The Early â€œG.B.S.â€
by Henry S. Salt
IN her book on her father Miss May Morris credits me with having been among the first to recognise the abilities of a certain gaunt pale-faced auburn-bearded young Irishman who had original ideas on music, Shelley and everything under the sun, and expressed them with a relentless wit. That was Mr. George Bernard Shaw fifty years ago.
I was a young married master at Eton, and through my brother-in-law, J. L. Joynes, who held a similar post, I became acquainted with a number of socialists such as Henry George, H. M. Hyndman, John Burns, H. H. Champion and others who were then regarded with suspicion. Among them was one whom Joynes described as extremely clever and amusing, named Shaw. Him, in my audacity, on one occasion I took to visit my father-in-law, the Rev. J. L. Joynes, Lower Master of Eton, who had been Swinburne’s tutor, and was in consequence much in dread of all irregularities of speech or action. I remember that as we left the house I remarked to Shaw how well we had got through that, to which he replied: “Got through! Why he loves me as his own son.” At the end of 1884 I left Eton, aud at Tilford, in Surrey, we entered on a new form of life, without servants, without flesh food and without a number of things then supposed to be necessary.
To a young couple so situated the making a close acquaintance with Bernard Shaw of course meant a great deal, for he was quite unlike anything that had gone before; in appearance a novice, and in manner quite modest and unassuming, yet somehow possessed of an assurance that easily left in the lurch all the dignitaries of a great public school. He made his own bed, and took his share of the household work, such as the washing-up, with gravity and precision; a most conscientious hand in that simplification of life, after the manner of Thoreau, which to us was both a pleasure and a necessity. Then there were the long evenings, with talks of his many doings, and his love affairs; and as we had a grand piano, gift of my father-in-law, not a few hours were spent round that. “I suppose it was the Shelleyan nexus that bound us,” he has since said in his letters to me. After Tilford we were at Oxted, and the intimacy with Shaw continued. It was from there, I think, that he once insisted in taking us for a trip in a car, when we had a narrow escape from disaster, and learnt from him that it was his first venture as a driver. Our remonstrances were met by an assurance that to die in his company would have been sufficient recompense for loss of life.
But I must proceed to London, where we made the acquaintance of Shaw’s mother, then living with him in Fitzroy Square; a dear old lady*, of whom he was evidently very fond, though his irrepressible love of pranks led to an amusing tale. To her belief in her latter years that she was in communication with the dead he raised no general objection as he saw it amused her; but when he heard of talks with the deceased Oscar Wilde he told her to ask him whether he remembered some walk to a certain place which he specified. When word came that Wilde had a pleasant recollection of that occasion, “Then he is a liar,” said Shaw, “for we never had such a walk.”
Another incident, which does not show G.B.S. as then an encourager of talent in the young, concerns a now distinguished musician. In my chief circle of friends among Eton masters had been one whose son was somewhat of a prodigy at the piano, and my wife was anxious that Shaw should hear him play. An evening was at last arranged; an hour fixed; and we were momentarily expecting to hear the thundering knock that we knew so well. But we listened in vain; hours passed; and at length hope was abandoned. Then, near midnight, the knock came, and when we went to the door we saw the tall form standing there, and heard a hoarse whisper enquiring: “Has that awful boy gone?”
I have written elsewhere of Shaw’s membership of the Shelley Society, and of his proposal to the authorities of University College, Oxford, that their statue of the poet whom they had expelled should represent him “in a tall hat, leading his children on Sunday morning to the Church of his native parish.” Perhaps the most interesting of my excursions with G.B.S. was when we lunched at Putney with Mr. Watts Dunton and the poet Swinburne, “those two poor old blighters,” as he afterwards most ungratefully spoke of them in a letter. I much relished the sight of Swinburne and Shaw together, and could not fail to note the dread with which the author of “Atalanta in Calydon” regarded the imperturbable critic. Shelley was not the only tie with G.B.S. There was also De Quincey, of whom, unlike the majority of writers, he was a sincere admirer, and this to me, who was often in the wars about “the opium-eater,” was a satisfaction. He wrote to me, in reply to something I had said in a letter: “I doubt if there is any ‘prejudice’ against De Quincey, except that he had brains, and wrote paragraphs consisting of several sentences. He has been out of fashion: that’s all.” In this opinion Shaw was, I fear, wrong. There was, and still is, a decided prejudice, connected perhaps with the excessive worship of Wordsworth, which critics feel.
