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 Shaw grew up in was a ménage à trois. The third party was a fairly successful musician named George Vandeleur Lee, whom some—Beatrice Webb, for one—believed to have been George Bernard’s real father. If he had been, one might have expected the mother to show some affection for the boy. She did not. George Bernard grew up with the knowledge that his mother did not love him: hence the subtitle of this biography. It appears that his father did love him, and when George Bernard was very small, he enjoyed his father’s company. Indeed, his father’s style may have stimulated his sense of humor and influenced his own style. Pretending to rebuke the boy for laughing at something in the Bible, George Carr said: “Even the worst enemy of religion could say no worse of the Bible than that it was the damnedest parcel of lies ever written.”

Unfortunately, the father-son relationship broke down, apparently over the son’s discovery that the father was a drunkard. From then on, George Bernard Shaw was deeply ashamed of his father. As he wrote later, “I leave you to imagine the hell into which my mother descended when she found out what shabby-genteel poverty with a drunken husband is like.”

School wasn’t much better than home, and perhaps it was worse. George Bernard Shaw attended the Central Model Boys’ School in Marlborough Street, Dublin. As he recalled it later, in one of his “self-sketches,” the school was

undenominational and classless in theory but in fact Roman Catholic…. It was an enormous place, with huge unscaleable railings and gates on which for me might well have been inscribed “All hope abandon, ye who enter here”; for that the son of a Protestant merchant-gentleman and feudal downstart should pass those bars or associate in any way with its hosts of lower middle class Catholic children, sons of petty shopkeepers and tradesmen, was inconceivable from the Shaw point of view…. I lost caste outside it and became a boy with whom no Protestant young gentleman would speak or play.

Commenting on that passage, Holroyd says:


However, the enrolment books of the Central Model show that Sonny’s [Shaw’s] form contained eight members of the Established Protestant Church, only five Roman Catholics, and one “Other Denomination.” Fathers’ occupations included a hotel porter, two carpenters, a farmer, butcher, solicitor, bricklayer, shopkeeper, hatter, sergeant and gaol warder. It was, in fact as well as theoretically, what Shaw denied it to have been: non-sectarian—an experimental school for persons of modest means, retailer and wholesaler, Protestant and Catholic. What Shaw did, eighty years afterwards, was to transfer to this place the “shame and wounded snobbery” arising from his Catholic-infested home at Hatch Street. He gives us the symptoms but not a diagnosis of his condition.

Holroyd appears to think that the enrollment statistics cited are conclusive as against Shaw’s impression of the school. Holroyd is rarely wrong, but I believe he has got this one badly wrong. Those “eight members of the Established Protestant Church” weren’t proper Protestants at all, by the social standards of the time. Protestants who would attend the Central Model School were one of two things: either they were the children of decayed Protestant families, like the Shaws themselves, or they were children of Catholics who had changed their religion for the sake of worldly advancement (as both Catholics and Protestants would assume to be the case, under the conditions of nineteenth-century Ireland).

A high proportion of poor Protestants were “soupers,” to use the offensive name for those who were believed to have changed their religion for the sake of sustenance (soup). These were held in low esteem by both Catholics and proper Protestants.

Proper Protestants went to proper Protestant schools. People who attended schools in company with avowed Roman Catholics, and also with Roman Catholics pretending to be Protestants, were not proper Protestants. The enrollment statistics are deceptive, as is the description “non-sectarian.” Statistics by religious affiliation do not pick up the full social realities (such as the fact that not all people who described themselves as Protestants were accepted as Protestants). The benign-sounding description “non-sectarian” masked the social reality, which was that the school population was made up of two distinct components: Protestants who were on the way down and Catholics who were on the way up, sometimes bypassing as Protestants.

Any Protestant boy attending such a school would feel, as Shaw did, that he had “lost caste.” Any sustained social contact with the lower caste carried that implication. A generation later, W.B. Yeats, expressing his feelings about mingling with middle-class Catholics, used phrases like “the contagion of the throng” and “the baptism of the gutter.” Shaw’s language about “hosts of Catholics” may be exaggerated—though he was referring to the school in general, not just to his classmates—but I do not doubt that the passage quoted reflects the young Shaw’s feelings at that time—and about the school, not about his home.

