Fiction is fun but there is something about real life that is better, stranger, compulsive, compelling. I know when I become obsessed by something or someone that I have to follow it through. That woman is currently Charlotte Payne-Townshend. Photo credit: LSE.
Charlotte was the companionably celibate wife of George Bernard Shaw, and a keen correspondent with T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia). She adored her father, seemed to despise her mother, feared sex and childbirth, yet later aspired to a successful marital relationship like that of her friend, Beatrice Webb, who seemed to be the perfect companion for her husband, Sidney.
Her life was spent on the move, for travel cured all and she was a restless soul. Poor George, who liked nothing better than to be at home working on his plays, found her desire to tour frustrating, as was her desire for him to accompany her.
Beatrice claimed: it is harder for a woman to remain celibate than for a man.
So much to fascinate. So many entwining strands to unravel, isolate and dissect.
Who was this woman?
Standing quayside at the quaint fishing and shipbuilding village of Appledore in north Devon, watching the George Bernard Shaw fishing protection vessel leave the ailing shipyard, sailing seaward along the estuary, locals waving her off, I talk to a lady from St Albans.
She, leaning across the flimsy fence which protects people from the quayside edge, has a small rough-haired vocal Jack Russell.
More importantly, she reckons George Bernard Shaw’s (GBS) Corner (house) is the nearest National Trust property to her, yet tells me she rarely visits the old vicarage at Ayot, for she does not like the dull atmosphere. This total stranger and I agree that this place on the outskirts of Welwyn is a very masculine place with a stuffy vibe.
The marriage of GBS and Charlotte, capturing my undiluted attention on a visit to the house, feels strange; although not exactly mirroring their home, as items were brought in from London when it was left to the Trust, the house has no female touch. To me, it felt unnatural, even unpleasant. The lady in Appledore picked up the same sense of drear. Was their marriage the equally so? There’s a hypothesis question. Does the interior decor of a home mirror the state of the marriage? Alas, that is not my idea, merely borrowed.
The well-connected Charlotte was considered an intelligent heiress, described as green-eyed (sometimes grey) with a fair number of suitors she rejected until, in her forties, she married Shaw. Nonetheless, their marriage was unconventional. Shaw, known for his dalliance and philandering, was mainly a man who had to write, a man of letters (see his collection to actress, Ellen Terry) and who derived his greatest joy from playing with words.
The National Trust volunteer at Shaw’s Corner told me the Trust was not too keen on this unremarkable brick house when first offered it, but became convinced by Shaw’s argument that he was the greatest living playwright so the house was worth preserving for that reason alone. Indeed, this was his country home for forty years. It was there I began to read about Charlotte – and indeed her correspondence with the younger T.E. Lawrence. She fired my imagination, captivating me with intrigue. I needed to know more, so started with the only biography I could find, Mrs G.B.S. A Portrait, by Janet Dunbar, written in 1963. Dunbar finished by telling us that Charlotte was the only woman Shaw could have married, but was he the right man for Charlotte? Who knows? Somehow, I need to find out.
The house owned by GBS and Charlotte was quite dark, very of its Arts and Crafts time. There is a writing room/study, obviously. GBS also had a shed with a bed, desk and typewriter. There is a Bechstein piano in the hall where he would play to her when she was ill, the sound drifting upstairs – and an umbrella stand. The cold is kept out by a jaded William Morris door curtain. It is all so brown. Then we see the couple had separate rooms, always one to fire the imagination. The volunteers are only too keen to conjecture about their married life. They tell me that Charlotte was not keen on physical relations but mainly was terrified, quite rightly, by the thought of childbirth in her forties, killer that it was. Her tokophobia was the reason she did not want physical relations with her husband, it seems.
Shaw is said to have written of Charlotte:
”She had none of the feminine traits that I had expected and all the human qualities I had only hoped for.’’ When she died, he also reckoned her barely knew her, at least the part of her she had never fully shared with him.
The seed is sewn. I need to know more.