George Bernard Shaw by Michael Holroyd

Oh dear, I read an article on biography from Arts and Letters Daily, and got interested in the biographies written by Michael Holroyd. Upon browsing again at I found an abridgement of his 4-volume biography of George Bernard Shaw and ordered it.

I’ve been interested in Shaw since the late 1970s when TV Ontario used to show an episodic series about the young Shaw with magnificent Canadian actor Colin Fox in the lead. I can’t seem to find any information on the series, but Shaw was such an arrogant, irascible person, that I’ve been fascinated ever since.

I read in the book Helen and Teacher about his meeting in 1932 with Helen Keller. To her, GBS was a hero, and she was so excited about meeting him, it was a dream come true. He seems to have been rude to her which is quite in character for him. She describes him: “. . . he was not particularly gracious to me that afternoon.” That’s a nice way of putting it. He was very cold and indifferent to her, even scornful of her attempts at conversation as he didn’t have much respect for American culture. When told that she was deaf, blind and dumb, Shaw said “Why of course! All Americans are deaf and blind– and dumb.” Shaw says he was misinterpreted and that he was trying to put Keller at ease with a bit of subtle British humour, because in Britain, showing pity for disability was just not done. One wonders, given Shaw’s reputation for dismissive commentary, if this was true or if he had decided to knock the celebrity Keller down a peg, and then tried to tone it down when the papers were outraged. I’ll be interested to hear what Holroyd says about this incident.

Also, when I was drawing daily cards with the book The Alphabetic Labyrinth : The Letters in History and the Imagination, I wrote twenty-nine essays using various cards and random passages from the book, and Shaw came up in relation to phonetician Henry Sweet, who was the inspiration for Shaw’s Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. Shaw actually met Sweet and found him disdainful of “less expert mortals” and said of Sweet’s attitude toward fellow experts that “. . . if he overwhelms them with wrath and disdain, he cannot expect them to heap honors on him.” This seems a tad ironic to me given Shaw’s reputation for snubbing lesser mortals.

So much interesting reading and analysis ahead with Michael Holroyd!

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