Holroyd thinks that Shaw displaced onto his school the way he really felt about “his Catholic-infested home.” Certainly, if Lee was a Catholic—and he may have been—the Shaw home could be described as Catholic-infested. Certainly Catholics were among the singers invited there by Lee and Bessie. But there is no good reason to suppose that George Bernard Shaw’s feelings about the Central Model School were anything other than what he said they were. For a proud boy, that school experience may well have been—as he implies himself—more humiliating than anything that went on in the home. What went on at home was private, and if things did leak out, you might hope to live them down. But attending the Central Boys’ Model School was a public transaction and its effects were seen as indelible. A Protestant whose record showed that he had attended a Model School was stamped as a pariah, in the eyes of the proper Protestant, including the ranking members of the Shaw family connection. This was a problem of the gravest moment, for a Protestant boy, in the Dublin in which Shaw was brought up, and there is no reason to doubt Shaw’s own description of how much it hurt. By attending that school Shaw had to cut himself off from the company of proper Protestants. There was no future for him in Ireland.

As it happened, his mother’s lover, and then his mother, reached exactly the same conclusion about their future. Early in June 1873, after some unknown financial misfortune in the musical world, Lee left for London, and Bessie followed him within a few days. George Bernard Shaw stayed in Dublin for nearly three years, working as a clerk, efficiently but unhappily. At this time, as Holroyd puts it:


He had two ideas: learning to do something, and then getting out of Ireland to have the chance of doing it.

As Shaw himself put it, he had found in Ireland

no society that did not disgust me. To this day my sentimental regard for Ireland does not include the capital. I am not enamored of failure, of poverty, of obscurity, and of the ostracism and contempt which these imply; and these were all that Dublin offered to the enormity of my unconscious ambition.

In London, Shaw made himself first into a writer, and then into a “character,” an easily identifiable public personality capable of putting the writer across. That did not come for some years. For his first years in London, Shaw wrote indomitably: novel after novel, which remained unpublished. As he wrote afterward, these were “years of unbroken failure and rebuff, with crises of broken boots and desperate clothes…penniless, loveless, and hard as nails….”

The first breakthrough came with the growing of the famous beard. It was grown to cover up a disfigurement—a scar on his right cheek—following an attack of smallpox in 1881. Holroyd is good about the beard:

Shaw never claimed to have grown a beard; it grew of its own accord. “I have a rather remarkable chin and would like to let the public see it; but I never had time to shave.” This joke, and several others on similar lines, covered up the initial motive for the beard which was to camouflage his sensitivity. He grew into it so that it became exactly the right beard, part of the substance of G.B.S.—a good red socialist affair and vastly conspicuous. Few people who had their attention arrested by this flag-waving at the head of the Shavian talking-machine would have known that Shaw was publicly concealing something.

The beard did become in time “a good red socialist affair.” But the beard preceded the socialism, and possibly prompted it. Shaw’s first “cause” was not socialism but “anti-vaccination.” As a matter of fact, he seems to have owed his life to the fact that he had been successfully vaccinated. But Shaw seems to have associated vaccination not with his recovery from the disease but with the disease itself. He felt he had been contaminated in infancy. And one of Shaw’s marked characteristics is dread of contamination, whether acquired by vaccination, by eating meat, by drinking water, or by smoking. Or, I think, by women; though Holroyd does not explore that possibility.

Is Shaw’s lifelong dread of contamination connected with his traumatic experience at the Central Model School in Dublin? I suspect that it is, and that Shaw subconsciously felt that his veins had been pumped full of papist organisms at the will of that same perfidious family that had exposed him to the contagion of all those papist schoolfellows.

The obsession with contamination may be important, for it may account for the degree of indulgence shown by Shaw in later life toward people who suffered from similar obsessions, in far more sinister ways, in racial matters. From the moment of Hitler’s ascension to power, Shaw publicly condemned his treatment of the Jews, but deferred to him, in relation to other matters, up to the outbreak of the war. And, in February 1938, Shaw wrote the following in a letter to an old and unobtrusively anti-Semitic friend, Beatrice Webb:

I think we ought to tackle the Jewish question by admitting the right of States to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains that they think undesirable, but insisting that they should do it as humanely as they can afford to, and not shock civilization by such misdemeanors as the expulsion and robbery of Einstein.*

In using the term “weeding out,” Shaw never, of course, even contemplated the possibility of a holocaust. He meant a “humane” sorting out that would save some people from contamination by some other people: the sort of legislation that would have put the Dublin Central Boys’ Model School out of business.

