Bernard Shaw: The Search for Love, 1856–1898 by Michael Holroyd - review by Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson

Shy, But Not Cock-Shaw

Bernard Shaw: The Search for Love, 1856–1898

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Considering that he has had more words devoted to him than any other writer of the 20th century, Shaw has been badly served by his biographers. The first of them, an American named Archibald Henderson, produced a vast work called Bernard Shaw: Playboy and Prophet, which accomplished the remarkable feat of making Shaw sound dull. When St John Ervine’s 1956 biography achieved much the same effect, it was suddenly obvious that he and Henderson were overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information, and had been buried under it. Hesketh Pearson side-stepped the problem by telling the story largely in Shaw’s own words, which also had the advantage of making it magnificently readable. Another American, Stanley Weintraub, produced his own solution by devoting a 350 page book – Journey to Heartbreak – to a mere four years of Shaw’s life during the First World War; the result, which should have been tedious, is one of the best books on Shaw ever written.

Within the first dozen pages of his biography of Shaw, it is obvious that Michael Holroyd has taken these lessons to heart. He knows he has a good story to tell, and he is determined not to slow it down by overloading it with too much background information. As in his earlier biographies of Lytton Strachey and Augustus John, his eye for the amusing or scandalous anecdote keeps the narrative moving swiftly.

One of his colleagues had been an ancient book-keeper who confided that he ‘suffered so much from cold feet that his life was miserable,’ Shaw recorded. ‘I, full of the fantastic mischievousness of youth, told him that if he would keep his feet in ice-cold water every morning when he got up for two or three minutes, he would be completely cured.’ This prescription proved efficacious: and shortly afterwards, the man died. To his horror George was then offered his job…

It can be seen that Holroyd has caught Pearson’s trick of using Shaw’s own words, but blending them so well with his own that the scam is practically invisible. From the beginning, it is obvious that he has mastered the complex art of writing a readable book on Shaw.

Holroyd is also one of the few biographers who has come to grips with the real problem about Shaw. When Shaw died, his reputation had reached rock bottom. This was because he was, in so many ways, such a singularly irritating man. Edmund Wilson summed it up:

Egoism like Shaw’s was a disability like any disability – which you had to carry with you all your life. When he was young, it had been amusing, he had carried it off with panache; but it had become disagreeable with his later years, and one saw then that it was compulsive, incurable.

Observer after observer commented on Shaw’s vanity. Yet in a sense, it was not genuine vanity. What is so hard to grasp – and what Holroyd brings out so well – is that, as a young man, Shaw was paralysingly shy, clumsy and tactless. His contemporary Yeats made a virtue of it by playing the introverted poet. Shaw, like a man with a bad stammer, set out to overcome it, even though it meant stammering in public. The result was that he finally created an alter-ego, the glove puppet GBS, who was brazen, thick skinned, outrageous – and vain. As a young journalist, this glove puppet advertised himself relentlessly, and no one paid the slightest attention. Then, at 48, Shaw achieved overnight fame with the Court season of 1904, and the puppet continued to quack its self-praise at the top of its voice. But the British – who, as Agate remarked, instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it – were outraged by this exhibition, and showed its disapproval by refusing to take him seriously. So while the Germans, the French, the Scandinavians, treated him as a second Tolstoy, the British ignored him. Shaw was too good a debater to show his frustration; bur the irritating grin became broader, the assertions of his genius more persistent. The nearest he came to acknowledging his discouragement was when he remarked: ‘I have solved every major problem of our time, and people still go on propounding them as if they were insoluble.’

This constitutes a major difficulty for the biographer. Shall he treat Shaw as a Great Man, as an incorrigible self advertiser, as a brilliant clown? Holroyd reveals his grasp of the problem when he writes:

The late-Victorian literary world took its tone from the poets and men of letters who, finding themselves imprisoned in a world of machines and morality, dreamed luxuriously of ampler ages and of magic lands to which, perhaps, death might release them. But Shaw had done with dreaming. Having begun to submerge his self-consciousness into a social conscience, he wanted, like Shelley, to pierce the illusions that made the present order seem eternal…

In other words, Shaw not only created the glove-puppet GBS, but a social thinker and philosopher who, in spite of his irritating mannerisms, had more to say than any of his contemporaries.

There is so much in this volume that it is impossible to do justice to it in less than several thousand words. The portrait of Shaw as a lover and sexual adventurer has never been better presented, and the fact that Holroyd had access to the complete Shaw papers means that he can write with unprecedented frankness. There is an amusing description of Shaw buying a packet of French letters as a prelude to his first attempt at seduction, followed by a wryly ironic account of Shaw’s discomfort on discovering that the lady was a jealous virago. We also learn that Shaw’s relations with his wife were not wholly sexless – she seems to have lost her virginity to him before their marriage, and the mutual dependence that led them to the altar seems to have been largely sexual in nature. But its real achievement lies in re-creating the young Shaw as a three dimensional human being who, in all basic respects, was not so very unlike the rest of us. If the remaining volumes maintain the same level, this will be one of the greatest biographies of the century.

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