g.b.s. As Fellow Countryman

by SIR WILLIAM BEACH THOMAS

1

HAVING lived for a number of years as a close country neighbor of George Bernard Shaw, I have come to entertain a certain fear that he may go down to posterity with an undeserved gap in his halo. One side of him, or at any rate one facet, — if he may be regarded as a diamond, —has assuredly never been displayed or even acknowledged in public. He is of course an urban product — hence perhaps the gamin in him. He was brought up in one capital, Dublin, where he was half-educated in a school he abominated; and he made his name and fortune in another capital, London. His best-known address was Adelphi Terrace, where he lived in a flat over a newspaper office, at the very hub of theatrical London. The theater itself is today essentially an urban product, in spite of Stratford-on-Avon and its Swan.

Shaw’s critics and biographers have universally discussed him as of the town and theater, urban and dramatic or operatic, for he began his London career as a music critic. When I saw him soon after his ninetieth birthday, he was engaged in a throwback — in writing an article (and a very ingenious one) for a music paper; and he recalled the days, then some seventy years past, when he transferred his contributions to a London evening paper, the Star, from politics to musical criticism.

The story is familiar. It was told me long, long ago by his editor, another Irishman, T. P. O’Connor. Shaw was engaged to write leading articles; and excellent though they were, they were a nightmare to his editor, for the reason that the young contributor spent much of his ingenuily in subtly undermining the creed of the paper and its proprietor. Even with the utmost vigilance the editor could not exclude the Fabian philosophy; and seventy years later the Fabian himself confessed with a grim smile the truth of the story. “Of course I tried to give publicity to the Fabian view.” So he was forced to give up the political writing, and his own suggestion that he should become music critic was accepted. The success of the change was salient. A great critic was born into “the main of light.”

For many years G.B.S. remained true to his training — of the town, urban; but the time came, as it has come to many, Disraeli for example, when the noise and bustle of the town became in some measure a burden. The desire to be more “aloof from its mutations and unrest” persuaded him and his wife to buy a country home; and since he later decided to bequeath it to the nation, there is after all sonic likelihood that his reactions to a rural environment will be more widely appreciated and acknowledged. From the windows you may easily find yourself

Annihilating all that’s made To a green thought in a green shade.

The lawn is spacious and finely turfed. The few flower beds beyond are backed by low green bushes, and over their heads you look into the very green valley of the winding river Lea, where Michael Drayton heard naiads conversing in the spacious days of Elizabeth. It may titillate the vein of more satiric critics to know that this pleasant country house was built for a rectory of the parish (which includes not more than a hundred souls) and that at one time the rector inhabited a flat in London, while the satirist delighted in the rectory.

The view doubtless means a great deal to G.B.S. He was endowed with exceptional senses of sight and of hearing; and age has not withered them in any perceptible degree. Like his really beautiful soft clear Irish voice, they have kept their youthful bloom through the long years. The senses of great men are too little regarded by their biographers. For myself, I have never known anyone with such superacute senses of eye and ear as that famous, or notorious, newspaper magnate, Alfred Ilarmsworth, who became Lord Northcliffe. Tennyson’s works are dotted with shortsighted lines, and Byron, it seems to me, was certainly color-blind. But not to labor the point with alien instances, such senses are as important, though they are seldom acknowledged, as, say, Macaulay’s memory or Gibbon’s learning.

For a long space G.B.S. was unconscious of his own excellence in this regard. Then one happy day an oculist who was a friend wanted to test his eyes, just for amusement; and indeed those singularly bright, glinting orbs might well attract, notice from a specialist as well as any other acquaintance. When the examination was complete, G.B.S. heard the verdict with ingenuous disgust. His eyes were described as “perfectly normal,” and as may be inferred by his readers, he has no fondness for what a President of the United States called “normalcy.”However, he was more than relieved, he was delighted, when the oculist went on to explain that what he called perfectly normal sight was very rare indeed. Each eye was just what an eye ought to be, not myopic or astigmatic or too long-sighted or tender. From that moment G.B.S. knew himself better. He understood for the first time, so he explained, certain things that had puzzled him. One was the reason why no one would take the several novels he had written in his youth. The reason now was clear: he was seeing things perfectly, as they ought to be seen, while the rest of the world was seeing them askew. He was a normal person in a crowd of abnormals.

Henceforth this view, as first opened by the oculist, was a solace and indeed an inspiration. The secret was disclosed: he was sane in a mad world. His normality explained fully why this early work of his was not understood and appreciated by a more general public, which suffered from abnormality. What was patent to him, the clear-sighted, was a paradox to the myopic or astigmatic spectators in whose midst he found himself. He alone had the true vision. The rare but still essentially right eyesight was an index of the mind. Shaw played about with this idea till the metaphor became a plain fact. As in common speech, “I see" meant “I understand”; so “I alone see normally, therefore I alone understand rightly.”