As a talker, Shaw had few equals, but in George Meredith, if they had met on even terms, he would have found his match. I have told elsewhere how when I had mentioned to G.B.S. that to me even listening to Meredith was a severe intellectual strain, he expressed indignation at such pusillanimity, and offered that if I would take him to Box Hill he would start talking the moment he was in the house, and not allow Meredith a word; but as he has attempted to make me the inventor of the proposal, I wish to reassert its truth. As a fact, I heard from himself, years later, that on the only occasion of his meeting Meredith, old and feeble, he had in truth talked rather too much.
It must be remembered that G.B.S.’s inventive, as well as narrative, powers were amazing, and he did not scruple to use them freely when occasion served. Once at Grant Alien’s house near Hindhead, when he was talking to a small circle, he chanced to make me his theme, and I marvelled at the unbroken thread of incidents with which the story ran on without a pause. There “was truth in it,” as people say; and that was all.
In London, apart from the Shelley Society, there were some curious incidents. At a vegetarian dinner, where I was sitting next to Shaw, one of the speakers was a clergyman who said that he, too, would be an abstainer from flesh were it not for his dear wife’s sake. At which G.B.S. remarked to me in an audible whisper: “Scoundrel!”
In 1898, I think it was, I had a day or two with Shaw at Pitfold, Haslemere, when we were photographed together, and had much talk, but after his marriage I necessarily saw less of him, though his letters were at first rather numerous, with descriptions of various functions attended by him, as when, in order to maintain his supremacy at Fabian meetings, he found it necessary to learn to dance. “Can you dance?” he asked: and I had to admit myself incapable.
But his kindly services were not interrupted; and when, in more recent years, he gathered from the remark of a friend that money would be useful towards the purchase of a house, he himself not only suggested the sale of the letters which I had received from him, but put me in touch with a purchaser. That was the origin of my abode at “The Shaw,” Brighton, a house on which this local reputation was founded. The reader will judge of my distress when, as indicating the fickleness of fame, I once received a letter addressed to me (without a number) at “The Straw,” Brighton.
He also insisted on paying for the printing of a translation of Virgil’s “Æneid” that I had long had in hand. I remember, many years ago, hearing him read a certain then unprinted play to a small gathering of friends, and how he invited us to try to find a name for it, which we quite failed to do. That was his “Arms and the Man.” I mention the fact to show that he had long had a sort of tie with Virgil. As some epigrammatist has put it:
“Since G.B.S. from P.V.M.¹
For title took that ancient gem,
‘Arms and the Man,’ how many quote it!
How few give thought to him who wrote it!
And now methinks it savours less
Of P.V.M. than G.B.S.”
But he and I are octogenarians now, and I shall be in danger of nonagenarianism if I attempt to record all that comes to mind. Of the several values of his writings I will not speak, for that will be done by abler disputants; yet I will just venture to avow my belief that ultimately his fame will rest rather on his ready wit than on his written word, for I think (remembering those early years) it was his voice that won a way for his pen rather than pen for voice. Certainly his instant replies, his mordant speeches, can rarely have been surpassed. What is needed, above all the memoirs and biographies that are poured out in such perplexing profusion, is a Book of Repartees; and when some anthologist has the wit to collect that, to whom more than to Bernard Shaw will he be indebted? His own collection of repartees would be invaluable.
* She call him George. I don’t know when the Bernard came to the fore.—H.S.S.
¹ Publius Virgilius Maro, as we take leave to remind the reader (having just refreshed our own memory on the point) was the famous Latin poet’s full description.—ED.
Published: The Vegetarian News, July 1938