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Books: From Crybaby to Curmudgeon

5 minute read
William A. Henry III


by Michael Holroy

Random House; 486 pages; $24.95

A frustrated mama’s boy who spent his life scorning family relations as unhappy when not downright unnatural. A product of a menage a trois who loathed his given name of George because he shared it with both a pathetic father and the self-styled musical genius who became his mother’s lover. An eccentric who attributed ill health and body odor to cotton and linen clothing and advocated a wardrobe of unbleached woolen garments. A purported avatar of women’s liberation who called himself a “philanderer” and preferred married women for romance. A lectern-thumping socialist who prided himself on his aristocratic if fallen lineage and chronicled protest rallies from the sidelines with amused disdain. A novelist whose books were rejected as unpublishable, a pamphleteer who seemed forever to be engaging in self-satire, a political leader who refused to seek office, a ghostwriter whose hand was not only detected but also thought to be female.

The George Bernard Shaw of Michael Holroyd’s biography, which takes the playwright up to age 42 in the twilight of the 19th century, hardly seems likely to become one of the most lionized men of the 20th century. Yet this portrait, a dozen years in the making, in the end enhances Shaw’s achievements. In place of the glib rhetorician, Holroyd poignantly brings into view the shy, resentful, self-thwarting youth who created the persona of G.B.S. Ashamed of his scandalous and impecunious family, embarrassed by his own awkward ways with peers, employers and especially women, yearning for a position as genius long before he found the particular talent that could confer it, the stagestruck young Shaw seemingly envisioned himself as an actor whose role was his life. At times Holroyd laughs along with Shaw as he smirks at himself. At times he evokes the true sacrifice in a life devoted to public debate rather than private pleasure.

Holroyd subtitles this volume, the first of a projected three, The Search for Love. It ends, fittingly, with Shaw’s marriage to heiress Charlotte Payne- Townshend in 1898. By then Shaw had published many of the plays that ensure his reputation today, including Mrs. Warren’s Profession, You Never Can Tell and Arms and the Man, each of which has had a major New York City production within the past three years. He had already abandoned a prodigious journalistic career as an essayist and a critic of art, theater and music — although he insisted his dramas too were a form of journalism and derived their value from that. He had made the Fabian Society his personal soapbox and successfully promoted it as an intellectual center for the British left. Had he done no more, a place in history would have been secure. Yet he lived for another half-century of undiminished fame and scarcely mitigated activity, which is why Holroyd’s opus will extend to another two volumes.

Holroyd’s biography is, he says, the first major one of Shaw since a spate of centenary tributes in 1956, and among the first in which the subject was not an unacknowledged co-author. Holroyd was chosen by the beneficiaries of Shaw’s estate — the British Museum, London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the National Gallery of Ireland — and in consequence appears to have been able to unearth some new nuggets, although he offers no footnotes and has put off detailing his sources until after publication of his third volume. The advance from Holroyd’s British publisher, Chatto & Windus, was about $1 million, surely a record for a pen portrait of a deceased author.

What is striking about the book, however, is that it is so entertaining. Holroyd manages to make each successive phase of Shaw’s life seem significant of itself, rather than simply as a foretoken of what was to come or as raw material for the plays. Even minor figures often have a Dickensian vividness. Each romantic indiscretion has its own distinct flavor; Holroyd pinpoints which of Shaw’s innumerable affairs he believes were consummated, and quotes bawdy letters in proof. Even more precisely evoked are Shaw’s nonsexual passions for comrades in causes, from his schoolmate Matthew McNulty to his literary ally William Archer and his Fabian Society partner Sidney Webb. In a review, Shaw urged authors to shape their stories to suit their characters, rather than vice versa. Holroyd aptly allows each relationship to flower on the page without overtly fitting it into his larger architectural intent.

Equally, he appreciates Shaw’s arch humor. He cites deadpan a letter to the editor in which Shaw “wrote of Jack the Ripper as an ‘independent genius’ who by ‘private enterprise’ had succeeded where socialism failed in getting the press to take some sympathetic interest in the conditions of London’s East End.” Recalling Shaw’s epistolary romance with actress Ellen Terry, he quotes a vintage bit of Shavian grumping: “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.” Describing the tergiversations that led up to the marriage, Holroyd trenchantly observes, “Politically, Shaw had put his faith in the power of words to inspire action. But in his personal life he employed words to avoid taking action.” By the end of this fascinating volume, Holroyd provides not only a sense of what it must have been like to know Shaw but also, far more enriching, a sense of what it must have been like to be Shaw.

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