Shaw’s sight and the unusual fineness of his musical car are symptoms of an exceptionally perfect physical make-up. It is one of the drawbacks of a life in towns that the sense of sight, at any rate, does not consciously matter a great deal, just as many urban dwellers never find out whether or no they are courageous. One financier of my acquaintance, who for a long space had been near the edge of financial disaster in London, went out to the war as an interpreter and incidentally found out that he was more or less immune to fear. The sudden discovery filled him with huge delight. “Here have I,” he said in effect, “been unhappy and apprehensive of calamity month after month, and wondering how to escape from a host of troubles, while in fact I was brave as a lion. For the first time I have known what it is to be really happy.”

2

I SHOULD not go so far as to say that Shaw was happier in the country than in the town, but certainly he found new gusto in his senses and adapted himself by natural instinct to his environment. One picture of him will always remain vivid. The neighbor whom he saw most was the owner of a characteristic country house, surrounded by a spacious park. His family had lived there for five or six hundred years. A bay of the village church was dedicated to his family monuments, some quaintly recording almost forgotten centuries. Shaw and his feudal neighbor surprisingly found that they had a good deal in common.

The side of the park next to Shaw’s rectory is connected with the road by the sort of approach that is named in several districts “dark entry,”a rather narrow lane with a copse on one side and on the other a hedge so old that it had half fallen over the path. One dark evening as I left the park I saw an almost ghostlike figure that looked of more than human height in the gloaming. It was Shaw, clad in a rough whitish coat, hatted almost like a yachtsman, gloved like a forester, and holding a murderous weapon in his hand. He was engaged in trimming with his billhook the boughs that overhung the lane and obstructed the free passage. He was delighting in the work and did it as efficiently as any professional hedge trimmer. He was at that date comparatively young, not more than eighty-five or so; and his natural strength did not seem abated in any serious degree. As I came up to him he ceased work, and we talked for a while most pleasantly on a host of subjects, after he had almost shyly apologized for his altruistic occupation.

One other like picture may be recalled. At a garden party in the neighborhood his young and beautiful hostess pointed him out to me as be stood, in his great height and long white beard, in the arch of a yew hedge. “Anyone would fall in love with him,” she said. Well, some might resist, but the picturesqueness of the figure was beyond cavil. He “consented to a mutual relation” with his surroundings, as Henry James said of one of his heroes.

William Archer, who shared with Shaw an extravagant admiration for Ibsen, once described Shaw as a man who was wholly aloof from the actual world — a man who was not a realist, or surrealist, but rather an unrealist, who saw men as trees walking. There could be no greater mistake. Apart from such critics, Shaw has suffered from, or at any rate endured, most unhappy biographers; and against one of them he rebelled in a humorous and good-humored fashion. A more or less casual acquaintance of his in London was Frank Harris, who was at one time editor of the Saturday Review (for which paper Shaw was dramatic critic). Late in his life Harris left England, for good and sufficient reasons, staying for a while in the United States. Being greatly in need of money, he took the idea, so Shaw told me, that he was the one man really qualified to write a life of Jesus Christ; but no American publisher would entertain the idea, especially as prepayment was a necessity to Harris.

But one publisher suggested Harris should instead write a life of Bernard Shaw. The idea was presently accepted. Now Harris, so the victim assures me, had read very little Shavian literature and was at no time more than a casual acquaintance and not a congenial one at that. However, Harris persuaded a journalist to collect a good store of newspaper cuttings — and Shaw was always “good copy” — and the life was written. The wise and honest publisher sent the proofs to Shaw for his criticism and correction. He read them with that superb absence of personal indignation, with that Olympian objectiveness, which is one of his constant characteristics, and found them well sprinkled with libels, with unpleasant knocks, and with gross errors of fact. He went through them all with thoroughness, leaving untouched the abuses of criticism, and only correcting the perversion of definite facts. It was a singularly kindly act towards both the publishers and Frank Harris’s dependents, for he himself had died in the interval. It will never be known quite how much of this considerably hostile, and in large measure this faked, life was written by the victim himself, for the proofs — in every sense — were carefully destroyed. The combination of authors represents as Shavian a situation as could be desired.

Shaw in my hearing has always spoken with kindly, if slightly satiric, humor of Frank Harris as a mild and inoffensive character who liked to pretend to be a fierce rebel against every convention. In spite of all his shortcomings, Harris was at his best a critic almost of the first water.

