Man of Letters

Collected Letters: Volume I (1874-1897)

by Bernard Shaw, edited by Dan H. Laurence
Dodd, Mead & Co., 877 pp., $12.50

The Unrepentant Pilgrim: A Study of the Development of Bernard Shaw

by J. Percy Smith
Houghton, Mifflin, 274 pp., $4.95

G. B. Shaw: A Collection of Critical Essays

edited by R.J. Kaufmann
Prentice-Hall, 182 pp., $1.95 (paper)

In April, 1894, Yeats’s Land of Heart’s Desire and Shaw’s Arms and the Man were produced, in one strange bill, at the Avenue. Theatre in London. Yeats attended several performances, listening to Shaw’s play “with admiration and hatred.” “Presently,” he reports, “I had a nightmare that I was haunted by a sewing-machine, that clicked and shone, but the incredible thing was that the machine smiled, smiled perpetually.” At the first performance Golding Bright booed when Shaw took a curtain call. The sewing-machine smiled and made his famous reply: “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?” From that moment, Yeats says, “Shaw became the most formidable man in modern letters.” The first volume of the correspondence shows more vividly than ever how he made that sewing-machine, and how he kept it smiling. Mr. Smith’s study and many of the essays in Mr. Kaufmann’s collection concentrate on Shaw’s development in the same period.

The letters are not, indeed, collected; the book is misnamed. Mr. Laurence estimates that Shaw, who once spoke of ink as “an unsympathetic medium of communication,” wrote 250,000 letters in seventy-six epistolary years. The present edition, when complete in four volumes, will assemble 2500 items. The first volume contains about 700, two-thirds of which are now published for the first time. It begins, appropriately, when Shaw writes to his sister Lucy, telling her how to make her mark. “If people bother you to sing when you don’t want,” he says, “never resort to rudeness as I expect you sometimes do; chaff is the best expedient.” Nothing must be wasted.

There is a sense in which Shaw’s letters were his first “productions,” trial balloons sent up with impeccable cheek at a time when publishers were rejecting his novels by return post. Even the famous handwriting was a kind of print. At this stage Shaw was “a young man doing his best to get on in the world.” His background consisted of Ireland, a drunken father, a vaguely Bohemian mother, and a weird musician named Lee. Like Swift he demanded success, to be “used like a Lord.” He would ennoble himself, then, by cheek, wit, and chaff: he would make himself a Lord by acquiring a lordly style. Robed, he would march through the London of Pinero, Henry Arthur Jones, and William Archer. He could talk: so he would lecture. Again it was a formal matter, an essay in the assumption of style. He gave hundreds of lectures, at least as much for Shavian as for Fabian causes, and he knew exactly what he was doing. A vivid speaker standing up to address an audience has one commanding advantage. In 1891 Shaw rebuked Elizabeth Robins for discounting this: “The fact is, you did not sufficiently consider the effect on us of the law of nature by which the resonance of a human body is considerably reduced when it sits down.”

This marks …

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