SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 25 (2005) 293-295
[Access article in PDF]
GBS and the Tornado
Michel W. Pharand
"My vigor, vitality, and cheek repel me. I am the kind of woman I would run away from." By her own admission, Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Astor (1879–1964), was no pushover; Bernard Shaw tried in vain to outrun this "feminine tornado," as Shaw's biographer Hesketh Pearson once called her. For Shaw, outrunning meant postponing or refusing Astor's numerous (and persistent) invitations to visit her at Cliveden, her splendid estate on the banks of the River Thames in Buckinghamshire. And yet, in letters whose epithets range from the playful "Nancy asthore," "Harpy," and "Dearest Fancynancy" to the more intimate "Dearest Nancy" and "Beloved Nancy" (Astor usually addressed him as "Dearest G.B.S."), it is clear that Shaw was drawn into the tornado's vortex malgré lui. "She [Charlotte] loves you," Shaw wrote to Astor in 1930. "I am myself far from indifferent."
This "close friendship between an ardent Fabian socialist who espoused communism and a wealthy Conservative Member of Parliament with a mercurial temperament," in the words of editor J. P. Wearing, was surprisingly amicable. Some of Astor's traits appealed to Charlotte, who was perhaps drawn as much by the socialite painted by John Singer Sargent and the first woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons as by her phenomenal wealth (her second husband was Waldorf Astor). Shaw, however, was attracted by other traits: Astor was a teetotaler, a feminist, and an advocate of numerous causes, such as votes for women at twenty-one, improved treatment of imprisoned young offenders and women, equal guardianship for mothers and fathers, state health care and town planning, and many other issues that Shaw endorsed. At times Astor's aphoristic turn of phrase is uncannily Shavian: "It isn't the common man at all who is important; it's the uncommon man." "The trouble with most people is that they think with their hopes or fears or wishes rather than with their minds." In fact there appear to have been only two real sources of friction between Shaw and Astor: religion (in 1914 Astor became an avid Christian Scientist, at which some of Shaw's letters take playful jibes) and Russia (she was anti-Communist).
Although never members of the so-called Cliveden set—those leading politicians, academics, bankers, writers, intellectuals, and newspaper editors who gathered periodically at Cliveden to discuss world affairs—the Shaws did visit Nancy and [End Page 293] Waldorf on a few occasions, the first from 23 December 1927 to 9 January 1928. It must have been a frustrating time for Shaw, because a few weeks later he turned down an invitation for a second visit: "to ask me to spend a Sunday with a volcano is not reasonable."
Most of the letters collected here are from Shaw—150 to Astor's 34—with a handful from Charlotte Shaw and Shaw's secretary Blanche Patch. We see Shaw offering political support, as in his 18 May 1929 mock poster, "BERNARD SHAW SAYS 'Lady Astor's Defeat Would Be a NATIONAL CALAMITY.'" We find him giving financial advice: "spend your next savings not on good works but on Canadian annuities." We see him comforting Astor during a family crisis. In 1931, for example, when her son by her first marriage, Robert "Bobbie" Gould Shaw (1898–1970), was arrested for a homosexual offence (the Astors' influence silenced the press), Shaw wrote sympathetically to her that "the natural affections of many men . . . take that perverse turn; and in many countries adults are held to be entitled to their satisfaction in spite of the prejudices and bigoted normality of Virginians [Astor was American-born] and Irishmen like our two selves. Bobbie can claim that he has to suffer by a convention of British law, not by Nature's law." Shaw dealt with the...