Sunday, June 20

His Fair Lady: How George Bernard Shaw’s Wife Played a Vital Role in His Masterpieces | George Bernard Shaw


In the climactic final scene of George Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece Pygmalion, Henry Higgins threatens to twist Eliza Doolittle’s neck. “Drain!” She answers. “Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called nicknames, when all the time I just had to lift my finger to be as good as you, he could kick me.”

Until now, Shaw’s play on the flower girl who is transformed into a duchess by a wealthy professor was thought to have little in common with the great playwright’s own life. But this summer, a new book will highlight the important contributions Shaw’s wife, Charlotte, an heiress and intellectual, made to his work, and reveal how her connections and influence completely transformed Shaw’s life and career.

“Without her, he most likely would not have accomplished what he did,” said Ann Oakley, author of the next book. Forgotten Wives: How Women Are Written in History. “Before she met him, he was not known or successful at all.”

Oakley, a professor of sociology and social policy at University College London, has found evidence that, in addition to suggesting themes for her works, Charlotte Shaw (nee Payne-Townshend) was heavily involved in her husband’s work as a writer. “Charlotte read everything George Bernard Shaw wrote, edited and revised it.”

She came from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family and used the money she had inherited to allow Shaw to write full time after their marriage in 1898. “She supported him financially so that he could make a reputation for himself with his plays.”

She also helped him stage many of his plays for the first time and suggested casts for some of them. “She was a prominent light on the board of the Stage Society, which organized experimental works in London. Shaw didn’t know that world like she did, because she was so into drama. “

George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte on vacation in Italy in 1927.
Charlotte and George Bernard Shaw on vacation in Italy in 1927. Photograph: AP

Many of George Bernard Shaw’s works were represented by this society, thanks to the influence of his wife. That made a big difference in his career at the time, Oakley said. “Some of his works were considered quite scandalous and quite difficult to show in public. Without Charlotte, I don’t think she would have been as successful as she was, and she would have had to fight a lot more. “

However, biographers have relegated her role to that of secretary, even though Shaw actually hired a secretary to do all her secretarial work. “The way his contribution is written is: she was his wife, so he was writing his manuscripts. They don’t give it any intellectual credit, when much of this work is actually collaborative. “

The game Saint juana, for example, it was his idea, Oakley said. “That is commonly known to Shaw’s biographers. But, and I have to say, they are male biographers and historians, they just don’t consider that anything Charlotte did could have been that important, so they don’t really take into account the evidence that they have right in front of them. “

For example, in his book on his friendship with George Bernard Shaw, playwright Lawrence Langner recounted a visit he made to the Shaws in 1922, during which he asked if there were any new plays on the horizon. “The problem is, we couldn’t find a good topic,” Charlotte replied. He wrote: “I must have looked amazed, because she continued: ‘Yes, sometimes I find ideas for plays for the genius [meaning Shaw]. If we can find a good theme for a play, he usually writes it very quickly. “

Most of the time, however, Charlotte didn’t take any credit for helping Shaw. “She was very modest,” Oakley said. “I suspect she didn’t want people to know how important she was to George Bernard Shaw’s work, because then they might have thought less of him.”

As a result, the extraordinary role he played in Shaw’s life has been continually overlooked, Oakley said: “It’s patriarchy, I’m afraid. Charlotte is one of the many women whose lives have been treated without respect, because they were married to great men and it was assumed that they were not doing anything important. “

It is for this reason, Oakley argues, that Charlotte’s own independent intellectual work has largely been forgotten or attributed to Shaw. For example, he translated the works of Eugène Brieux – “the French equivalent of Shaw” – into English for the first time, an achievement generally attributed to Shaw.

She was also founder of the London School of Economics (LSE). “He rented the building where the LSE started and paid for much of the initial teaching and research work,” Oakley said. “She funded a research program on the history of women, which was really the first time that anyone in Britain seriously investigated what was going on in the lives of women before the industrial revolution.” However, the Shaw Library, which is named after her, is generally assumed to be named after her husband.

He also worked on the manuscript of Seven pillars of wisdom from TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, for years, encouraging him in letters and suggesting edits and revisions. “He had an extraordinarily close intellectual relationship with Lawrence, which can be seen in the correspondence. There is evidence that she had a massive impact on Lawrence’s writings and was essential to the success of her work, but again people have assumed that she played some kind of minor role: that she was correcting her score or broadcasting the comments that George Bernard Shaw had done. done.”

In fact, George Bernard Shaw only discovered his correspondence with Lawrence after his death. Lawrence wrote admiringly about his writing skills, implying that he had guessed how much help he had given Shaw with his work: “You can write the plays yourself … or parts of them. Don’t imagine that by this I really mean that George is not a colossus, and we little mortals, but how often do you hold his hand. “


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