February 19, 2018

Shaw Tied in Knots

On this day in 1898 George Bernard Shaw married Charlotte Payne-Townsend. Both were in their early forties and both professed a distaste for matrimony; how they came to tie a knot that would last for forty-five years -- albeit celibate ones, apparently -- is a story that has intrigued all Shaw's biographers, as it seems to have intrigued Shaw himself.

During the courting months of 1896-7, Shaw was a struggling writer-reviewer and a committed Fabian, a man getting known not only for his wit and his soapbox socialism, but for his "coquetting" with ladies attracted to either. Payne-Townsend was a recent heiress, and one clearly enjoying her independence. Shaw took on "the Irish lady with the light green eyes and the million of money" as a project: "I am going to refresh my heart by falling in love with her," he wrote the actress Ellen Terry, "-- I love falling in love -- but, mind, only with her, not with the million; so someone else must marry her, if she can stand him after me." This sort of swagger had Shaw himself warning Charlotte to withhold her affections, lest she lose her heart and her independence to a born flirt. When Charlotte showed signs of following this advice -- by withholding herself all the way back to Ireland, and then taking an extended trip to Europe -- Shaw began to crumble: "I will contrive to see you somehow, at all hazards. I must; and that 'must' which 'rather alarms' you, TERRIFIES me." The terror, he wrote her in feigned jocularity, is because the other side of Shaw saw very clearly the other side of Charlotte:
    . . . but then I think of the other Charlotte, the terrible Charlotte, the lier-in-wait, the soul hypochondriac, always watching and dragging me into bondage, ... wincing at every accent of freedom in my voice, so that at last I get the trick of hiding myself from her, hating me & longing for me with the absorbing passion of the spider for the fly. . . .
Shaw attempted to maintain the joke, and his GBS persona, to his other correspondents:
    I will put an end to it all by marrying. Do you know a reasonably healthy woman of about sixty, accustomed to plain vegetarian cookery, and able to read & write enough to forward letters while her husband is away? ... No relatives, if possible. Must not be a lady. One who has never been in a theatre preferred. Separate rooms.
In the end, Shaw attempted to turn his "terrible adventure" into a joke for all by anonymously writing up his own marriage notice for the tabloids in the manner of a farce:
    As a lady and gentleman were out driving in Henrietta-st., Covent-garden yesterday, a heavy shower drove them to take shelter in the office of the Superintendent Registrar there, and in the confusion of the moment he married them.... Startling as was the liberty undertaken by the Henrietta-st. official, it turns out well. Miss Payne-Townsend is an Irish lady, with an income many times the volume of that which "Corno di Bassetto" used to earn, but to that happy man, being a vegetarian, the circumstance is of no moment.... Years of married bliss to them.
The forty-five years were chummy and, by mutual consent, sexless -- a marriage blanc, says biographer Michael Holroyd. With the help of his wife's money and management Shaw was able to maintain his remarkable productivity, his infatuations with a series of actresses (Bernard Shaw and the Actresses, Margot Peters), and his Shavian posturings: "Women never played an important part in my life."

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