George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
The Novels Fail

ONCE ASKED WHAT WAS THE TURNING POINT IN THIS CAREER, Shaw REPLIED, WITH a twinkle of his gray eyes under the shaggy brows: "I haven't had any turning point in my life. I've gone straight on." That is only a variation of the gravitation theme: a fresh denial that his apparent heroic resolution and unbreakable will meant anything but helpless abiding of an inevitable destiny.

During the five years when Shaw. like Trollope, was methodically laying black on white with Spartan resolve, he was handicapped with impecuniosity and shabbiness. "When people reproach me now," he laughingly remarked in 1896, "with the unfashionableness og my attire, they forget that to me it seems like the raiment of Solomon in all his glory by contrast with the indescribable seedines of those days, when I trimmed my cuffs to the quick with scissors, and wore a tall hat and soi-disant black coat, green with decay."1 A contemporary described his appearance as that of a fairly respectable plasterer. His boots were broken and he had to wear that tall hat decrepit and limp with age, back-to-front to enable him to take it off without doubling up the brim. "I did not posses a morning suit in which I could reasonable have expected a duchess to touch me with the furthest protended pair of tongs." When beggars and ladies of the pavement solicited alms of him on the streets at night, when he was clad in evening clothes, his overwhelming answer was to take his purse out of his pocket and hold it upside down to prove that it was empty.2 The self-portrait in Robert Smith in Immaturity is revealing: ". . . closely cropped pale yellow hair, small grey eyes, and a slender lathy figure. His delicately cut features and nervous manner indicated some refinement; but his shyness, though fairly well covered, shewed that his experience of society was limited, and his disposition sensitive."

The immense manuscript of Immaturity was submitted to Chapman Hall, famous London publisher. In the reader's book, carefully preserved, one of the firm's readers: "No."3 In an interesting letter to one of Meredith's biographers, Shaw writes (c. 1919):

____________________
1
Clarence Rook, "George Bernard Shaw," The Chap-Book, November 1, 1896.
2
Shaw was never a night hawk. Lee's and the Lawsons' at-homes, neither of them in the least what might be called "nocturnal" the only social assemblies Shaw ever attended. When he had not a shilling for a theater he prowled solitary.
3
B. W. Matz, "George Meredith as a Reader," The Fortnightly Review, LXVII ( August, 1909), 122-123.

-110-

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