13 February 2013

The House of Shaw


On a chilly Saturday in March 1966 I visited Shaw’s Corner at Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire, which is a half-hour drive from where I then lived. This should not be construed as a pilgrimage to the country residence of George Bernard Shaw: it was just part of an outing with my mother and one of her oldest woman-friends. On these occasional sorties we would explore by car, stopping at a tea-shop and maybe taking in some place of interest.

We were admitted to Shaw’s ground-floor study. The window overlooked the garden, in which stood his “writing hut”, a shed where he composed much of his stuff when in Hertfordshire. This was made to revolve so that it could follow the sun. According to the BBC (item 81, quoted by Wikipedia) “Shaw dubbed the hut ‘London, so that unwanted visitors could be told he was away ‘visiting the capital’.”

The study had been left much as it had been on the day of his death in 1950. This was a specimen of the usual, pointless and reverentially curated, museum of a writer’s outward life.

I knew little about Shaw except that he was the author of a play we had read out in English classes. Though I did then have some inchoate feeling that I wanted to write, I wanted far more to be a scientist. My interest in biology had been kindled particularly by an interest in birds and I owned a pair of ex-naval binoculars. These, while (by present standards) clumsy and with a small field of view, were of the best quality available in wartime Britain. Twenty years on, such instruments went cheaply enough even for a schoolboy to afford.

On Shaw’s desk was a pair of what I thought of as “field-glasses”, non-prismatic binoculars. Presumably he peered at the garden through these from time to time, whether in quest of a woodpecker or an over-zealous fan hiding in the shrubbery. I took them up, had a peep, and was surprised to note how bad they were. Surely such a famous fellow could have afforded better.

Shaw was a committed socialist, a member of the Fabian Society, whose philosophies have inspired so many of those Lenin is said to have termed “useful idiots”. A proponent of vegetarianism and eugenics, Shaw also used his writing as a political pulpit. In other words, he was a typical left-leaning intellectual who thought his prowess in one arcane field of endeavour gave him the authority to tell everyone else how to live.

In 1906 he wrote: “I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him … With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.”

This is a revealing quotation, and not just for the glimpse it gives us of his conceit. He plainly did not get the electric thrill of reading, and especially hearing, Shakespeare’s words. It is revealing too that he execrates Homer, whom Alexander Pope, in the preface to his translation of The Iliad, introduces thus:
Homer is universally allowed to have had the greatest invention of any writer whatever. The praise of judgment Virgil has justly contested with him, and others may have their pretensions as to particular excellences; but his invention remains yet unrivalled. … It is to the strength of this amazing invention we are to attribute that unequalled fire and rapture which is so forcible in Homer, that no man of a true poetical spirit is master of himself while he reads him.
Notice also that Shaw reproves Shakespeare for being “vulgar”, which is an odd charge to come from the progenitor of Eliza Doolittle. Shakespeare can be vulgar right enough, but he is everything else as well.

As for his “snobbery”, and the unopened “English eyes”, I wonder how much Shaw’s Irish birth had to do with that. In Shakespeare’s time, Lord Arthur Grey de Wilton was made Lord Deputy of Ireland. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the poet Edmund Spenser, was appointed as Grey’s secretary. Spenser is much hated in Ireland even to this day, mostly for his A View of the Present State of Ireland. That report was suppressed on its completion as incendiary: it effectively recommends genocide as the answer to the “Irish problem”. Though Spenser gets the blame, the opinions might well be those of his boss.

Christopher Highley’s Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland “explores the most serious crisis the Elizabethan regime faced: its attempts to subdue and colonize the native Irish. Through a range of literary representations from Shakespeare and Spenser, and contemporaries such as John Hooker, John Derricke, George Peele and Thomas Churchyard he shows how these writers produced a complex discourse about Ireland that cannot be reduced to a simple ethnic opposition. Highley argues that the confrontation between an English imperial presence and a Gaelic ‘other’ was a profound factor in the definition of an English poetic self.”

