22 JULY 1972, Page 18

Letters from the golden age

Bernard Shaw

In 1898, Bernard Shaw was forty-two years old, and although he was the author of five novels and eight plays, his literary career had hardly begun. To Shaw, it must have seemed that it had come to a halt. The novels were unread, the plays mostly unperformed — even the most successful, Arms and the Man, had lost money. After ten years as a critic — of art, music and drama — he felt that he had no more to say. Discouragement made him accidentprone; he fell off his bicycle and tore open his cheek; a tightly laced shoe caused an absess in the left foot; his physical health collapsed, abruptly and completely, so that he became convinced that he was dying, and even welcomed the prospect. He wrote to Ellen Terry: "Oh Ellen, I am the world's pack-horse; and it beats my lean ribs unmercifully ". In this state, he began to rely heavily on a fellow-Fabian, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, for help with his correspondence. Charlotte was in love with Shaw, but in his normal state of health, he wouldn't have dreamed of marriage. Friends advised Charlotte to put pressure on by vanishing abroad. After a few weeks of this, Shaw succumbed; Charlotte returned, and he married her. He looked so scruffy that the parson started to marry her to the best man.

This is the point at which the latest volume of Shaw's correspondence begins, and it's a very good point too. He was still five years away from celebrity — no major writer has ever had to wait so long to be recognised — but his life was about to change completely. Charlotte had a decent Income, and after ten years as a journalistic hack, Shaw was suddenly a man of leisure. This was not entirely a relief; he liked his freedom too much. He had written to Charlotte in Rome: You count that I have lost only one Charlotte; but I have lost two; and one of the losses is a prodigious relief. I may miss "die schone grtinen Augen " occasionally, though the very privation throws me back, brutally great, to my natural dreamland; but then, think of the other Charlotte, the terrible Charlotte, the Herin-wait, the soul hypochondriac, always watching and dragging me into bondage, always planning nice sensible, comfortable, selfish destruction for me, wincing at every accent qf freedom in my voice, so that at last I get the trick of hiding myself from her, hating me & longing for me with the absorbing passion of the spider for the fly.

And he had written to her just before she left: My nerves are shattered by the scenes of which I have been made the innocent victim . . . I have allied myself to a fountain of tears.

Perhaps it was his ambivalent feelings about the marriage that produced, more accident-proneness; he broke an arm when trying to descend the stairs on crutches, fell off a bicycle and sprained the other ankle: then, after several operations to remove necrosed bone from the foot, fell off the bicycle again and sprained the bad ankle. It took him two years to get back into decent health.

The amazing thing it that his correspondence during this period was as voluminous as ever, and the tone just as jaunty. Carlyle defined genius as infinite capacity

for taking pains; Shaw's letters suggest that it should be re-defined as an infinite capacity for taking blows. He writes to Charlotte:

Do you realise from The Irrational Knot how far I've come — eighteen years from that time, when I wrote five books like that, and without turning a hair, listened in vain for the faintest response to them. When they first shewed me the last scent in A Doll's House, I said: "Oh, I did that long ago." And they laughed.

But he wasn't joking; it was true. The tide finally began to turn around 1900, when the Germans, French and Scandinavians began to discover Shaw; but as far as the home market was concerned, he continued to be unsaleable. He became so reconciled to never being staged that he deliberately made Man and Superman far too long to be performed in a normal theatre, and published it at his own expense.

The date that changed Shaw's life — and English theatrical history — was November 1, 1904, when Harley Granville Barker presented John Bull's Other Island at the Royal Court; it established Shaw as the foremost playwright, not just of England but of the world. The Prime Minister, Balfour, went to see it four times.

The amazing thing it that the letters give no hint of the triumph, nor of the success of the other Shaw plays presented by Granville Barker at the same time. Anyone who knew nothing about Shaw's life would have no way of telling that he had suddenly become famous. In a sense, Shaw was too conceited to care about this kind of recognition. The reason emerges in a letter written to a would-be biographer, Archibald Henderson, in 1905:

I want you to do something that will be useful to yourself and to the world; and that is, to make me a mere peg on which to hang a study of the last quarter of the XIX century, especially as to the Collectivist movement in politics, ethics and socialogy; tht lbsen-Nietzschean movement in morals; the reaction against the materialism of Marx and Darwin . . . ; the Wagnerian movement in music, and the anti-romantic movement . . . in literature and art.

He is not really asking to be made a peg for a book on 19th century cultural history; he is saying that his importance can only be seen against this background of ideas, and that a "theatrical biography" would be a triviality.

Unfortunately, Shaw never achieved this kind of recognition, and the Henderson biography was a theatrical biography — very painstaking, very exhaustive, but devoid of ideas. But it took Shaw another decade — to the outbreak of the Great War — to recognise the extent of his failure — to understand that, in spite of his fame, he would never be taken as seriously as Tolstoy or Ibsen. Meanwhile, he revelled in the long-awaited celebrity, and thoroughly enjoyed the "golden decade" before 1914 changed world hi:story, quarrelling with Wells over Fabianism, urging Chesterton to write plays, appearing on the same platform as Conan Doyle, acting in a cowboy film with J. M. Barrie. There are times when his letters give the impression that 1904-1914 was a party that went on for ten years.