George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
CULTURAL INFLUENCE IN CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH

FROM HIS EARLIEST YEARS, Shaw, THOUGH LACKING IN UNIVERSITY TRAINING always had that "easy consciousness of effortless superiority" supposed to be typical of Oxford students. Of all his many teachers, Miss Caroline Hill, a needy lady who served as the Shaw children's governess, was the only one who ever received a word of praise from him. Late in life he acknowledge that "she must have taught me a good deal which I have no recollection of learning, and for many adult years believed I knew by nature." So overweening was his consciousness of "natural knowledge" that he does not hesitate to assert: "I can remember no time at which a page of print was not intelligible to me, and can only suppose that I was born literate." As a small child, in his father's arms, sheltering with others under a portico on a rainy day, he "electrified the crowd by reading all the posters aloud." At the age of four he was taught, as he recalls, that everything was made of four elements: Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. He learned the Latin declensions and conjugations before he was ten.

Miss Hill strove earnestly to cultivate a taste for poetry by dramatically reading such stirring lines as

Stop; for thy tread is on an empire's dust,

which were accepted by the Shaw children with derisive humor, His mother did teach him half a dozen "childish rhymes"; and from his mother's brother, Walter Gurly, he acquired a "stock of unprintable lyrics that constituted almost an education in geography."

Miss Hill actually succeeded in teaching Sonny the mysteries of addition, subtraction, and multiplication; but failed with division because she omitted explaining the word "into" in the phrase: "3 into 6," and Sonny never asked her what "into " meant in that conversation. Fortunately, as he relates, "this was explained to me on my first day in school; and I solemnly declare that it was the only thing I ever learnt in school." Late in life, a mite conscience-stricken over his failure to recognize his indebtedness to Miss Hill, he made a modest contribution to the Governess's Benevolent Institution!

A daily chore for Sonny Shaw was the errand to purchase the morning newspaper, from one or the other of two female dispenser. He was always

-28-

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