In 1906 Éire was still part of the United Kingdom, and an intelligent Dubliner like Shaw would rightly have resented the English. This may supply one reason for his antipathy to Shakespeare, but I think there is another, in Shaw’s political position. Shakespeare is right-wing rather than left, though what he represents and celebrates is a fundamentally English, bloody-minded independence that is hard to classify. It has elements of anarchy, but also of monarch-worship. It survives to this day in our contempt for politicians and their lackeys, of whatever stripe; the Queen has never been more popular or highly regarded.

This independence goes back to Agincourt and probably beyond, but the reign of the first Elizabeth was perhaps the time when it was most evident. Her father, Henry VIII, had stuck two fingers up at the Pope. The Royal Navy was being turned into a power that would help England subdue much of the world – including Ireland. There was an upsurge of talent and invention; our agriculture began to thrive. The nation found confidence in itself. Britain was no longer an unimportant island just off the mainland of Europe. This attitude led, hundreds of years later, to a famous headline in an evening paper: Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off.

If you were suspected of Catholic sympathies, Elizabethan England was a dangerous place to be, especially if you were also well known. Spenser compromised his artistic integrity in the interests of safety and preferment. The Faerie Queene, his masterpiece, is vitiated by anti-Catholic propaganda and toadying to “Gloriana” (neither of which did him much good in the end, it must be said). Some parts of this unfinished poem, unspoilt by such things, are among the most sublime achievements in English verse. Spenser’s reputation would stand much higher today if he had left the toadying and propaganda out.

Shakespeare may have had Catholic sympathies, but if he did he kept them locked away. His genius was greater than Spenser’s, almost as great as Homer’s, in fact, and he could do with language just about anything he pleased. Envy might also have fed into Shaw’s disapproval. For example, in the quotation above, he uses the ugly nonce-word “second-handedness” to avoid the repetition of “-ality” that would have ensued had he written “unoriginality” instead; Shakespeare would have seen that coming a country mile away.

Shakespeare does not preach. His work is true to itself. It has no purpose other than to enthrall the audience and, in the case of the plays, to make the playwright and his company rich. When people pay to hear a story, a story and not a sermon is what they want to hear. It takes a master like Dickens or Orwell to get away with a political message as well, but such a message detracts from the ability of the piece to engage. The results of a search for productions at the online London Theatre Guide say it all: Shakespeare 33, Shaw 0.

A message is so much associated with the left that the absence of a message has almost become identified with the right. This is a problem for readers and playgoers, and for authors too, because for the past few decades received opinion in the arts establishment has come from the left. The term “liberal” itself, from the Latin word for “free”, is now applied to an increasingly conformist set of views. Those daring to question or diverge from it are howled down, with an inevitable effect on the sort of work that sees the light of day.

Shaw’s part in this fiasco is a tiny one, but he contributed nonetheless. He was evidently an avuncular, well-meaning sort of gent, if an insufferable egotist unable to see his own prejudices. His conviction that he was correct about everything led him to places, like the Fabian Society, where he shouldn’t have gone. There he found the like-minded twerps whose influence has since made it morally unacceptable to question the new orthodoxy. I am sure he would have been appalled by such illiberality, but the Law of Unintended Consequences operates round the clock, 365 days a year.

His cheap and cloudy field-glasses, then, are a metaphor for his view of the world, and I am glad I put them down so quickly. (The curator, by the way, had no objection to my picking them up.) As for the revolving hut, I’m not sure it’s a good idea always to be looking in the same direction with respect to the sun. Better to get some shadow and contrast: they give you a better idea of the depth of field.

To close, here is part of a comment posted by Lester Hunt on a blog-post about Shakespeare-hatred. “Although I don’t share S’s ultra-hyper-conservative political views, I find it a refreshing escape from the increasingly democratical culture we now are stuck in. We now live in the House that Shaw built. Ugh.”

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