High Spirits

Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters, 1911–1925

edited by Dan H. Laurence
Viking, 989 pp., $45.00

There is something heroic about those literary scholars—Wilmarth Lewis, Frederick Pottle, David Marquand, Gordon Haight, Leon Edel, Richard Ellmann—who have devoted a lifetime to chronicling the days and editing the papers of some luminary in the past. Dan Laurence has now been forty-four years in producing this edition of Bernard Shaw’s letters and there is still at least one volume to come. Gordon Ray, who brought out four volumes of Thackeray’s letters in successive years and added four more about his life and writings, appears insouciant by comparison. No doubt the torrent of Shaw’s letters exceeds in volume the majestic flow of Thackeray’s: and it goes without saying that this volume is as finely edited as the preceding two, obsessive in its care for detail, profuse in acknowledgments to a brigade of scholars and Shaw addicts, in every way a monument to erudition. It is the work of an editor and bibliophile of the first rank. But it is a quarry in which other scholars are anxious to work. They want to relate the man, so overpoweringly alive in his letters, to his work and his times; and they will be looking forward to the time when the warning signs are finally removed from the site where the dynamiting and clearing of debris take place.

Not that the edition aims to be a complete record of all Shaw’s letters. How could it be? Like Dickens, Shaw seemed never to stop writing. Even the letters printed here have been at times shortened, and repetitious material has been weeded out—some may think insufficiently. And yet one wonders what has been omitted. I remember being slightly disappointed at finding in the first volume two rather boring letters to Nathaniel Wedd, E.M. Forster’s mentor at King’s, about a meeting in 1888 of Fabians which Shaw was to address there. Before it took place Professor Westcott, a distinguished theologian, fearing for the morals of the undergraduates, asked Wedd what Shaw’s moral basis was. To Wedd’s inquiry Shaw replied: “You know what W’s moral basis is better than I do: tell him it’s that.”

But what is Professor Laurence to do? This volume covers fifteen years yet it is 989 pages long. Anyone rash enough to ask Shaw’s advice could be overwhelmed by a thirty-page letter. The cataract of words is cataclysmic. Shaw tackles a prodigious number of topics. There are letters on directing and casting his plays; letters to theater managers, actresses, designers, and critics; letters about concert performances; tart business letters, e.g., to Hearst, who tried to cheat him and pay a quarter of what Shaw had been promised even though Shaw had written more articles than he was under contract to write; descriptions of motoring over the Alps and breaking down on the way back; letters analyzing the minute variations in the cockney accent current in various London boroughs; love letters; letters of condolence, political forecasts …

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