3

A NUMBER of urban writers —I have known several salient examples — have found themselves utterly robbed of the power of writing when they retired to the country. They were like Dickens — that complete Cockney — who found that his invention dried up if he was long divorced from the Vanity Fair of the streets. After a while, when they have become acclimatized to the quiet and serenity, the gift of writing has returned to them, it may be in renewed force, but time was needed. Shaw was not in this class for two reasons. First, he kept a flat in London and never grew to be a country cabbage. Second, he practiced the difficult art of rough-casting his plays or articles or whatnot during train journeys.

As a conscious and thorough artist, with an objective attitude to his own writing, Shaw had the way of making three stages of his composition. First the rough draft, in the train or just anywhere; second the full text; and third the drastic revision. It would have amused an external critic to note that while Shaw was sketching out a drama or other screed in one carriage, his next-door neighbor, the feudal countryman, was busy painting in another compartment. He had acquired a passion for water colors and liked to imagine his scenes, not to copy them. He had acquired a certain artistic skill during his journey toward the South Pole and had devised an apparatus that enabled him to practice his art while journeying.

These two friendly, but oddly contradictory neighbors visited one another frequently. One of the most unexpected sights I was ever introduced to may be recorded of one of these visits. A large, carpetless room was furnished with a grand piano in one corner, on which the host played dance tunes. At the opposite corner stood, under strong illumination, the tall statue of Epstein’s Christ. On the polished floor between statue and piano revolved a famous and beautiful woman, beautifully dressed, and G.B.S. in a brown velvet coat and a swinging white beard. He was being taught the fox trot and learned it with almost instantaneous efficiency. A novelist might have been accused of a too fantastic imagination if he had described such a scene. It was in the same house that I heard a succinctly humorous conversation over the telephone. At the far end was Shaw’s pleasant voice, asking modestly: “Am I lunching with you?” and the adequate answer went back: “No, but do.” If brevity is the soul of wit, here was its essence.

It is one of the few drawbacks of a vegetarian creed that it increases the difficulties of a host on any sudden call, or did before the war. But G.B.S. is not only a vegetarian and a teetotaller. He partakes of no sort of food in large quantity. When you go to tea with him he often does not eat so much as a crumb, and either drinks nothing or half a cup of milk. His chief pabulum is talk -and very good talk, for apart from his intellectual eminence, he possesses in strong measure that happy Irish gift of easy utterance and quick interest, which remain unabated however small or humble the audience.

I asked Shaw one day what had induced him to become a vegetarian. Was the motive humanitarian, medical, or a distaste for flesh? It was in my mind that in his early, more bellicose days he had expressed a certain disgust at the appearance, much more the absorption, of what he then called “scorched corpse.” The nature of his answer was a little unexpected. He began by confessing that mankind was forced to kill a certain number of animals — he gave rabbits and, more surprisingly, squirrels as two examples. Logically, as was argued long ago in the Atlantic Monthly, the existence of the bull-calf quite defeats many of the arguments of the humanitarian, if he is willing to eat cheese or butter or drink milk. G.B.S. is too inherently logical, not to say too intellectually honest, to deny this difficulty. The curious point he made was that if the world were vegetarian a very great deal of labor, now spent on the tendance of animals, would be saved. He was perhaps not sufficiently rural, in spite of his long residence in the country, to know that the one difficulty the farmer finds in substituting vegetable compost for farmyard manure is the great amount of labor needed in its making and maturing and distribution. The European and especially English practice of folding sheep on arable land ensures fertility at the very smallest expenditure of labor. But this is another story.

Shaw did not confess to me exactly what made him give up a carnal diet; but he said with a certain pride, as well he might, “I have at any rate proved that man can live perfectly well on a vegetarian diet.”He might have added, “and retain a peculiarly youthful vitality of mind and of senses up to and beyond his ninetieth year.” I would add a very youthful wit. Of this one rural example may be given. It was reported that a single barking deer, or muntjac, was astray in the woodland skirting the park, having escaped from the famous park zoo of the Duke of Bedford. Said G.B.S. when the appearance was reported: “Couldn’t you find the poor thing a munt-jill?”

4

SHAW’S ready wit never deserts him, in public or in private. His neighbor once asked him whether one of the standard stories that have gathered round his name was true in fact. The tale was that on one of his walks he passed two people who stared at him rather harder than politeness warranted, so he took a step nearer and said: “ You are quite right!” G.B.S. confessed to the soft impeachment, without being sure that he remembered the incident. A certain gay egotism in the phrase gives the strongest internal evidence that the reply was genuine Shaw.

Of all the well-worn tales of Shavian dicta, the one I like best, for its bite as well as its wit, was given to a large audience in Dublin. He was lecturing on social matters at a date when the Gaelic League was particularly active in urging the reviVal of the Gaelic language, and he incidentally gave this advice to his hearers: “You had much better buy toothbrushes for the poor than try to speak a language that never has been spoken and never will be.” Angry hisses filled the hall. When he had stilled them with his uplifted hand, which is almost as long as the hand in Epstein’s statue, he continued: “If you hiss me again, I will speak to you in it!” The audience was SO conscious that if he did, they would not understand a word, that there was adequate silence for the rest of the lecture.

