Keeping Up with the Shaws

Bernard Shaw: Volume I, 1856–1898, The Search for Love

by Michael Holroyd
Random House, 486 pp., $24.95

In his first chapter Michael Holroyd sets out the line he proposes to follow as Shaw’s biographer:

Biographies of writers are written in collaboration with the posthumous subject of the biography. What is seen or overlooked, known and forgotten, comes to be shared between them. It is, like the process of reading itself, an “intimacy between strangers.” The literary biographer must use, but may rearrange, the biographee’s experiences, sometimes making heard what is unspoken or showing what has been hidden. But he may not go outside this pact. The line he tries to follow points towards empathy without veering off into sentimentality and maintains a detachment that stops short of incompatibility.

It is a sensible line, and Holroyd follows it with a high degree of success. The empathy is rather less marked than the detachment; sentimentality is never a threat; incompatibility is avoided, but it sometimes seems to loom up as a possibility, or temptation. Holroyd writes about Shaw with acute, though sometimes excessive, psychological insight—and without jargon or undue speculation.

He approaches Shaw’s own accounts of his early life in a spirit of skeptical inquiry, and on occasion demonstrates that Shaw was covering up—with an artful appearance of candor—aspects of his experience, in particular of his family life, which he found too painful to contemplate. In general, this persistent testing of Shaw’s words against other sources is among the many merits of this elegant, lucid, and subtle biography. But there is one instance where, in my view, Holroyd pushes his skepticism too far, and disbelieves Shaw when Shaw happens to be telling the truth about a critically important phase of his early life: his schooldays. And by disbelieving Shaw on that matter, Holroyd misses a valuable clue to aspects of Shaw’s later development. I shall be following up that matter—and so, to some extent, second-guessing Holroyd—in the course of this review.

The Shaw family belonged to the Protestant landed ascendancy, the Irish ruling class from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth century. Socially speaking “the Shaws” were superior both to “the Wildes” and to “the Yeatses” (“the Joyces,” being Catholic, did not belong at all, according to the dominant values of the time and place).

“The Shaws” were very grand, but George Bernard Shaw’s branch of the family had come very far down in the world by the time he was born. His paternal grandfather was a bankrupt, and his father, George Carr Shaw, was a drunkard, as also were three of his uncles. Shaw’s mother’s people were not so grand; nor had they gone so far down until Shaw’s mother, Bessie Gurly, married Shaw’s father. Bessie’s maternal grandfather made a fortune, out of a pawnshop in Winetavern Street, Dublin. Some of the grandfather’s money had come down to Bessie, which is why George Carr Shaw married her. She married him in order to get away from her Aunt Ellen, whom she hated. And after that, she hated her husband.

The household that George Bernard…

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