George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview
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Flirting with Fiction

IN CASHEL BYRON'S PROFESSION, THE PUGILIST HERO FORTHRIGHTLY REMARKS that it's not what a man would like to do, but what he can do, that he must work at in this world. When Shaw joined his mother and sister at No. 13 Victoria Grove, London, which he has so pleasingly described in the Preface to Immaturity, he had no very clear idea of his ambition or his ultimate career. When he remarked to Clarence Rook, twenty years later, that "London was not ripe for me" in 1876, he was coining an amusing phrase which did not quite turn the truth upside down. Shaw was full of culture, musical, artistic, scientific, literary; but he had no conception of the extent to which London society, though contemptuously aware of these "professional things," contrives to get on without them on an intellectual diet of sport, party politics, and the routine of fashion and travel. In Dublin the professions form the aristocracy; and one could, without horses, guns, or any experience of them, and with the income of an English peer's chef, enjoy the run of the best society there is without ever feeling even "middle class." Shaw, being a Shaw, and therefore by family tradition pre-eminently a gentleman, accepted no sort of social inferiority, and was quite unable to understand why anyone in his position and possessing his culture should do so. He was bumptious, half baked, crude, and poor. During the four preceding years he had missed the indispensable social drill of neighborly visiting with mother and sisters, with the inevitable result that he was ill at ease in society and at once aggressive and shy.

Gravitation, as he curiously expressed it, alone sustained him; for the qualities he lacked were initiative and direction.1 As we shall see later, his first attempts at journalism during the course of nearly nine years met with almost unbroken failure. After a few years of casual and desultory activities, he settled down to the laborious writing of fiction in 1879.

Again and again, Shaw has poured out the vials of his scorn upon the profession of clerk. But clerkship left him two valuable legacies: a legible and businesslike chirography; and the habit of regular work. The appalling volume

Shaw once remarked to Henry Salt that, although he was on a slant like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, he continued to tower above his contemporaries and would never fall, because he was sustained by the force of levity.


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George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century
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