Salt on Shaw

Salt on Shaw

It must have been in the year 1880, or thereabouts, that my brother-in-law, J. L. Joynes, who was closely connected with the Social Democratic Federation, brought the news to Eton, where I was then an assistant master, that he had made the acquaintance in London of a very clever and amusing Irishman named Shaw, and proposed that he should bring him down some week-end on a visit. He did so, and introduced to us a tall, thin young man whose black coat, and somewhat staid, almost penurious appearance, were remembered by us afterwards from their contrast with the exuberant Jaeger suits that distinguished the G.B.S. of the nineties. Of his cleverness there could be no doubt.

From this meeting an intimate friendship resulted; and from the time when we left Eton, at the end of 1884, for some fourteen years we saw him very often. He said at a later date that it was “the Shelleyan nexus”, and our common admiration of De Quincey, that had chiefly brought us together; my wife’s love of music was another bond between us, and many were the evenings when he came to our rooms in Gloucester Road for duets. It is of those earlier times in Shaw’s career that I will now set down some personal reminiscences and anecdotes, which I think may hereafter be valued by readers who have known him only from his works.

He lived with his mother, who was a music teacher, in Fitzroy Square; and we gathered from what he used to tell us that the household was by no means in affluence. On one occasion when Mrs. Shaw had been away for a week, and had left him sufficiently provided for that time and no more, an old friend unexpectedly arrived and claimed his hospitality, with the result that he was reduced, during the remaining days, to a diet of bread and apples. Mrs. Shaw was a charming old lady full of vivacity and wit; and it was evident that G.B.S., in spite of the levity of his talk, was very fond of her. In illustration of an argument that it is not the inevitable misfortunes, but the evitable ones, that are most distressful in life, he once wrote that his mother’s death would vex him less than a misprint; and it so happened that Robert Buchanan, who was a devoted son, saw this and wrote a severe comment on it, which he sent to Shaw by post in a halfpenny wrapper. This so stirred G.B.S. that he told Buchanan that the very fact of his having sent his reproof in such a way, where it might easily have been seen by Mrs. Shaw, showed that he could not really have cared for his own mother, and that the poems which he had devoted to her memory were mere sentimentality. When G.B.S. told me this, years later, it explained a remark made to me by Robert Buchanan, which at the time rather puzzled me, that Shaw was “extremely brutal”.

Shaw’s mother, in her old age, took to a mild form spiritualism, which he condoned as in her case a harmless amusement. Once, when she told him she had been in communication with the spirit of Oscar Wilde, he begged her to ask Wilde whether he remembered a certain walk they had taken together in some bygone year. A few days later the old lady said that she had delivered the message, and Wilde remembered the occasion very well. “Then tell him is a liar,” said G.B.S., “for we never took that walk at all.”

At the time when Shaw was frequently coming up to our rooms in Gloucester Road for duets with my wife he was beginning to be famous as a musical critic, and she than once tried to enlist his aid on behalf of nascent genius; but his distrust of all such aspirants was so great as to make him blind at times even to real merit. He was urgently asked to come in one evening to hear the playing of young Donald Tovey, son of one of my former colleagues at Eton, who afterwards fully established the reputation that was already foreseen for him. The lad duly arrived, gave his performance and went; but of the critic there was no sign. After midnight there came the well-known thunderous knock; and when I opened the door the tall form on the step asked me in hoarse, anxious tones: “Has that awful boy gone?” On another occasion it was a brilliant young American, personally unknown to Shaw, who was the artist; and the invitation to give an opinion on his deserts brought only a postcard: “I know that American. He thinks he will set the Thames on fire. He won’t”.

In those days Shaw used to lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, the “Orange Grove”, where I often met him. He always sat at the same table and left a penny for the waitress. When at last she told him that she was leaving and going to be married, he said, “Come back when you’re tired of him,” and for the penny substituted a sovereign.

