BOOKS

Man and superman

A more rounded vision of George Bernard Shaw

John Bemrose October 10 1988
BOOKS

Man and superman

A more rounded vision of George Bernard Shaw

John Bemrose October 10 1988

Man and superman

A more rounded vision of George Bernard Shaw

BERNARD SHAW: THE SEARCH FOR LOVE Vol. 1,1856-1898 By Michael Holroyd (Random House, 486 pages, $32)

Thirteen years is a lengthy period for a writer to spend peering into another person’s affairs. Yet that is how much time Londoner Michael Holroyd has devoted to examining George Bernard Shaw. And now, in The Search for Love—the first instalment of a projected three-part biography—Holroyd reveals his findings about the Irish dramatist.

On a recent visit to Toronto, Holroyd exuded the weary but triumphant air of someone who has crossed a vast swamp and survived against all odds. The author (who is married to novelist Margaret Drabble) remarked that the sheer volume of Shaw’s work frequently overwhelmed him.

“I sometimes think Shaw was capable of writing more in a day than I can comfortably read,” Holroyd said.

“Besides plays, he churned out about 4,000 items of journalism. And every day of his adult life he wrote an average of 10 letters.”

Clearly, what has also taken much of Holroyd’s time is the painstaking care he has lavished on his own writing. Rarely has a biography sustained such a high level of literary grace, absorbing detail and pure narrative pleasure. Most important, The Search for Love gives a new, more rounded vision of Shaw. Most Shavian biographies have been penned by worshipful admirers; some were even partly ghostwritten by the dramatist himself. The result has been an image of Shaw as a literary superman, with all the dauntless optimism and world-levelling wit of one of his plays.

But Holroyd, while appreciating Shaw’s incandescence, has skilfully sketched in the shadows as well. The core truth about Shaw is to be found in his desperately unhappy childhood. The playwright was bom in 1856 in Dublin to an Anglo-Irish couple down on their luck. His father was a mischievous drunk. His mother was an ambitious amateur

singer who did not love her son. It was a tragedy that Shaw spent a lifetime struggling to overcome. “By attracting from the world some of the attention he had been denied by his mother,” Holroyd writes, Shaw “conjured optimism out of deprivation.”

Yet fame, for all Shaw’s craving, did not come soon or easily. Emigrating to London in 1876, he spent much of his 20s writing five bad, unpublished novels. In his 30s, he achieved some notoriety as a brilliant public speaker on behalf of the Fabian socialists. He

also became one of the finest drama critics of the century, joining the Saturday Review in 1895. It was a post that allowed him to flirt—he was wary of anything deeper—with some of the finest actresses of the day.

His own early attempts at writing for the stage (Arms and the Man, Candida, You Never Can Tell) had found only limited success when, at the age of 40, he became involved with the Irish heiress Charlotte Payne-Townshend. Like a good romance, The Search for Love ends with their marriage in 1898. It is a measure of Holroyd’s accomplishment that he leaves the reader eager to know whether Shaw found real love in Charlotte’s arms—or merely its substitute in the worldwide fame that was soon to be his.

JOHN BEMROSE