellis (not a homosexual) was a founder member. Peters, without providing evidence, states that ‘there is agreement that the society was dominated by homosexuals.’ This is what one would expect of such a group, though the three members she names are E.M. Forster (whose credentials are of course impeccable), Vyvyan Holland and Shaw himself. It was news to me that Vyvyan Holland, son of Oscar Wilde, was himself of homosexual persuasion. The inclusion of Shaw in the list for the purpose of establishing his own preferences seems like a circular argument. Besides, Shaw joined the Order in 1930, when he was 74.

The other matter to which Peters draws attention is Shaw’s undoubtedly intense and stormy friendship with the Edwardian playwright and impresario Harley Granville-Barker. The two men met when Barker was 22 and Shaw 43. When in 1932 Barker married for the second time, his rich wife severed his connections with the theatre world, and with them, his friendship with Shaw. Hesketh Pearson used to say that the estrangement was ‘Shaw’s most deeply-felt loss until Charlotte’s death’. Poor old Shaw was still sadly missing Barker when he lay on his deathbed in the Fifties. With wives present, Barker once took some nude photographs of Shaw on a beach – one or two of which are reproduced here.

Since by the standards of gay theorists most or perhaps all human beings are, or should be, gay, GBS qualifies nicely. After all, what other conclusion can we draw when a man writes: ‘Walk down Piccadilly and ask yourself at every woman that passes you, could I bear to have her as my mistress? You will be astonished at your own virtue: 99.9999999999999999999 per cent of them will leave you cold – perhaps 100 per cent.’ By the concluding pages, all speculation has been cast aside and Dr Sally is able to translate any thin-minded bit of paradox-and-soda-water from Shaw as the anguished coded message of a repressed homosexual. Shaw’s Don Juan says: ‘I am; therefore I think.’ This really means: ‘I am an artist/genius/homosexual; therefore I think according to my special nature.’ ‘Bernard Shaw,’ we are told finally, ‘accepted responsibility for the genius and homosexuality that he believed to be his twin inheritance, creating his own system of values, giving meaning to his life’.

Of course, Dr Sally is so busy nosing out homoerotic codes from Shaw’s use of words such as ‘earnest’, ‘petticoat’, ‘mollycoddle’ and ‘queer shyness’ – the revealing phrase he used to describe an encounter with Oscar Wilde himself – that she makes the occasional mistake. For instance, there is no evidence that John Gray was ever Wilde’s lover, or that his disagreable domestic companion Raffalovich was ever (whatever this would be) a ‘Dominican monk’. The National Gallery in London is cheerfully muddled with the National Portrait Gallery. The familiar Gospel quotation about the veil of the Temple being rent is taken as a sexual metaphor invented by Shaw. These are but trifles in a book which can state: ‘There is no evidence that Shaw ever had sex in his own bedroom, either before or after marriage.’

In attempting to verify such a statement, what possible evidence could be adduced? Drawing predictable conclusions from a negative, the book glides to the end like a well-oiled machine. The question which will remain in many readers’ minds is not so much whether any of it is true, as what it would amount to if it were. If a man has almost no active sexual life, does it make sense to label him in sexual terms? And if a man lives as much on the surface as Shaw evidently did, might it not be the case that the superficial impressions he strove to create became the true ones? The yellow woollen all-in-one suit from Dr Jaeger’s shop has the same effect on the bourgeois observer as the plays. ‘Look at me, O suburban ones! You would never wear such a suit, never dare to say that you were an atheist or a socialist. But I will make you feel daring, just by being here, a neutered Mephistopheles of the petit-bourgeoisie.’ Sexlessness was probably an essential ingredient in the role. The question raised by a rereading of GBS is not so much whether he was a closet gay as whether, in the Wildean phrase, he was a sphinx without a secret.