No figure was more familiar than Shaw’s at the meetings of the Fabian Society, the New Fellowship, the Shelley Society, and other organizations; and when he was not himself lecturing it was seldom that he did not join in the discussion, or put some searching question to the lecturer. One such I heard him address to a speaker at the Fabian Society—Dr. Pankhurst, I think—and then, after receiving a very lame and confused reply, he turned to me and whispered: “Did you see what sudden ruin overtook him?” He was often the Mephistopheles of the debate.

He was very sarcastic at the expense of a lecturer at a New Fellowship meeting, whose subject was “the cultivation of a perfect character”; and he told me that, years later, happening to meet the same speaker again, he was amused to hear him still harping on the same theme. As a rule, Shaw’s criticisms were not unkindly in the way they were expressed; but once, when a learned Scottish professor lectured before the Fellowship, and left his audience in bewildered amazement as to his meaning, there was a rather uncomfortable scene. Asked by the chairman to speak, Shaw rose and said curtly: “Mr. Chairman, my mind is a perfect blank”; then, being unwisely pressed to state his views, he informed the unfortunate savant that he had been bored by him “as he had never been bored before”. That he felt some remorse for this outburst was certain; and when his victim, years afterwards, sent him, as a sign of kindly feeling, a new book that he had published, Shaw, as he told me, conceived the idea of atoning for his former cruelty by writing a pleasant review. “But when I looked into the book,” he added, “I felt all my old feelings return.”

I think he himself repeated the story of how he shocked the Shelley Society by commencing a speech with the words: “I, like Shelley, am a socialist, an atheist, and a vegetarian...” Later, when the Shelley Centenary was calling forth some vapid apologies for the poets of free-thought, Shaw suggested that a memorial should be erected showing Shelley “in a tall hat, Bible in hand, leading his children on Sunday morning to the church of his native parish”.

His opinion, at that time, of the Church of England was by no means a flattering one. I once heard him endeavour to dissuade a young friend of mine from becoming a candidate for ordination. “Are you aware,” he said, “that this Church, which you wish to enter, is an organized villainy?” His advice was not accepted. Some thirty or more years later, when I was talking with the same friend, who had long been in holy orders, I ventured, with some trepidation, to ask whether he remembered what G.B.S. had said on the occasion referred to. He laughed, and answered: “Yes, I do; and I know now that he was right”. Shaw, at a later date, was not the atheist that he proclaimed himself to the Shelley Society; but I think his “God” was rather a sort of domesticated deity than what is usually understood by the term. He was once accosted by a Salvationist with the usual question, “Are you saved?” and his answer was an emphatic “No!” This, he said, took the man sharply aback; whereas a less definite reply would have left room for further molestation.

As a lecturer himself, his use of paradox kept the audience from taking anything for granted; as when, after l speaking of the evils of drink, he proceeded: “And now we come to that grave, that difficult question—how to get rid, of the teetotallers.” In a lecture which he gave in Stewart Headlam’s rooms he concluded by saying that having made himself “thoroughly misunderstood”, he would resume his seat; whereat an old gentleman rose, with a dazed expression, and asked whether Mr. Shaw had not expressed himself wrongly. So practised a speaker was he that he sometimes took liberties which might have been dangerous: he told me, for instance, that once, when lecturing, he  fell into a train of thought about a Fabian lady of our acquaintance, and suddenly awoke, as it were, with a start, to find that he had not the least recollection of what he had been saying to the audience, though he judged from their unperturbed faces that he had kept the tenor of his argument.

Shaw was never more delightful than when staying with us in our cottage at Tilford, or later at Oxted; and his pretended dislike of the country added a zest to his visits. A very wet week-end at Tilford, with a Sunday walk to Gallows Hill on Hindhead, gave him a subject for a lugubrious article in the Pall Mall Gazette (April 28, 1888), in which he anathematized the rural life, and brought on himself a severe reproof from the editor of a Farnham paper whose strong point was not a sense of humour. My father-in- law, the Rev. J. L. Joynes, Lower Master of Eton, was also troubled by this article; and it was with some misgiving that I had the pleasure of introducing the writer to him. I afterwards remarked to Shaw that we had got through all right. “Got through!" he cried. “Why, he loves me as his own son.”