It would appear, paradoxically, that Shaw’s attraction to socialism may have originated with his horror of contact with persons of a lower caste and class. Holroyd writes:

His sense of contamination became part of his socialist dogma and a warning against substituting faith in a dangerous experimental prophylaxis for a full-scale sanitation programme ensuring minimum conditions of public health: isolation not vaccination.

In 1883, Shaw read Marx’s Das Kapital, which he called “the only book that ever turned me upside down.” Max Beerbohm observed that Shaw maintained that position for the rest of his life. In 1884, Shaw joined the Fabian Society, which provided him with a platform. How seriously are we to take Shaw’s socialism (which he sometimes called “Individualism”)? Shaw’s middle-class audiences, when he became successful, did not take it seriously, and if they had taken it seriously, he would not have been successful. As Holroyd quotes him:

I found that I had only to say with perfect simplicity what I seriously meant just as it struck me, to make everybody laugh. My method is to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then say it with the utmost levity. And all the time the real joke is that I am in earnest.

It seems more likely that the real joke was the joke, and the earnest bit was a kind of a straight man, a foil for the joke. In his political writings, Shaw’s opinions are strongly expressed, but seem lightly held. Thus, in the 1884 leaflet called A Manifesto (Fabian Tract No. 2) Shaw wrote “that we had rather face a Civil War than such another century of suffering as the present one has been.”

But when Edward Pease, secretary of the Fabians, “nervously demurred” at that proposition Shaw at once reassured him: “The Fabians were only committed to discussing the practical consequences of such an opinion—no such revolutionary alternative would be offered in practice.”

In the Manifesto the beard had been doing the talking.

In this period, Shaw’s musical criticism seems more real than his politics, with more genuine playfulness, and less false earnestness. In one of his musical commentaries—on the Irish composer Charles Stanford—he reveals his concept of his own role as an Irish intellectual in England:

In those periods when nobody questions the superiority of the university to the hedge school, the Irishman, lamed by a sense of inferiority, blusters most intolerably…. Then the fashion changes; Ruskin leads young Oxford out into the hedge school to dig roads; there is general disparagement in advanced circles of civilization, the university, respectability, law and order….

This reaction is the opportunity of the Irishman in England to rehabilitate his self-respect, since it gives him a standpoint from which he can value himself as a hedge-school man…. If he seizes the opportunity, he may end in founding a race of cultivated Irishmen whose mission in England will be to teach Englishmen to play with their brains as well as with their bodies; for it is all work and no play in the brain department that makes John Bull such an uncommonly dull boy.

In eighteenth-century Ireland “hedge schools” were places where poor Catholics got such educations as they could. Some Protestants also went to such schools, usually because they couldn’t afford any other kind of education. For Shaw the Central Model Boys’ School had been a nineteenth-century version of the old hedge school. In the passages quoted, Shaw can be seen transforming the nightmare of his schooldays into a point of vantage for the future. It is a remarkable demonstration both of Shaw’s powers of recovery and of his capacity to combine fortitude with ingenuity.

Some of the ingenuity was misplaced. Quite a lot of it went into the strategy—advances, retreats, and oblique marches—of Shaw’s interminable and obsessive flirtations, which is what most of his love affairs mostly consisted of. Holroyd has no difficulty in establishing the connections between these flirtations and Shaw’s conflicting feelings about his mother. All that is abundantly documented here—too abundantly, I was inclined to feel. Some readers may agree with me. Others may find the richly documented flirtations the most fascinating part of the book.

By the final section of Holroyd’s Volume I, in the 1890s, Shaw has become “thoroughly well-known” in London, and the center of much controversy. His early radical plays—Widowers’ Houses and Mrs. Warren’s Profession—had been a succès de scandale, but no more. To that he reacted much as he had done when Edward Pease “nervously demurred” to his Fabian threat of civil war. He changed his tune. As Holroyd puts it:

Slum-landlordism, the marriage laws and prostitution had all proved “unspeakable” subjects on the Victorian stage, and Shaw made the decision to write no more “bluebook” plays on current social problems. From a documentary realist issuing plays with a purpose, he sought to become a writer of plays with no purpose “except the purpose of all poets and dramatists”—that is “plays of life, character and human destiny.” In order to get his words spoken on the West End stage he moved the emphasis “from the public institution to the private imagination”; set out to make his audiences laugh rather than feel uncomfortable (though sometimes to laugh at themselves); and resolved to “sport with human follies, not with crimes.”

