- Shaw Biography
Anyone familiar with A. M. Gibbs's previous foray into Shaw's biography, the volume of Interviews and Recollections (1990), in which he gathered many little-known gems of reported and recollected encounters with GBS by the famous and the anonymous, will not be surprised at how well Gibbs has done his job here with his fresh, good-humored, magnificently sane, and revelatory traversal of one of the most entertaining and fascinating literary lives of the modern era. To get out of the way the practical question on the minds of ELT readers first: does Gibbs supplant Holroyd? The answer is a complicated one. It does not replace the four-volume biography because no one-volume biography like Gibbs's could. Holroyd, however infuriating his idiosyncratic attitudes towards Shaw—and Gibbs takes him to task severely for his sins as a biographer—provides too much texture and context as well as a good deal of artful writing to be dispensed with so easily. Gibbs cannot compete with the sheer amount of information Holroyd provides. Even Holroyd's one-volume reduction of 1997 contains 800-plus pages as compared to 550, and therefore that much more information. But Gibbs betters Holroyd's effort in two important respects: he does not have a unified theory of Shaw's life and personality around which to spin his tale, and he disciplines himself rigorously in the art of not speculating unduly. Gibbs himself criticizes Holroyd for writing Shaw's life as if it were a novel with Holroyd the omniscient narrator. Though this charge is hard, there is some truth in it. Gibbs more modestly allows the personalities and the facts of Shaw's life to speak for themselves without disguised speculation or embellishment and above all without tendentiousness. For some this characteristic will diminish Gibbs's achievement to blandness; for me it is heaven. (Indeed, so identical do I find my view of Shaw and Gibbs's view that I fear for my objectivity in this review.)
Gibbs gives a wonderful example of how previous biographers have taken the indications of alcoholism in George Carr Shaw (Shaw's father) and first exaggerated them and then imagined ever more extreme results of this condition—for which speculations there is no [End Page 209] evidence whatsoever. This is what Gibbs means by reproaching biographers for treating their subjects like characters in a novel. Drawing reasonable inferences from the available evidence while discreetly refusing to speculate on the secret recesses of Shaw's inner emotional life characterizes Gibbs's approach throughout; it might be summed up this way: whereof he does not know, thereof he does not speak. Often what he knows contradicts the dicta of previous biographers. For example, Gibbs offers convincing evidence in the form of mostly unpublished family letters that a good deal of love and warmth filled the marriage of Shaw's parents, that Bessie was not a cold, unloving wife and mother, as she has been portrayed, and that her separation from her husband was amicable rather than bitter and desperate. Likewise Shaw's sister, Lucy, emerges here as having a bantering, friendly, and affectionate relationship with her brother. As to the biographers' proposal that the live-in music instructor/promoter, Vandeleur Lee, was Shaw's actual father, Gibbs treats that particular allegation as the tabloid fantasy it is by first doubting it and then rejecting it as unfounded in fact. One gains a strong sense from Gibbs that Shaw was not the solitary and eccentric genius, alienated from his family but rather a genius who flourished through his relations with his family, and that they watched with pride and pleasure as his fame grew. In that sense, Gibbs presents a highly reliable, unassailable portrait of Shaw, and a sympathetic one, which, however, does not shy away from indicting Shaw for his peculiarly blind support of socialism, especially when it took the form of Soviet communism.
Gibbs is rightly tough on Shaw in this regard: "Not only has Socialism been discredited by the totalitarian regimes it spawned in...