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ELT 43 : 1 2000 J. M. Robertson Odin Dekker. J. M. Robertson:Rationalist and Literary Critic. 1998; Aldershot , Hants; Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999. χ + 281 pp. $76.95 ON THE LAST DAY of January in 1885, Bernard Shaw, a bachelor still at twenty-eight, went to a vegetarian dinner at the St. John's Wood house of freethinking and free-living writer and speaker Annie Besant. She had heard him lecture and had become an instant convert to Fabian Socialism. For both prudence and balance at her table she included Elizabeth Cracknell, the "Art Corner" columnist in Mrs. Besant's magazine Our Corner, and John Mackinnon Robertson, like Shaw sixteen years Annie's junior. Energetic and attractive, Mrs. Besant was easy of access. Robertson was her protégé, her boarder, and probably her bedmate. Dekkers, although calling Robertson "not a lover," writes, uneasily, that when it came to Annie Besant's "favours..., it is true that in Shaw's diaries, Robertson always appears to be at Mrs. Besant's side, almost as if they were a married couple." Shaw began returning evenings to chat, with Annie's lodger often present. Efficient at invading households and making the husband or lover superfluous—G.B.S. would dramatize that flair of his in Candida in 1894—he progressed from friendly debater to possible collaborator with Robertson, who suggested that they write a play together. There was no enthusiasm from Shaw's side, and Robertson, who was skeptical, as Mrs. Besant's assistant, of the qualities of Shaw's quirky novel of failed marriage, The Irrational Knot, watched unhappily as she agreed over his objections to serialize it, largely to provide the impecunious but interesting Shaw with some money. Within two years, Robertson was dislodged from St. John's Wood, and living on the Continent. He also defected from Socialism, which he had accepted without conviction to humor Annie. Mrs. Besant by then was trying to convince Shaw to become her common-law husband, but Shaw had already become involved with a mistress (of Annie's age) who made no demands. He and Mrs. Besant returned each other's letters and destroyed them. Her hair reportedly turned grey and she thought of suicide . Robertson became a severe critic of Shaw's published fiction, and later of his plays, but Dekkers writes, "There were, however, no hard feelings on Shaw's side. He always valued Robertson very highly, and 108 book reviews praised his honesty and 'exceptional ability' in letters to his friends. There is little or no factual evidence for the suggestion made by Stanley Weintraub, the editor of Shaw's diaries, that Robertson 'professed friendship and admiration for Shaw but saw him as a rival for Annie Besant 's favors and inserted unfavorable criticism into everything he wrote and said about Shaw and his work.'" Robertson, insists Dekkers, was "above the kind of personal spite suggested by Weintraub." The allegation remains my own. Robertson married Maud Mosher, an American, late in 1893 and one would assume that the Besant affair was no longer of moment. Shaw was almost always above recognizing personal spite, and often praised Robertson's social and political writings. Yet Robertson lost no opportunity afterwards to attack Shaw, even as late as the mid-1920s. Thirty years after they met at Annie Besant's house he published a long polemic attacking Saint Joan as a "blend of Marie Bashkirtseff and George Eliot." The small book was so gratuitously vicious (although the play was praised by a leading medievalist of the day, Johan Huizinga) that T S. Eliot, who could have agreed with little else Robertson ever published, seized on it to buttress his own anti-Joan diatribe in his Criterion. (Later Eliot would confess ruefully to borrowing from the Epilogue to Saint Joan for his Tempters scene in Murder in the Cathedral.) Dekkers refers to the Saint Joan screed only in his bibliography. Although grotesquely overpriced, as if each page is printed on gold leaf, Dekkers's Robertson fills a gap in later-Victorian and Edwardian studies. He deserves a solid, serious book, which this is. Over a fifty-year writing career beginning in 1884 with a study of radical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 108-111
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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