Sally Richardson reviews The Letters of Bernard Shaw to the Times, collected and annotated by Ronald Ford, foreword by Michel W Pharand, Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978 0 7165 2929 4 £20.00/€29.50 pbk
BERNARD SHAW was a man who was never short of words. An indefatiguable letter writer, he bombarded friends, the press and occasionally enemies with correspondence, and these letters to the Times (over fifty years' worth, from the first in 1898) make up a substantial volume.
Shaw had an opinion on just about everything and was never backward at giving it, and many of these letters are very long. He could, on occasion, spout rubbish about things he didn't understand and make it sound like common sense. But Shaw is entertaining even when he is just plain wrong.
He was right about many things, however. In a wonderfully sarcastic piece of mock bombast in defence of ten suffragettes who had invaded the floor of the House of Commons, reason and humanity glint like flecks of gold. It is, characteristically, not a savage letter; Shaw was rarely savage, preferring to ridicule his enemies. Even his plays contain few real villains; for Shaw, evil was found in situations rather than in human nature or individuals, and could be eradicated, in true Fabian style, by a rational reorganization of society.
Shaw, who had absorbed much of his socialism from William Morris, knew that the arts were no add-on to life, but an essential part of life itself. Protesting against the closure of cinemas and theatres at the outbreak of the Second World War, which he described as "a masterstroke of unimaginative stupidity", he demanded exemption from military duties for all actors, musicians and entertainers. He campaigned for years for a National Theatre and insisted in a letter of 1937 that such "cultural institutions . . . are neither luxuries nor mere amusements but necessities of civilized life."
Music and the theatre were two things he understood inside out. His love-hate relationship with Shakespeare (Shaw, never a modest man, could not easily cede the palm to the rival playwright who shared the first three letters of his name) was like a sore he couldn't leave alone.
He threw himself with relish into a lengthy correspondence about the texts of Shakespeare's plays, which allowed him to ride several of his hobby-horses at once. In typical Shavian fashion he brings in stage directions (his own are exquisitely funny), spelling reform and punctuation and laments the written word's lack of capacity for expression compared with musical notation.
Censorship was another preoccupation; hardly a surprising one since Shaw had regularly had his plays declared unfit for public performance. He delighted in paradox and never more so than when proving that his opponents and the censors far more licentious than anything they tried to ban. As he pointed out, censorship is 'quite useless for good and terribly efficient for evil.'
The range of subjects that Shaw involved himself in is huge. Spelling reform was one of his most eccentric and he returned to it often. Animal rights, taxation, medicine, vaccination, copyright - all inspired his Fabian sense of civic duty and made him take up his pen.
One problem: the abundance of misprints and errors of punctuation. For an author as particular about punctuation as Shaw was ("my own punctuation is as definite as the multiplication table') it is ironic that the pages look as though someone has thrown handfuls of extraneous hyphens and apostrophes across them. In one instance there is a double full stop, as though it can't make up its mind whether to make an especially definite stop or to become a row of dots. Irish Academic Press tell me that they are extremely embarrassed about this and that it is due to an uncorrected disc accidentally going to print. Don't let it put you off buying and reading this otherwise excellent and extremely entertaining book.
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