restricted access Bernard Shaw Besieged: Early Progresses to Oxbridge, 1888-1892
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Bernard Shaw Besieged:
Early Progresses to Oxbridge, 1888-1892

On 18 February 1888, an Irish school dropout named Bernard Shaw, who had never spent a day in college and considered the British Museum's domed and arc-lighted reading room his university, took the five o'clock train from King's Cross, en route to Cambridge. His journalism as music and art reviewer for two London papers, plus other occasional writing, kept him just sufficiently solvent to be able to afford to lecture at no fee on Socialist issues wherever in England anyone would have him, and he averaged, in season, three lectures a week—often two on Sunday. His novels were of no account. He had written five, and a fragment, and had no income from them. Several, in serial form, had appeared in unprofitable Socialist journals.

At King's College, Cambridge, he was to talk on "Socialism: Its Growth and Necessity," a subject upon which he could improvise variations with eloquent ease from a few notes on index cards. The arrangements for the weekend visit had been made by Nathaniel Wedd, then twenty-four and a Fellow of King's, who combined classical studies with the secretaryship of the fledgling Cambridge Fabian Society. Small and chunky, and making up in pugnaciousness what he lacked in size, Wedd would still be regarded in Cambridge as a dangerous radical a decade afterward when he was E. M. Forster's tutor. (Even later, when Wedd had become a dedicated Tory, he remained blasphemously anticlerical.)

No one met Shaw at the train—he was not important enough for that—but he had directions to Wedd's lodgings at 3 Peas Hill. There he had tea with Wedd—having something other than tea, which he eschewed, as he did spirits—and went off with his escort to the New Lecture Room at King's, where his talk was scheduled for 8:15. In the chair was the popular, although preposterously pompous, Oscar Browning, at fifty-one a university lecturer in history with ambitions to transform [End Page 51] King's, if not Cambridge, into a gentlemanly Athens. Had Shaw a snobbish nerve in his body it would have been stroked by Browning's introduction and by the expression of thanks afterward by Herbert Somerton Foxwell, a Cambridge-trained economist who, at forty-nine, was professor of political economy at University College, London.

Shaw's own credentials were far more informal. He had read a lot, and thought a lot, especially on trams and trains. In the audience, other than undergraduates, were Sedley Taylor, a senior Fellow at Trinity; Alfred Marshall, a senior Fellow at St. John's and professor of economics; and even Brooke Foss Westcott, who at sixty-three was Regius Professor of Divinity and a Fellow of King's. When the discussion simmered dlown, Foxwell led Shaw off to the King's rooms of another and younger Fellow, Charles Waldstein, who would receive his doctorate in literature later in the year. There the three sat and talked until one thirty, when Shaw's voice, soothed earlier by threepence worth of jujubes he had bought to assist his speechmaking, finally gave out.

"I fear we treated [him] very badly," Dickinson recalled, "for after a long evening in my then very cold rooms we saw him to bed about 2 a.m., and after that, I rather think, he was visited by some drunken revellers." Apparently unscathed, Shaw had breakfast the next morning in the rooms of George Walter Protheroe, an historian of Germany who at forty had taken on the task of translating Leopold von Ranke's Weltgeschichte. Protheroe, who, like Waldstein, would eventually be knighted, then took Shaw on a walking tour of the colleges, concluding back at King's at the rooms of Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, where they were to lunch. Dickinson at twenty-seven (six years younger than Shaw) was a Fellow at King's who would spend a career there as a lecturer in political philosophy. At lunch, Dickinson wrote, Shaw "described inimitably his Irish relations, especially an uncle who thought he was in heaven and hung himself up in a basket from the ceiling dressed...