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Bernard Shaw: A Life.

Bernard Shaw: A Life. By A. M. GIBBS. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2005. xiii + 554 pp. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-8130-2859-0.

Did any writer live longer, know more people, write more, and find himself the subject of more studies than Bernard Shaw? Utilizing previously unpublished and overlooked sources, A. M. Gibbs re-examines Shaw's ninety-four years and offers perspectives different from those of his previous biographers, Archibald Henderson, Hesketh Pearson, St John Ervine, Michael Holroyd, and Sally Peters.

Debunking received ideas about Shaw's life and personality, Gibbs shows how 'Yeats's characterization of Shaw as some kind of mechanistic logician does not stand up under serious scrutiny' (p. 258), and how Shaw's father was not the hopeless dipsomaniac of his son's reminiscences. While Shaw was 'highly susceptible to the attractions of the opposite sex, he was also exceptionally resistant to possessiveness and emotional coercion' (p. 121); thus Gibbs cautions against putting a psychoanalytical spin (as does Holroyd) on Shaw's lack of maternal affection. What Gibbs offers instead is a balanced account of Shaw's relationships with women, including his wife Charlotte (platonic by mutual consent), Janet Achurch, Eleanor Marx Aveling, Annie Besant, Mrs Patrick Campbell, Florence Farr, Alice Lockett, May Morris, Edith Nesbit, Bertha Newcombe, Jenny Patterson, Ellen Terry, and Molly Tompkins. Gibbs also shows to what extent Shaw's amours were sometimes recast into dramatic situations or characters.

On the literary front, Gibbs discusses Shaw's influences (Shakespeare, Bunyan, Blake, Dickens, Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen) and friendships: from playwrights Henry Arthur Jones, Harley Granville-Barker, Arthur Wing Pinero, Oscar Wilde, and W. B. Yeats, to William Archer, Nancy Astor, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and H. G. Wells. We hear Shaw's views on everything from war, censorship, and female suffrage to capitalism, Fascism, and Darwinian evolution. One striking and well-supported thesis is that 'The more positive aspects of Shaw's ideas concerning creative evolution rest precariously on a powerful undercurrent of pessimism and skepticism' (p. 234).

Gibbs's judgements on Shaw's plays are always perceptive. The Apple Cart is 'a satirical portrait of democracy in disarray' (p. 393), Arms and the Man an 'antiromantic romance' (p. 171), Caesar and Cleopatra's Caesar 'a fusion of anti-masks, man of action and man of sensibility' (p. 219), Candida's eponymous heroine 'a baffling combination of the Virgin Mary and a power-hungry coquette' (p. 187);Heartbreak House (which receives the fullest treatment of all the plays) invokes 'apocalyptic ideas' (p. 350), while Major Barbara revisits the 'clash between Bunyanesque religious idealism and Mephistophelean skepticism and mockery' (p. 282); Mrs Warren's Profession's Vivie is 'a self-portrait of the playwright' (p. 169), and The Philanderer is a 'self-justifying and self-incriminating apologia' (p. 166);Pygmalion's two main protagonists reflect Shaw's 'lifelong dialogue [...] about feelings and intellect' (p. 335), Saint Joan is 'a work created in accord with a Puritan temper in religion [...] with which Shaw had strong sympathies' (p. 373), and The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet is 'an expression of Shaw's creed of creative evolution' (p. 261).

What makes this a user-friendly volume is the ease with which readers can search for any topic, person, or title thanks to an exemplary index. Moreover, the sixty pages of endnotes provide complete sources as well as numerous enlightening anecdotes and clarifications, including a no-holds-barred critique of Holroyd's four-volume opus as 'reductive, trivializing, and condescending' (p. 461).Make no mistake: the endnotes are worth reading.

Gibbs is Emeritus Professor of English at Macquarie University, Sydney, and author of five books on Shaw, including Shaw: Interviews and Recollections (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990) and the indispensable A Bernard Shaw Chronology (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001). Readers will seek in vain a more concise, objective, scholarly, and eloquent biography than Bernard Shaw: A Life. Gibbs writes at the outset that his study is dedicated to a greater understanding of Shaw as 'the man who celebrates, and often exemplifies in his many friendships, the intelligent heart' (p. 4). Mission accomplished.


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Author:Pharand, Michel W.
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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