He decided to write a “romantic” play. Arms and the Man (1894) was a huge success on its first night and thereafter. W.B. Yeats was in the audience, with strong mixed feelings:

I listened to Arms and the Man with admiration and hatred. It seemed to me inorganic, logical straightness and not the crooked road of life, yet I stood aghast before its energy as to-day before that of the Stone Drill by Mr. Epstein or of some design by Mr. Wyndham Lewis…. Presently 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.

When Max Beerbohm, four years later, handed down a general verdict on Shaw’s published plays to date—Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant—the word “machine” was also to the fore:

The men are all disputative machines, ingeniously constructed, and the women, who, almost without exception, belong to the strange cult of the fountain-pen, are, if anything, rather more self-conscious than the men…. Mr. Shaw is not, as the truly serious dramatist must be, one who loves to study and depict men and women for their own sake, with or without moral purpose. When Mr. Shaw is not morally purposeful, he is fantastic and frivolous, and it is then that his plays are good. In farce, psychological reality is not wanted…. Flesh and blood are quite invisible to Mr. Shaw. He thinks that because he cannot see them they do not exist, and that he is to be accepted as a realist. I need hardly point out to my readers that he is mistaken…to all intents and purposes, his serious characters are just so many skeletons, which do but dance and grin and rattle their bones.

But Shaw had already taken that point.

Volume I ends happily with Shaw’s marriage to Charlotte Payne-Townshend. The courtship may have started out, on Shaw’s part, as just another of those compulsive flirtations. But Charlotte was serious, and she got Shaw to be serious. Part of Shaw’s technique of flirtation was the deployment of humor, for purposes of evasion. But Charlotte was impervious to humor; she had a more than Victorian capacity for not being amused. (Though it seems hard to explain why anyone who lacked a sense of humor should want to marry G.B.S.) At any rate Charlotte could not play that particular game. She had other things going for her. She was highly intelligent and had a strong will. Also—and this may have been decisive—she was a paid-up member of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy class. The Townshends were every bit as good as the Shaws had been in their high and palmy days.

After the inferno of the boy Shaw’s home and schooling, here was Charlotte inviting the mature writer to the paradiso of the proper Protestants. She had made him an offer he could not refuse. Shaw’s marriage to Charlotte, added to his own growing celebrity, did restore him to favor with his proper-Protestant relatives. Toward the end of his life, G.B.S. had the satisfaction of knowing that his own portrait—presented by himself—hung, along with the portraits of Shaw ancestors, in the Dublin home of Sir Robert Shaw, acknowledged head of all the Irish Shaws, at Bushey Park, Dublin. In terms of Dublin society, Bushey Park is a long way from Marlborough Street. In a caste-dominated society such as nineteenth-century Dublin was, few people who lose caste can ever recover it. But G.B.S. had succeeded in doing just that. And the marriage with Charlotte was a happy one, into the bargain.

The marriage makes an appropriate ending to the excellent first volume of Holroyd’s biography. I look forward to the second.

The passage which I found most moving in Volume I was that dealing with the death of Shaw’s father. Holroyd writes:

One final tie with his past was cut when on 19 April 1885 George Carr Shaw died. They had had little communication over the last five years. “I have nothing else to say that you would care about,” his father had written on 2 September 1880; and again, on 4 December 1882: “I have nothing else particular to say.” Of his son’s published works he read only An Unsocial Socialist, liked it, but warned him: “don’t get yourself into Holloway Jail.” Though he often asked for letters, “whether you have anything to say or not,” he seldom heard from George who he felt did not “have anything sentimental left in you.” Years later, Shaw wrote: “When I recall certain occasions on which I was inconsiderate to him I understand how Dr. Johnson stood in the rain in Lichfield to expiate the same remorse.”

Shaw was not usually, in personal matters, a hardhearted man, and it seems strange that he could have turned a deaf ear to his father’s pathetic appeals. The father’s drunkenness, in Shaw’s boyhood, hardly seems reason enough for such extreme implacability. It does not seem that Shaw’s father, even when drunk, was ever unkind. I believe the real reason is that his father either sent him, or agreed to his being sent, to that contaminating school. The only thing that Shaw valued that he had received from his father was his name. And then his father had allowed even the name to be tarnished by being associated with Dublin’s Central Boys’ Model School. That was what was unforgivable.

It was unlucky, I think, for George Bernard Shaw’s father that he didn’t live long enough to see Shaw’s marriage. After Shaw, through that marriage, recovered caste, he would probably, at last, have been able to forgive his father, for his loss of caste. And Charlotte would have helped. She was a kind woman.

This Issue

November 24, 1988