On one occasion, at Oxted, I went with him to call on a Fabian family in the neighbourhood, and we found the eldest son of our friend, a boy of five or six years, busily engaged in hammering on the back of a tortoise. When we left the house, Shaw ventured on a prophecy: “Now, mark my word,” he said, “that boy will be the champion criminal of the twentieth century”. Truth compels me to record that the prediction has by no means been fulfilled.

On these visits to the country Shaw would be entirely natural and unaffected. He was often very tired after his labours in London; and I have seen him sit at the breakfast-table with a forlorn expression, turning perhaps the pages of the Army and Navy Co-operative Society’s catalogue, and sadly shaking his head if a remark were made to him. No greater contrast to the G.B.S. on the war-path could have been imagined. We had the real pleasure of seeing that he felt at home. He wrote to me, years after: “My old visits to Oxted were quite unlike my other experience of the sort, and occupied a place of their own in my life.” In my Seventy Years Among Savages I have spoken of the exemplary manner in which he played his part in the household duties, such as the “washing up” after meals. He had his own way of making his bed: no one else might touch it.

It was about that time, I think, that Belfort Bax bought himself a tandem tricycle, on which he used to invite a friend to accompany him on country rides; and as he was himself very lazy, and left most of the hard work to his companion, the honour was not so fully appreciated as might have been thought. We had an amusing postcard from Shaw, unfortunately not preserved, in which he narrated how he had undergone “compulsory Baxination”, and how, as the pair went through a town on their steed, the bystanders could just restrain their laughter until the lanky Bax, who rode in the front, had passed them, but were visibly convulsed by the time Shaw himself came level. We suspected that G.B.S. did himself less than justice in attributing to Bax’s figure the whole source of the merriment.

In view of his later prowess as a motorist, “devastating the Welsh mountains,” as he wrote to me, “in a new 23-60 h.p.”, I recall the fact that to drive a horse was never one of G.B.S.’s accomplishments. At a tea-party at William Morris’s works at Merton Abbey, when a question arose  about getting back to the railway station, someone asked Shaw if he could drive. With an infinitely sad gesture he replied: “Do I look like it?” And certainly he didn’t. He once proposed that all horse-traction should be prohibited.

I several times accompanied him on day-trips to the homes of Socialist or literary acquaintances. At one, a newly furnished villa in the suburbs, the floors had just been stained by the ladies of the family with bullocks’ blood. Shaw said nothing, until the question of a name for the house was mooted, when he suggested, with emphasis, “Goreville”.

Our most notable excursion was when we went to Putney, at the invitation of Mr. Watts-Dunton, to a vegetarian lunch at “The Pines”, and there met the author of Atalanta in Calydon. On this occasion G.B.S. was recklessly talkative as usual, Swinburne silent and constrained; and the impression left on my mind was that the poet viewed the Socialist with a feeling akin to dismay. What Shaw’s thoughts were may be guessed from the fact that, in a letter written many years after, he referred to our hosts as “those two poor old blighters”, and alluded to the guarded account given in my “Seventy Years” as “fearfully hypocritical”. So, too, in the same letter, he would have it that his offer to go down with me to Boxhill, and there to out-talk George Meredith, was a proposal of mine; but he had the candour to admit: “Everybody thinks your account so characteristic of me.’’ He added, as “the tragic sequel”, that he did, at a later date, do the very thing which I had represented him as in jest offering to do; when he was forced, against his will, to talk all through the lunch, with Meredith, “distant and deaf”, trying to catch what he was saying.

