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Letters of Three Shaws

From: SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies
Volume 21, 2001
pp. 163-167 | 10.1353/shaw.2001.0039

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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 21 (2001) 163-167

Review

T. E. Lawrence. Correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, 1922-1926. Edited by Jeremy and Nicole Wilson. Fordingbridge, Hants: Castle Hill Press, 2000. xx +227 pp. £99.

In March 1922, in London, two of the most famous people in the world met for the first time. Accompanying Sydney Cockerell of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge to Adelphi Terrace to pick up an Augustus John portrait offered by Bernard Shaw was T. E. Lawrence--"Lawrence of Arabia." G.B.S. and Charlotte Shaw were sixty-five; Thomas Edward Lawrence, who would legally change his name to Shaw in 1927, was thirty-three. He would become to all practical purposes their surrogate son.

Their surviving correspondence through 1926, the first of three volumes that will conclude with T.E.'s death in a motorcycle crash in 1935, is edited by J. M. Wilson, author of a major Lawrence biography (1989), and his wife, Nicole, as part of a vast projected series of T.E.'s letters. A brilliant but exasperating letter writer, Lawrence would goad Bernard Shaw into some of the most memorable letters of the many thousands he would produce over a long lifetime.

I first came upon the Shaw-"Shaw" letters in the British Museum forty years ago. Most were unpublished, and I drew from them as much as T.E.'s only living brother, Arnold, would permit me to do for my "dual biography," Private Shaw and Public Shaw. The book had the good fortune of emerging into print just after the David Lean/Peter O'Toole film epic Lawrence of Arabia was reaching the screen. The Wilsons never refer to Private Shaw: they have no need to do so. The book has long been superseded by a shelf of books on Lawrence unfettered by his late brother's restraints, and the focus in any case is upon the correspondence itself.

But for the initial letters, and some written in moments of urgency in the three-cornered relationship, the letters from the Shaws, even when it is obvious that G.B.S. is doing the dictation and the listening, are from Charlotte to Lawrence, and in return from T.E. to Charlotte. T.E.'s epistolary relationship with the Shaws would become the most important in his life. It seems apparent in the fading months of 1926, as editorial and production work nears completion on both the lavish Subscription Edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and on its truncated version for the trade, Revolt in the Desert, that T.E. was concerned that with the literary focus of their correspondence about to vanish, he would lose his most valued links to the world outside his secular monastery of the R.A.F. The Shaws had become increasingly crucial as he dumped his emotional baggage onto the mother figure of Charlotte, and he was under orders for India, where his life outside the ranks would be lived only with his pen.

The letters close with Lawrence on board a troopship about to dock at Port Said en route through the Suez Canal. It was 16 December 1926. The remainder of the correspondence is withheld for two further volumes, one the India letters (1927-28), the last (1929-35) the exchanges on his return, ending with T.E.'s death. Once again only a motorcycle dash away, T.E. needed less resort to the post. Most of the letters to the Shaws are in the British Library, as well as many of Charlotte's. G.B.S.'s letters to T.E. are scattered among collections, public and private.

In the five years covered in this volume, the brief encounters blossom into intense and frequent meetings as the surrogate son relationship develops with the childless Shaws. One introductory encounter suffices for 1922; two occur in 1923, both in December, followed by two more the next month -- January 1924 (two of the four are at Clouds Hill, Lawrence's tiny cottage in Dorset). Only one meeting occurs in 1925, but thirteen meetings are on the record in 1926, twelve of them from June into December. The next August, from India...