- Protestant Perspectives on Ireland: John Bull’s Other Island and The Real Charlotte
In this essay, I compare Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island (1904) with another contemporary text about Ireland, the novel The Real Charlotte (1894), written by the cousins Edith Somerville and Violet Martin under the pen names of Somerville and Ross. In both texts, I will analyze the current social and economic state of Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century, with contrasting results, and it is my contention that Shaw’s astute predictions about the future of an independent and largely Irish Catholic Ireland contrast sharply with the evasions of the Somerville and Ross novel. The Real Charlotte was a popular and widely read novel, well known to Shaw, and therefore it is revealing to place the two texts together and see the ways in which Shaw manages to undermine the evasions of the novel.
By way of introduction to the two texts, I want to consider a fascinating exchange about a dramatized version of Irish society for the London stage, as it reveals a great deal about the different perspectives on Ireland held by Shaw and by Edith Somerville. In January 1922, Somerville (1858–1949) sent a draft of her play Flurry’s Wedding to her cousin Charlotte and husband Bernard Shaw, looking for advice about the merits and commercial prospects for her drama. Initially, Somerville had been slow to warm to Shaw when he married Charlotte Payne-Townshend, writing on 9 June 1896 to her brother with the news that: “She is now Mrs George Bernard Shaw and I hope she likes it—He is an advanced socialist (all the same, he kept his weather eye upon this matter). Of course, he is an awfully clever man. He began as an office boy in Townsend Trench’s agency office in Dublin and now he is distinctly someone in a literary way but he cannot be a gentleman and he is too clever to be really in love with Lottie who is nearly clever but not quite!”1 Somerville’s slightly condescending [End Page 63] disapproval is made even clearer in a subsequent letter to her brother: “Charlotte seems perfectly happy and delighted with her cad, for cad he is in spite of his talent.”2
However, Somerville began to change her mind about the “cad,” particularly after Shaw and Charlotte visited Castletownshend in 1906 and a friendship was established between the two writers. Thus, in 1922, when Somerville began to wonder if the commercial stage might become a source of income for her, she turned to Shaw for his opinion, and, implicitly, his help with London theaters. Somerville had written the well-known Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. (1899) with her cousin Violet Martin (1862–1915), who had used the pseudonym Martin Ross. Edith now drew on some of the successful Irish RM stories in putting together Flurry’s Wedding, hoping to capitalize on their popularity. Shaw read the play and, in replying to Somerville’s letter, he pulled no punches.3 He disliked her adaptation intensely and told her so at length and in no uncertain terms, reserving his strongest attack for her representations of the problem of Ireland and the Irish poor:
Like many storytellers and novelists of genius, you have no respect for the theatre and no knowledge of its limitations. . . . you see, the play is abominably immoral, at root, all through you re asking the audience to laugh at dirt, worthlessness, dishonesty and mischief for their own sake. Also you write like a lady, in the worst sense of the word, that is, it never seems to occur to you that poor people are human beings. . . . I must not keep on lecturing and abusing you, but you had better get it straight between the eyes from me now, rather than go through a long tragedy of hope disappointed. . . . you have been very badly brought up, in some ways, as all we Irish have been: we have trained ourselves to bear the dirt and ignorance and poverty of our unfortunate country by two villainous drugs: drink and derision. That will not go down in...