The Observer once called George Bernard Shaw "the most famous person in the world". In more than half a century since his death, his profile has dropped significantly, but his regular appearance on the stage and in quotations books suggests that he still has something to offer. Tony Gibbs, an Australian academic, provides an interesting overview of the progress of Shaw's career, from a nervous orator and overlooked novelist in the 1880s to one of the most respected writers of his generation.
Shaw, who has frequently been disparaged as irrelevant in recent times, is here reclaimed as a political radical. He promoted the rights of women, making his first speech in favour of female suffrage in 1892 and arguing:
"If I were a woman, I'd simply refuse to speak to any man or do anything for men until I'd got the vote." He was equally revolutionary in his rejection of the simplicities of patriotism: when asked to deliver a lecture on Irish nationalism, he responded: "Why do you want to stimulate a self-consciousness which is already morbidly excessive in our wretched island, and is deluging Europe with blood?" Aged 29, he introduced himself at a society meeting as a "socialist, atheist and vegetarian" - all fairly daring announcements for the time. And, above all, Shaw is demonstrated as a freethinker, unbound by labels. Gibbs points out that Shaw, although an avowed socialist, recognised that, just like capitalism, socialism is imperialistic as it seeks to spread itself abroad.
But Gibbs equally reveals Shaw's failings, principally his enthusiasm for dictatorship. After meeting Stalin in 1931, Shaw said, "there was no malice in him," and, two years later, "the Nazi movement is in many respects one which has my warmest sympathy". Gibbs notes with some understatement that this period is not "Shaw's finest hour as a critic of society".
Whether the book adds much to what has been written before is unclear, though Gibbs is excellent in uncovering Shaw's motivation. Shaw had been portrayed as the son of an alcoholic father and neglectful mother, partly as a result of Shaw's own claim that in his family, "drink and lunacy are minor specialities". Gibbs, however, argues that Shaw's father became a teetotaller by the time his son was 13 and writes that there is only "tenuous evidence" that Shaw's career was a "search for the maternal love supposedly missing in his childhood". Shaw described himself as a "fluent liar", and Gibbs uncovers "many examples of his not wanting to spoil a good story with the truth".
Some of the material assumes little prior knowledge from the reader, which tends to slow down the pace of the book. The description of the Edwardian period as "a time of long days of cricket and croquet, lawn tennis and garden parties replete with cucumber sandwiches" does not advance one much beyond cliche. There is also rather too much of a lingering focus on Shaw's numerous affairs, up to and including his joint flirtation with H. G. Wells of the new Miss Hungary, 22-year-old Zsa Zsa Gabor, when Shaw was 83. Most of all, what is missing is a real analysis of what made Shaw the funniest man of his age, as well as the most articulate.
Nevertheless, Shaw's rich and varied life is discussed clearly and one is reminded why, in 1937, Churchill called him "the greatest living master of letters in the English-speaking world".
Ivan Wise is editor of The Shavian .
Bernard Shaw: A Life
Author - A. M. Gibbs
Publisher - University Press of Florida
Pages - 554
Price - £30.50
ISBN - 0 8130 2859 0