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  • Shaw's Letters in Other People's Books:The "Orphans"
  • Isidor Saslav (bio)

Three hundred thousand! Dan H. Laurence (personal correspondence) estimates that is the number of letters and postcards written by Bernard Shaw in his some seventy-five years of correspondence. Shaw was perhaps the greatest, most prolific letter writer of all time. In almost 100 years of effort, scholars and publishers have attempted to come to grips with the magnitude of his output, still gargantuan in size despite the many reports of swaths of Shaw letters having been destroyed by their recipients, such as those from the 1880s to his onetime proposed socialist "fiancée," Annie Besant, and those to his childhood friend Edward McNulty.

Shaw's letters have been published in two broad categories: general collections and collections devoted solely or largely to individual recipients. At the head of the general collections stand the pillars in the field, the four volumes assembled by Dan Laurence as Collected Letters (covering the years 1874 to 1950 and published between 1965 and 1988).1 The four volumes contain some 3,000 letters, thus only about 1 percent of the possible all-encompassing total. Other excellent collections in this category include Agitations (1985), Shaw's letters to the press edited by Laurence and Rambeau; Dear Mr. Shaw (1987), edited by Vivian Elliot, where Shaw's own letters are mixed with letters addressed to him; and Theatrics (1995), Shaw's letters on theatrical subjects edited by Laurence.2 In this essay, I term those parts of the volumes that have already been published "recollections" and their editors "re-collectors," and an item appearing in print for the first time is described simply as having been "collected." Over the last eighty years have also appeared books in the second category, correspondence devoted solely or with large sections devoted to recipients: Alma Murray, Ellen Terry, Florence Farr, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Harley Granville Barker, Sydney Cockerell, Dame Laurentia, and Molly Tompkins; in more recent years, Siegfried Trebitsch, Frank Harris, and [End Page 201] Lord Alfred Douglas; and, through the University of Toronto, H. G. Wells, Gabriel Pascal, Sir Barry Jackson, the Webbs, and Lady Astor.3

Despite this Niagara of epistolary activities, in the course of collecting Shaw I have noticed a possible new area of letter re-collection that would make an excellent addition to the first category of general recipients: Shaw's letters in other people's books. In looking through collectible books to add to my Shaw library, I would often notice one or more of Shaw's letters reproduced. Through the years many of them would find their way into both categories of re-collections described above. However, I also noticed that many of the published letters in the books I discovered had not found their way into other collections and have never been recollected. I call these letters "orphans." They usually appear in the biographies or autobiographies of the recipients and in these volumes are proudly displayed as G.B.S.'s writings to the subjects. They are also "orphans" in the sense that a letter so printed may often have been Shaw's only one to that particular recipient, thus making these even more interesting and important for re-collecting so as not to lose the breadth of Shaw's interactions and influence.

Once published, however, these letters are of lesser interest to publishers, especially given the variety of topics and recipients involved. Not contained within the re-collections cited above, these pieces remain scattered hither and yon, buried within the covers of individual books. Because the main characters in the Shaw correspondence drama have been largely marked present and accounted for, a new re-collection would deal of necessity with lesser fry. But such a new re-collection would, I think, tie up some loose ends in the Shaw letter-publishing/collecting world, gathering items now scattered and putting them together between the same two covers for the convenience of Shaw fans and scholars.

Two problems arise in finding these "orphans": first, it is often difficult to identify the specific books in which Shaw's letters might appear because the subjects or topics of the books do not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1480
Print ISSN
0741-5842
Pages
pp. 201-212
Launched on MUSE
2007-10-22
Open Access
No
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