In the early 1970’s, George Bernard Shaw’s British publisher, Max Reinhardt, invited Michael Holroyd to undertake the first comprehensive biography of Shaw since 1956, the centenary of the writer’s birth. The Shaw estate’s legatees wanted a biographer who had not known the playwright. Presumably they chose Holroyd because his biographies of two other distinguished British artists, Lytton Strachey (1968) and Augustus John (1974), had both been acclaimed, and because he had the age and energy to devote many years (fifteen preceding the publication of this first volume) to so herculean a project. This volume is incisive, compressed yet immensely informative, occasionally bold in judgment and consistently elegant in expression. On the strength of his performance and promise, Holroyd may in time complete one of the twentieth century’s greatest literary biographies, to be ranked alongside Richard Ellmann’s lives of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, Leon Edel’s life of Henry James, and Joseph Frank’s ongoing biography of Fyodor Dostoevski.
One of Holroyd’s scholarly choices may prove controversial: Aware of considerable current activity by Shavian researchers, he has decided to delay publication of his sources until after the issue of his third volume—presumably in a separate, fourth text. Shaw addicts who do not expect to live that long may find at least partial satisfaction in the four tomes of selected Shaw letters, scrupulously edited by Dan H. Laurence, which have been issued in, respectively, 1965, 1972, 1985, and 1988 (reviewed in this volume), covering altogether seventy-six of Shaw’s ninety-four years.
Holroyd takes pains to reveal the traumatic insecurity and mistrust of intimacy behind the artfully contrived persona of the publicly swaggering, cheerful, arrogantly self-confident phenomenon known to the world as G. B. S. His father, George Carr Shaw, was descended from the Protestant landed gentry which ruled Ireland from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth century. George Bernard Shaw’s paternal grandfather died bankrupt, however, and his father, along with two uncles and an aunt, became a chronic alcoholic; another uncle turned mentally ill. Shaw’s mother, Lucinda Elizabeth Gurly, called Bessie, had a bullying father; her mother died when she was nine; she was then largely reared by a loathsome aunt. Having married George Carr Shaw to escape her hateful family, Bessie discovered herself bound to a befuddled ne’er-do-well who could not keep any position. She became an embittered hoarder of hurts who taught her son, nicknamed Sonny, to imitate his father in reverse—as an antimodel. Sadly, she also largely ignored Sonny. In a rarely self-revealing letter, Shaw was to write the actress Ellen Terry, many years later, of his “devil of a childhood . . . rich only in dreams, frightful and loveless in realities.” With typically paradoxical defensiveness, Shaw was to claim that his parents’ indifference to his welfare inculcated him with the useful virtues of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
Bessie Shaw turned from her weak husband to a mesmeric music master, George John Lee, who later took the first name of Vandeleur. George Bernard Shaw never knew when the two had first met, but he certainly came to know that his mother found Lee an inspirational voice teacher and that the family and Lee moved into one house, with the musician’s income largely sustaining them. Could Sonny have been Lee’s natural son? Beatrice Webb, for one, asserted that their facial expressions were similar. The boy—surely the later man—must have indulged in logical speculation about such a parentage; however, Shaw took care not to do so on paper. Holroyd remarks throughout his book on the considerable number of triangular relationships in which Shaw was to involve himself, usually with Shaw playing the asexual friend to the married woman. He interprets Eliza Doolittle’s separation from Professor Higgins to marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Pygmalion (1913) as Shaw’s dramatization of Bessie’s attachment to Lee. Moreover, since his father and Lee shared the first name of George, G. B. S. came to detest his first name and never used it professionally, employing either “Bernard” or “G. B. S.”
Sonny was sent to the Central Model Boys’ School in Dublin; he hated it as a shabby institution filled with incompetent teachers. He found his senses coming alive, however, by wide reading of his own choice and by teaching himself to comprehend musical notation and play the piano. In the spring of 1873, Lee left for London to promote his career; several days later, Bessie Shaw followed him with her daughter Agnes, leaving her son and other daughter, Lucy, behind. Sonny abandoned school to join a real-estate firm, rising from errand boy to cashier and rent collector even though he hated business. At the age of twenty, he left Dublin to seek his fortune in London, delighted to escape his native city’s cultural as well as economic blight.
Shaw’s mother received him with, as usual, little affection. Nevertheless, he was to share one flat or another with her for twenty-two years, until his marriage in 1898. In one of his novels, Love Among the Artists (1887-1888), he gave a son a speech which, according to Holroyd, directly reflects Shaw’s feelings toward his mother:Can you understand that a mother and son may be so different in their disposition that neither can sympathize with the other? It is my great misfortune to be such a son. . . . She had no idea...