- The Shavian Irrational Knots
Robert A. Gaines, ed. Bernard Shaw's Marriages and Misalliances. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. xxxv + 229 pp. Cloth $99.99 E–Book $79.99. Volume in the Bernard Shaw and His Contemporaries Series. Nelson O'Çeallaigh Ritschel and Peter Gahan, eds.
"I AM NOT one of your Bernard Shaws who consider nothing sacred." Thus speaks Henry Wilcox to Margaret Schlegel inE. M. Forster's Howard's End, published in 1910. By that date, Shaw had become famous—or infamous, depending on the eye of the beholder—as the Mephistophelean mocker of all that was held sacred in the Victorian and Edwardian periods of English society. To some, his iconoclastic views were a breath of fresh air in the stuffy domains of middle-class life and the nuclear family. To others, such as the highly respectable, but as it turns out hypocritical, tycoon Wilcox, and his counterparts in real life, his views were anathema. Shaw's critical and often irreverent scrutiny of the social order of fin-de-siècle England and its moral and philosophical underpinnings and assumptions ranged very widely. The institution of marriage, "The Irrational Knot," as it is dubbed in the title of the second of Shaw's early novels, and the ideals attached to the institution, was a central object of that scrutiny. As is shown in this book, the subject of marriage continued to be an important [End Page 283] theme in Shaw's writings throughout his career. Robert Gaines rightly perceived that the absence of a full-scale examination of Shaw's treatment of marriage constituted a significant gap in Shaw studies. Gathering together twelve apostles, in the form of a group of Shavian scholars, he edited the collection of essays under review which is aimed at filling that gap.
An early chapter, "The 'Mystical Union' De-Mystified in Plays Unpleasant," by L. W. Conolly provides a typically well-informed and informative sketch of the laws governing marriage and divorce in England following the passing of the Marriage Act in 1753. Although it was initiated in the so-called Age of Enlightenment, enlightenment was not particularly conspicuous in the legislation relating to marriage, and progress towards reform proceeded at a glacially slow pace. The 1753 legislation decreed that "marriages had to be performed in an Anglican church by an ordained minister of the Church of England." The sanctity of this form of marriage was underlined in the wording of the service which stated that it was an estate "instituted by God … signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church." It was not until 1836 that the legislation was changed to provide for civil marriages in a secular contract, the path chosen by George Bernard and Charlotte Shaw when they married in a registry office in Covent Garden in 1898. A further reform was belatedly introduced in 1882 with the Married Women's Property Act which at last allowed women to retain control of their own property after marriage. This was of some significance in the case of the Shaws since, at least at the time of their marriage, the value of Charlotte's property exceeded that of Shaw's by nearly 100 percent. It was not until 1937 that discrimination against women in the laws of divorce were removed. It was no wonder that marriage and the laws regarding its dissolution in divorce became prominent subjects in Shaw's social criticism. In Plays Unpleasant, Conolly argues, particularly in the portrayal of Blanche Sartorius (in Widowers' Houses) and Vivie Warren (in Mrs Warren's Profession), Shaw raised deeply unsettling questions about the whole institution of marriage. In these plays marriage is seen as "the portal, not to 'a mystical union' as the church would have it, but to an unscrupulous capitalist ethos." [End Page 284]
In a thoughtful and observant essay, "The Pragmatic Partnerships of Plays Pleasant," Jennifer Buckley argues that these works also raise "disquieting" questions about marriage. In You Never Can Tell the comedy is certainly overshadowed by bitter reminders of a broken marriage in the older generation; and the institution of marriage itself is seen in a critical light. Buckley...