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  • VI. The Library at Shaw’s Corner
  • Dan H. Laurence (bio)

[Some Principal Shaw Research Sources]

Shaw had no collectors’ instinct for books. The handful he chose to transport to London on his emigration in 1876 was left behind in Fitzroy Square when he married and moved to Adelphi Terrace, eventually to be appropriated by relations or sold when his mother vacated the Square in 1906. Many books acquired in Shaw’s early years as a reviewer were dispersed (moral principles forbidding him to sell them for needed cash) through institutions like the Kyrle Society, which serviced the wards in charity hospitals. When the Shaws traveled, each toted a crammed bag of books, but abandoned volumes in hotel or guest bedrooms, train compartments, and ship cabins once they’d been read.

In spite of Shaw’s lack of literary acquisitiveness, bookshelves in town and country grew crowded with copies of his own works, with hundreds of presentation copies inscribed by their authors, and with accumulated reference tools: postal directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias, Pitman manuals of phonography, and Bibles, of which he had more than a dozen variants, from Tyndale to Ronald Knox, at the ready for his need. As the [End Page 157] Shaws eschewed bookplates or ownership signatures, it is rarely possible to distinguish the acquirer of any but presentation books, though one may reasonably assume that most of the works on political theory, economics, and social history were his, while most of the collections of sacred books and philosophic systems (Koran, Vedanta, Upanishads) and studies of occultism and mysticism or treatises on meditation were Charlotte’s.

Not until nearly six years after Charlotte’s death did Shaw, approaching ninety-three, dispose of his London flat and its possessions. “VALUABLE PRINTED BOOKS . . . Sold by Order of G. Bernard Shaw, Esq.” were advertised for auction by Sotheby’s in a catalogue that included several of his showiest holdings, into which he had copied inscriptions drafted to enhance their value. (These were published in Shaw, Flyleaves, 1977.) Sotheby further conspired to insert into each book an unprepossessing pink label, printed in Gothic: “Ex Libris. Bernard Shaw.” The effort was unavailing. Although many of the volumes were fine inscribed presentations from the likes of Woolf, Yeats, O’Casey, and Wells, the sale’s total came to a pitiable £2570.5.0, for over eleven hundred volumes, most of which, Shaw confessed before the sale, he hadn’t known he owned until he perused the catalogue.

The residue of the Shaws’ book (and music) accumulation survived intact because, when Shaw in 1944 presented Shaw’s Corner to the National Trust, the vesting deed guaranteed retention there of all the furnishings, art works, and books. The Shaw “library” at Ayot St. Lawrence, shelfmarked and catalogued in 1980 by a past custodian, G. Fraser Gallie, consists of more than three thousand volumes (exclusive of duplications), housed in the downstairs study and drawing room and in an upstairs guest bedroom (whose frequent occupant had been Lawrence of Arabia), now outfitted with shelved books and identified as the Lawrence Room.

A swift glance will suffice to recognize the extraordinary eclecticism of the collection: Homer, Gibbon, Trotsky, Cowper, Rousseau, Saroyan, Kipling, Croce, Dean Inge, William James, Swami Sivanandra, Jung, Thoreau, Lillian Hellman, Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series, and Jacques Barzun, in disorderly array. The shelves bulge with Ignatyev’s A Subaltern in Old Russia, a life of Pythagoras, the Blarney Annual, Jack B. Yeats’s La, La, Noo, Turner’s Watercolours at Farnley Hall, R.L. Simon’s Miniature Photography, Joyce’s Dubliners, Partridge’s history of the legal deposit of books, and S.W. Cort’s Cancer: Is the Dog the Cause?

Everywhere one encounters happy surprises: an inscribed copy, from “il suo ferventissimo animaratore Luigi Pirandello,” of the English translation of Six Characters in Search of an Author, posted from Rome a month before the two dramatists met in London in November 1923; a presentation of Winston Churchill’s Great Contemporaries (1937) with an added personal postscript message; a fragile pamphlet The Story of the Irish Citizen [End Page 158] Army (1919) by P.O. Cathasaigh, later to be known as Sean O’Casey; a rare...

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