Bernard Shaw, 1898-1918

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

This is the middle volume of a biographical trilogy undertaken by Michael Holroyd to chronicle and analyze the life and career of one of the most productive, elusive, and versatile writers in the history of literature. Holroyd, who distinguished himself previously with prizewinning, magisterial biographies of Lytton Strachey (1968) and Augustus John (1974), has already devoted sixteen years to his Herculean project. The first volume, subtitled The Search for Love, was published in 1988; the third, intriguingly called The Lure of Fantasy, is promised for 1991.

In his initial volume Holroyd achieved a brilliant book: incisive, compressed yet staggeringly informative, occasionally bold in judgment and consistently elegant in expression. He examined what he saw as traumatic insecurity and mistrust of intimacy behind the artfully contrived persona of the publicly swaggering, arrogantly self-confident phenomenon who became known to the world as “G. B. S.” Shaw’s father was a shabby-genteel, alcoholic ne’er-do-well who could not keep any position. His mother was an embittered, unloving hoarder of hurts, who found inspiration and possibly love in the person of a Svengali-like singing teacher, Vandeleur Lee, to whom Shaw bore an intriguing facial resemblance. In the first volume Holroyd noted the considerable number of triangular relationships in which Shaw involved himself, usually playing the asexual friend to a married woman.

In the most probing section of the second volume Holroyd interprets Pygmalion (1914) not only as Shaw’s finest comedy but also as a representation of his mother’s relationship with Vandeleur Lee. Here Holroyd plays Freudian psychobiographer, seeing Professor Higgins’ uncarnal association with Eliza Doolittle as the son’s attempt to convince himself of his mother’s “innocence” vis-á-vis Lee, and consequently of Shaw’s legitimate descent from his father. Holroyd draws the reader’s attention, moreover, to a sadomasochistic subtext in the most crucial Higgins-Eliza scenes, as when the linguist bullies her into fetching his slippers. He insists that the transformation scheme which girds the plot, with Higgins laying “his hands on Eliza like a sculptor’s creative act, is a struggle the implications of which are sexual.”

The actress playing Eliza in the premier production of the play was Mrs. Patrick Campbell, called Stella by her friends, with whom G. B. S. had fallen in love. By 1912, when the friendship began, he had been married for fourteen years to Charlotte Payne-Townshend, a wealthy, philanthropic Irish-born heiress with whom he had a comfortable, dull, asexual union. Mrs. Campbell, the widowed mother of two, was at the apex of her fame as a bewitching siren both on- and offstage. Shaw found her sexual power more magnetic that Ellen Terry’s charm; his letters to Stella lack the artistry of his romantic correspondence with Ellen but are more intense and more frequently—though not consistently—sincere.

Shaw’s genuine fascination with Stella coexisted with his equally genuine awareness of the situation’s several absurdities. She was notorious for being impossible to live with: capricious, self-indulgent, extravagant, vixenish. Moreover, he knew himself to be more Alceste than Tristan and never Don Giovanni. Yet Cupid’s arrow did strike him—or so he insisted in a letter to his then good friend, Harley Granville- Barker. By early August, 1912, he was writing his Stella as many as six letters within twenty-four hours; by early December, he swore to her that he would love her forever. In May, 1913, however, the tide began to ebb: Charlotte had accidentally overheard one of his telephone conversations with Stella and had expressed intense jealousy. When Shaw confessed to Charlotte that he had spent most of his afternoons lately with Stella—though the latter was confined to a convalescent bed by a nagging, mysterious illness—Charlotte was devastated, and for a while took to her bed with asthma and bronchitis. Stella chided him for his failure to take bold sexual steps with her: “If only you’d eat red steaks and drink beer your spirit would be meet, I mean meet to mate.”

In June, 1913, Stella informed Shaw that...

(The entire section is 1739 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

London Review of Books. XI, October 12, 1989, p.14.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 10, 1989, p.3.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, December 21, 1989, p.27.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, September 17, 1989, p.9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, July 14, 1989, p.66.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 8, 1989, p.965.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, September 24, 1989, p.3.

The World & I. IV, December, 1989, p.406.