Shaw is an ardent student of English — and of few other languages. He has difficulty in discovering the meaning even of a simple Latin sentence. He resembles Shakespeare (if he will permit the insult!) at least in this, that he has little Latin and less Greek; but he is a real zealot for the purity of the English language, in spelling and pronunciation, as well as in grammar. For example, the universal slurring into one mongrel syllable of the termination “tion” is a constant offense to his ear, as it was in some measure to Rudyard Kipling. His sergeant’s command “’shun, and he shunted” is a criticism as well as a jest. Nothing, I fancy, would give him more pleasure than the adoption of a particular alphabet which he has ingeniously and accurately invented to convey all the sounds, coupled with a great simplification of the spelling.

A quality in Shaw that is especially pleasing to an engrooved countryman is that he exercises his gift for conversation on dogs and other animals. He talks to them as if they were reasonable beings. Perhaps they are. It is my experience that if you talk to animals as you would talk to a friend, they feel a certain sympathy in the natural manner of the address. I have tried it even on the domestic poultry which it was my task to tend during the war, and it seemed to me that they grew tamer by such an approach than if one had made all sorts of artificial noises or said nothing at all. It is not mere mysticism to feel (like Wordsworth)

How exquisitely . . .
The external world is fitted to the mind

and vice versa. To minimize differences and superiorities adds to the general companionship in things, at any rate for those who have their being in country places; and perhaps only those who know Shaw chiefly as a rural immigrant would be aware of his sense of companionship with the world about him. He has from time to time expressed a characteristic contempt of the naturalist. One of the few statesmen whom I have known him to castigate with scorn was Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary to Great Britain during and before the first of the two wars against Germany. One day his criticism was founded on the fact that Edward Grey was a fisherman. Another day the particular sin was his absorption in birds. Perhaps these interests were so strong in Grey that they occupied time and energy which ought to have been spent in acquiring the German language and analyzing German mentality; but the most vigorous of statesmen have been open to a like charge. Was not Bismarck, the man of iron and blood, at a crisis in international politics found at the work of counting how many times a pair of tits visited their young within the hour?

For myself, I possess one communication from Theodore Roosevelt, that most eager of naturalists, whose bird-nesting walk with Grey is famous — or perhaps, in some eyes, notorious. The Roosevelt letter was a brief request asking me to come back and see him when the tanagers returned to Oyster Bay. As to fishermen, the most ardent I ever met was that really great South African, Denys Reitz, who wrote Commando, one of the best essays in direct simple narrative in the language. He was great, if in a small sphere, as statesman as well as soldier and writer.

It may be that the humanitarian side of Shaw’s character made him more than usually unappreciative of anything to do with sport. But he was almost as scornful of games. He once confessed that the quality which angered him most in the English (whom he liked) was their puerility. They would talk quite reasonably for a minute or two on some moral or intellectual theme and then, without a comma, turn to the beating of a golf ball and discussion on the stroke. After all, G.B.S., though a great humorist, is essentially a serious person; his strong suit is thinking on the future of socialism, on the need of a new alphabet, on the varying musical scales, on dramatic technique, or the folly of death duties. Though his senses are exceptional, what matters most to him is the activity of the brain ticking behind that high forehead and flashed by those scintillant eyes.

It is not unlikely that his reputation as a countryman may grow. As I have said, he is leaving his country rectory to the nation, a more solid memorial than a plaque on a London flat; and the house, if not remarkable, stands at the edge of a very small hamlet which is an English gem. The postmistress — who doubtless likes to talk to Shaw as to me of her love of “nacher” — lives in a black and white cottage dating from the early sixteenth century. A ruined Gothic church, where the owls cast their pellets on a Crusader’s tomb, stands in a quiet acre across the road, “bosomed high in tufted trees”; and a queer Byzantine church is half hidden by trees on the other side of the field. Three or four cottages and as many country houses of traditional type complete the village. The place is worth a pilgrimage, though the urban mind may rebel. When bombs were falling on London two expectant mothers were evacuated to one of the country houses standing at the loveliest part of the hamlet. After a few days they disappeared without warning, but presently wrote from a bombed neighborhood to thank their hosts, but to complain that the authorities had no right to send them to a place “where there were no streets”! They might have found compensation in looking at G.B.S., a romantic figure wherever he is, who has quite sloughed off the old, the Dickensian, love of streets. There is not a road or lane near Ayot St. Lawrence Rectory that is not ludicrously crooked.