There is always something fascinating about seeing where noteworthy writers crafted their works, so a visit to the home of George Bernard Shaw (GBS), winner of a Nobel Prize (1925) and an Oscar, neither of which he thought much of, gave me fresh insights into the man whose works I studied at school.
What I had not known about him was his work for the Fabian Society as a pamphleteer. He held some strong views; his work for women’s suffrage and his vegetarianism were positives, his liking for dictators less so. Most recently, I happened upon him through his letters to actress, Ellen Terry, the internationally renowned actress he met in 1892 when he was but a journalist of little note. They corresponded fitfully for three years, then started a (in his words) “a paper courtship…perhaps the pleasantest and most enduring of all courtships.”
Their correspondence lasted for thirty years, at its most intense in 1986-88, only tailing off towards the end (1922). She died in 1928, but he lived until 1950. There is more on his work here. His rhetoric on marriage and the family was controversial:
”I doubt if there be any so mean as that of forcing self-sacrifice on a woman under the pretence that she likes it …if we have come to think that the nursery and the kitchen are the natural sphere of a woman, we have done so exactly as English children come to think that a cage is the natural sphere of a parrot because they have never seen one anywhere else.”
”Women have never played an important part in my life. I could always discard them more readily than my friends …women have been a ghastly nuisance.’
I read somewhere that he was not only a teetotal vegetarian but a virgin until 29, expressing some disgust at bodily functions. He described his Fabian wife, Charlotte thus:
”She had none of the feminine traits that I had expected and all the human qualities I had only hoped for.”
Charlotte, who did not want children, apparently insisted the marriage should not be consummated, with which he appeared happy. Yet, he was also known for philandering, often platonic in nature, what we might now call ’emotional affairs’. Quite a few women, it seems, were taken with GBS.
His letters to Ellen Terry were passionate, even during his years married to Charlotte, but it all fell apart when they finally met; the magic was lost:
”I love you soulfully and bodyfully, properly and improperly, every way that woman can be loved’.
Charlotte, it seems, had previously been in love with Dr Alex Munthe who never requested her hand in marriage, but with Shaw it was more a functional, working relationship and affectionate friendship which endured. There appeared little passion. Charlotte described her childhood as hellish growing to hate her mother. Her marriage to Shaw appeared devoted and companionable. Charlotte met Colonel T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) in 1922 when she was 65 and he 42. They
established a deep and intimate (non-physical) friendship which lasted until his death in 1935. In a way that she could never do with her husband Charlotte opened up her heart to Lawrence as he did with her; they were mutual confidantes, spiritually aligned. What a curious set of relationships.