Shaw was indeed a great talker; his stories were inexhaustible, and did not quite fall under De Quincey’s verdict that “all anecdotes are false”, for there was usually just a kernel of truth in them, however much the subject might be enlarged and embellished. His family history furnished material for a number of these tales, among which perhaps that of his uncle’s suicide, by throwing himself into a portmanteau, was the most picturesque. He once told this in print, in the weekly column of musical criticism which he contributed to the Star under the name of “Corno di Bassetto”; and when I addressed some verses to him on the subject, these appeared the following week, with the remark that the man who can make a jest of a family affliction must be dead to feeling.

His own love-affairs figured largely in anecdote. I will mention only one of them, his earliest, in Dublin, which, as we learnt from him, was broken off in anger by the lady because when they were out walking together he was so tired that he “could not go a step further”, and was compelled to tell her so. Nor were other persons’ love-affairs forgotten; and when we inquired how it was that they were so rash as to entrust a secret to him, he assured us that they all selected him as being the safest of confidants. He was struck by the coincidence that two married ladies, to each of whom he had ventured to put the question why she had married her husband, replied in the same words: “Because I had never known anyone else.”

Complaints were sometimes heard of his lack of politeness. He explained publicly that as a young man he used to be polite, and would even jump up to open doors for ladies, and so on; until one day a female relative said to him: “George, don’t be officious: women don’t like it.” He had never been polite since then.

When we first knew him he was practically unknown as a writer; and I remember his announcing that his reputation was “going up by leaps and bounds”, because one of his novels, Cashel Byron perhaps, had sold to the tune of about a dozen copies in the year instead of half that number. This improvement was maintained, until he felt able to tell his friend H. W. Massingham, editor of the Daily Chronicle, that he would no longer accept broken sums, pounds, shillings and pence, for his contributions to that journal, but in future would expect five pounds for anything that he wrote. Mr. Massingham told him that by this rash demand he had done for himself as far as the Chronicle was concerned; and weeks passed without any further communications. Then Shaw got a letter from “H. W. M”. asking for an article on some specified subject, and adding: “Have your own damned terms.” But even at a later period Shaw felt no entire confidence in his future. Mr. W. Robinson, owner of The Garden and other papers, asked me to approach him on his behalf, with a proposal that he should edit a new food-reform journal then in contemplation, to be entitled Grub. Shaw shrugged his shoulders, and merely remarked: “I may come even to that.” But as Fortune smiled on him he became more assured. A firm of solicitors once offered to finance him in a slander action against the Prince of Wales (afterwards King Edward VII), on account of a remark made by H.R.H. to the manager of a theatre about one of his plays, that the author “must be mad”. Shaw’s magnanimous answer was that as he would not prosecute an ordinary man in such a case, he must not make any exception when dealing with royalty.

His affectation of a sense of greatness, long before the general public was aware of him, was most entertaining. I heard a lady say to him: “Shaw, when you are famous—”. He interrupted, with pretended amazement: “When I am famous!” Asked if he ever read any books, he replied emphatically, “None”; but immediately continued: “Except my own; which I read with ever-increasing admiration.” But he was not always thus flattered in private circles. I remember, when he had just written Candida, how he read it to a few friends in our rooms, and at the end, as we were giving our various opinions, Edward Carpenter said curtly: “No, Shaw. It won’t do.” On another occasion he recited to me, as we were walking along Oxford Street, some verses that he had written in celebration, it seemed, of a suicide who had thrown himself down from a height. The only lines which I afterwards could recall ran thus: “And when he bashed his bloody head Upon the bloody ground.” Those two were fixed in my memory, because, as he shouted them aloud to make them audible above the din of the traffic, I noticed the startled face of a passer-by.

Together with Professor Graham Wallas I was a witness of Bernard Shaw’s marriage to Miss Payne Townshend at the Henrietta Street Register Office in June 1898. He was then recovering from an operation on his foot, and had acquired much dexterity in hopping on one leg, in which manner he entered the Registrar’s presence, rather to the surprise, as it seemed, of that grave official. The humorous account of the ceremony, published in the Star of June 2, was written by Shaw himself. Who else would have described the marriage as “the second operation” which Mr. Shaw had lately undergone, and one against which Mr. Salt, as hon. secretary of the Humanitarian League, “would naturally have remonstrated had there been time”?

