- The Letters of Bernard Shaw to "The Times," 1898–1950
Ronald Ford's collection and annotation of The Letters of Bernard Shaw to "The Times" is a welcome addition to the reading of both scholars and Shavians. The diligent rounding up of more than 150 letters between 1898 and 1950 is a valuable addition to Shaw records. For comment on the contents it is difficult to know where to begin. Chronological order is a more satisfactory arrangement than subject matter because of the huge diversity of topics, but it makes for some interesting juxtapositions in the table of contents: "Children on the Stage" is sandwiched between "Vaccination and Electric Lighting," while "Flogging in the Navy" is followed by "Sumptuary Regulations at the Opera." What better introduction to Shaw's wide range of interests?
The first letter, written in 1898, was on what Shaw considered the failure of juries in a murder trial, and in the last, written in 1950, he said that the Bernard Shaw of fifty years ago seemed to him "as dead as the infant of 90 years ago"! The range of subject matter in the letters extends from murder, smallpox, and vaccination statistics in his opening letters at the turn of the century to the imprisonment of Gandhi in 1943, which Shaw considered "the stupidest thing the Government has let itself be landed in by its right wing of incurable diehards." Between these dates the subject matter ranged from such figures as Irving and Tolstoy, Beethoven, and Arnold Bennett and Kipling to parliamentary candidate Vernon Bartlett. Shaw sent him a postcard (which The Times saw fit to publish) in which he wrote that "the last thing I desire is your extinction by a Parliamentary seat. . . . My word of encouragement is 'Don't.'"
Shaw liked nothing better than to indulge in controversy with those who appeared not to have thought through their fundamental positions. Thus in 1913 he understood the Bishop of Kensington to demand that the plays that he happened to like be tolerated and those that he happened not to like be banned. The bishop found a play "suggestive," by which he meant suggestive of sexual emotion. Shaw explained to him that "the suggestion, gratification, and education of sexual emotion is one of the main uses and glories of the theatre. It shares that function with all the fine arts."
Ford acknowledges his indebtedness to the late Leon Hugo for "guidance in the layout of this compilation." Nothing can diminish Professor Hugo's acumen, but whose eye determined the spacing between the head-note and the letter following? A ruler confirms the visual impression that mistakes the headnote for a footnote, but repetition and reason come to the rescue.
The topic of spelling is of course included in these letters. It would be good to have Shaw's views on typographical error. (Would he have approved [End Page 248] the abbreviation?) Ford offers his head on the block for "any remaining errors" in his compilation. There are a number, beginning with "BRISGWATER" in the contents. Every editor blushes, or the equivalent, at such incomprehensible lapses, but some are more serious. For example, to let slip a quotation from John Bull's Other Island "in earnest" instead of "an earnest" (202) teeters on the edge of nonliteracy. But these are minor blemishes in a major collection of Shaw letters that could help to reaffirm the value of the art of letter writing in this world of text, blog, and e-mail. [End Page 249]
T. F. Evans, former deputy director of the University of London's Department of Extra-Mural Studies, was editor of The Shavian for more than forty years, from 1964 until 2005. In 1976 he edited Shaw: The Critical Heritage, and he continues to be in great demand as a regular contributor of articles and lectures about Shaw.