- Shaw in “Sallust’s House
Just to stir things up seems a great reward in itself.—Caius Sallustius Crispus
Caius Sallustius Crispus is a mysterious and subtle signifier in Bernard Shaw’s writings. As Sallust, the Roman political philosopher appears in only one early work, Shaw’s last completed novel—and there only as the hideaway address of the hero. Shaw’s fifth novel was An Unsocial Socialist, an apparently foreshortened effort suggesting that he had found more congenial avenues for his ideas. Originally titled The Heartless Man, the novel was drafted in Pitman shorthand at a desk in his informal university, the domed Reading Room of the British Museum, which he later claimed offered all the writerly benefits of socialism—public access to its facilities. Largely dialogue-based, An Unsocial Socialist foreshadows his plays, especially Man and Superman, which also focuses upon an attractive, compulsive and moneyed young gentleman given to radical polemics and susceptible to the wiles of women.
Shaw finished his rewrite, in 336 handwritten pages, in December 1883. He had intended a longer and more polemical work, he later claimed, but possibly he had wearied of the split personality hobbling his hero, who is both reformer and charlatan, vagabond and mountebank, wooer and hermit. Publishers, each in turn as Shaw’s packet of manuscript was returned by the post, rejected the novel. One critic, John Morley, better known later as a Liberal politician, described it as “paradoxical, absurd and impossible.” The author, Morley conceded, “knows how to write; he is pointed, rapid, [End Page 153] forcible, sometimes witty, often powerful and occasionally eloquent.” Yet he questioned the sustained irony—whether readers would wonder whether the author “was serious or was laughing at them.” Shaw seemed to seek both reactions, simultaneously—to Victorian publishers a suicidal commercial strategy. An Unsocial Socialist appeared as a low print-run book only after it was first serialized, a year later, for no payment, in the monthly Socialist magazine, To-Day.
Through the Zetetical Society, a debating circle of politically radical young men in London, Shaw had become friendly with the scholarly young Sidney Webb, who apparently gave his name, although not his personality, to the novel’s flamboyantly heartless socialist, Sidney Trefusis. Almost immediately on meeting Webb, Shaw considered the dumpy, scraggly bearded but surprisingly learned Colonial Office clerk the most brilliant mind in England. Appearances seldom deceived Shaw. Forcing his friendship on the mumbling cockney who looked like a caricature of a nineteenth-century German professor, Shaw augmented at second-hand his own Dublin dropout education.
It is possible that Shaw learned of Sallust (86–34 BCE) from the widely read Webb, and followed up hints about the Roman worthy from the capacious shelves of the Reading Room. An aristocrat and a senator, Sallust had called himself a novus homo—a “new man.” (The term echoes in Shaw.) Attacking Cicero as an upper-class demagogue, Sallust espoused the causes of the plebs—the common people. Attaching himself to Julius Caesar, Sallust commanded a legion in North Africa. Returning to Rome in 44 BCE, he was accused of plundering his conquered province, but through Caesar’s intervention was never brought to trial. (A later accusation of immorality, scurrilous gossip at odds with his writings, may have originated in the confusion between him and his adopted son, Sallustius Crispus, a minister of Caesar Augustus, and known for great wealth and luxurious tastes.) The end of Sallust’s public career and his retirement to his garden and to writing apparently came after Caesar’s assassination. Shaw’s pithy remarks attributed to Julius Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra may owe something to Sallust’s writings about Roman politics. (A “Sallust of Perusia” appears as a betrayer of Emperor Julian the Apostate in Ibsen’s turgid The Emperor and the Galilean, and is mentioned once in Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism, in 1890. The character bears no relation to the earlier Sallust.)
An Unsocial Socialist is set in 1875. Sidney Trefusis, the possessor of inherited manufacturing wealth about which he feels guilty, and wed to an attractive heiress, runs off after six weeks of marriage. Henrietta, whom he [End Page...