Unfortunately there was in fact another surgical operation in store for Shaw a few weeks after his marriage; and, as he wrote to me, “in order to make my recovery a thorough test for vegetarianism”, he also fell downstairs and broke an arm. He did recover; and few things written by him are more diverting than his message printed in the Academy (October 15, 1898), with an illustration of himself as “The Dying Vegetarian”, and directions for his funeral, which was to be followed by a representative procession of the animals whom he had not eaten.

When I was staying with the Shaws in the house on Hindhead where these tragedies took place, a neighbour, a country gentleman, happened to call, and when asked what he had been doing lately, said, “Oh, I have been shooting.” The look on his face indicated nothing less than bewilderment when Shaw, in a tone of kindly surprise, inquired: “Why on earth did you do that?” It will be remembered that Shaw’s description of his own recreations in Who’s Who were “anything except sport.”

In a letter of I 903 Shaw wrote : “Have you read Samuel Butler’s posthumous Way of All Flesh? It is one of the great books of the world. You will throw Shelley, Thomson, Meredith, and all the rest out of the window, and take Butler to your heart for ever.” I had been struck, when lunching at Adelphi Terrace in Samuel Butler’s presence, by the almost filial respect with which he was treated, the only instance in which I ever saw Shaw show any feeling of the kind. He had lost his faith in “great men” at an early age: he said that in the case of William Rossetti he was sorry to abandon it; in Butler’s it seemed unexpectedly to have returned.

The brilliance of Shaw’s “table-talk” was a constant joy to his friends; I have often thought that in this respect his true forerunner was Sydney Smith. Was he ever “scored off” in his encounter with other wits? The only case I heard of was when he asked an oculist whether there was anything unusual about his eyes, and received the reply: “Oh no! You’re one of those damned normals. There are only ten per cent of them.”

There is no fear that insufficient justice will be done to Shaw’s humour. What is likely to be overlooked is something closely allied to his humour—his humanity. A hater of sport and vivisection, he was also a consistent vegetarian. When told how an acquaintance had been saying that he, too, would abjure meat, were it not for the sake of his dear wife and children, Shaw’s only comment was: “Scoundrel!” He also disliked vegetarians of the flowery and sentimental sort; for instance, Anna Kingsford. He told me once, when she was lecturing, he laid a trap for her in a question of a hard, practical kind, which she might think came from one of the unconverted. She rose, with great dignity, and answered, “Sir; I am a vegetarian”; to which Shaw made the prompt rejoinder: “And so am I.”

He was a great lover of cats; and when he came to see us never failed to ask after “Cosy”. Were there more kittens? Then he would add in a contemplative tone: “She is a cat of fearful passions.” At his rooms in Fitzroy Square there used often to be a neighbouring cat, or a stray, in his company. Once one who was sitting on his window-sill, on the first floor, jumped or fell into the area below. He said he rushed in horror to look out, but no cat was visible, and he feared the concussion had been so great that the animal had disappeared in fine dust.

His objection to vaccination was often expressed. He had smallpox himself when he first came to town; and feeling ill, but not knowing what was the matter, decided that to spend a day or two in riding round London on the top of an omnibus would perhaps be of benefit. This he did (and afterwards speculated on the number of persons he had infected); then, feeling no better, went to a doctor and discovered the truth.

It was dangerous, as many reformers found to their cost, to ask Shaw to bless their own cause, or to curse the opposing one: he was apt to say the thing that was not expected of him. But on one subject he never wavered or changed where some humanitarian interest was at stake. My final impression of him might be summed up in some verses printed in The Times on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, in which the question was asked for which of his qualities—his fun, his seriousness, his illuming thought, his dramatic genius—the future would praise him; and the conclusion was as follows :

All these: but most, that wit so keen
Could flash from heart so kind.

March, 1929

Henry S. Salt

Salt and His Circle, 1951