Ticket to Milford Haven

David Edgar

  • Bernard Shaw: A Life by A.M. Gibbs
    Florida, 554 pp, £30.50, December 2005, ISBN 0 8130 2859 0

As anyone who has directed a remake of King Kong knows, revisiting classics is a perilous business. However much you claim to stand on the shoulders of the mighty beast, you still risk ending up, like Fay Wray, squeezed in its paw. A.M. Gibbs spends most of the introduction to Bernard Shaw: A Life justifying his decision to return to a very well-ploughed furrow. But by citing no less than four previous biographies by the end of page two, he is being consciously naive. He knows perfectly well he will be judged principally against Michael Holroyd, whose multi-volume Shaw is one of the longest, most detailed, comprehensive and highly praised biographies of the 20th century.

Gibbs’s major charge against Holroyd is that he allowed himself to be taken in by Shaw’s description of a miserable, shabby-genteel Dublin childhood, with an alcoholic father and a mother who was ‘simply not a wife or mother at all’. Holroyd’s thesis is that a consequent fear of emotion, passion and grief led Shaw to construct the witty, winking GBS carapace which he wore for the rest of his life. In Gibbs’s view, Shaw exaggerated both the privations of his childhood and the inadequacy of his parents. On the basis of previously ignored letters, he finds Shaw’s father to be ‘amiable, sweet-natured’ and keenly interested in his son’s early work; while to explain Shaw’s career ‘in terms of a search for the maternal love supposedly missing in his childhood is’, he argues, ‘to load the tenuous evidence with more weight than it can reasonably bear’.

In short, Shaw’s childhood was more normal (and nicer) than he cared to admit, and the adult more normal (and nicer) than he or his previous biographers have been inclined to acknowledge. Far from constructing a carapace in order to conceal his real feelings, Gibbs’s Shaw is a man whose ‘sensitivity, warmth and friendliness of feeling’ celebrate and exemplify ‘the intelligent heart’.

This thesis forms the spine of Gibbs’s biography, and is seen most clearly in his treatment of Shaw’s sexuality and the influence of Shaw’s lovers, friends, family and self on his work. Shaw claimed that his active sex life began at the age of 29 and ended 14 years later; for Holroyd, the chaos of Shaw’s early affairs, the celibacy of his marriage and the wild romantic agonies of his later attachments (usually to actresses, and most dramatically to Mrs Patrick Campbell, the original Eliza Doolittle) confirmed Shaw’s conviction that ‘the quantity of love that an ordinary person can stand without serious damage is about ten minutes in 50 years.’ For Gibbs, however, Shaw’s love life is both more extensive (he cites a previously unpublished letter confirming that the 70-year-old Shaw consummated his adulterous relationship with the 30-year-old American actress Molly Tompkins by the shores of Lake Maggiore) and more prosaic than this quotation suggests. His concern with the physical detail of Shaw’s relationships implies that Shaw was in a state of denial about their importance. By contrast, Michael Holroyd accepts that Shaw’s sexual passions existed, but argues that they were complemented with others. He quotes Shaw as saying that he ‘never refused or broke an engagement to speak on socialism to pass a gallant evening’ (or anything else: Stella Campbell didn’t believe Shaw ‘ever had a thoroughly frivolous afternoon’). That Shaw was nonetheless able to make room for romance when necessary is demonstrated in a letter to his second lover, Florence Farr, which begins with a protestation that ‘you are my best and dearest love, the regenerator of my heart, the holiest joy of my soul, my treasure, my salvation, my rest, my reward, my darling youngest child, my secret glimpse of heaven,’ and ends with the observation that ‘Wednesday is the nearest evening that shews blank in my diary.’

Gibbs admires the idea that, generally, politics should come before passion, but he doesn’t quite believe it (ignoring Shaw’s stern admonition to the ‘sex-obsessed biographer’ to pay no attention to the ‘sex histories’ of his or her subject). More generally, Gibbs’s ambition to expose Shaw as a closet normal contrasts with Holroyd’s fascination with Shaw’s eccentricities (and those of his circle and his time). So for Holroyd, the principle interest of the Fabian summer schools which Shaw assiduously attended lay in the solemn radicalism of their daily routine, from the morning Swedish drill and ‘experimental breakfasts’ through to tugs of war, convivial country dancing and 11 p.m. lights out. While for Gibbs, they’re all about flirtations with Fabian flappers.

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