His fair lady: how George Bernard Shaw’s wife played a vital role in his masterworks

In the climactic final scene of George Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece Pygmalion, Henry Higgins famously threatens to wring Eliza Doolittle’s neck. “Wring away!” she replies. “Oh, when I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my finger to be as good as you, I could just kick myself.”

Until now, Shaw’s play about the flower girl who is transformed into a duchess by a wealthy professor was thought to have little in common with the great playwright’s own life. But this summer, a new book will shine a spotlight on the important contributions that Shaw’s wife, Charlotte, an heiress and intellectual, made to his work – and reveal how her connections and influence utterly transformed Shaw’s life and career.

“Without her, it’s very likely that he wouldn’t have achieved what he did,” said Ann Oakley, author of the forthcoming book, Forgotten Wives: How Women Get Written out of History. “Before she met him, he wasn’t at all well known or successful.”

Oakley, a professor of sociology and social policy at University College London, has found evidence that, as well as suggesting topics for his plays, Charlotte Shaw (nee Payne-Townshend) was heavily involved in her husband’s work as a writer. “Charlotte read every single thing that George Bernard Shaw wrote, and edited it and revised it.”

She came from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family and used the money she had inherited to enable Shaw to write full-time, following their marriage in 1898. “She supported him financially so he could make a reputation with his plays.”

She also helped him to stage many of his plays for the first time and suggested casts for some of them. “She was a leading light on the board of the Stage Society, which put on experimental plays in London. Shaw didn’t know that world the way she did, because she was intensely interested in drama.”

Many of George Bernard Shaw’s plays were put on by this society, thanks to his wife’s influence. That made a big difference to his career at the time, Oakley said. “Some of his work was regarded as quite scandalous and quite difficult to show in public. Without Charlotte, I don’t think he would have been as successful as he was, and he would have had to struggle a lot more.”

Yet her role has been relegated by biographers in the past to that of a secretary – despite the fact that Shaw actually employed a secretary to do all his secretarial work. “The way her contribution is written about is: she was his wife, so she was typing his manuscripts. They don’t give her any intellectual credit, when a lot of this work is actually collaborative.”

The play Saint Joan, byvoorbeeld, was her idea, Oakley said. “That’s commonly known to Shaw’s biographers. But – and I have to say it’s male biographers and historians – they simply do not consider that anything Charlotte did could have been all that important, so they don’t actually take on board the evidence that’s right in front of them.”

For example, in his book about his friendship with George Bernard Shaw, the playwright Lawrence Langner gave an account of a visit he made to the Shaws in 1922, during which he asked them whether there were any new plays in the offing. “The trouble is, we haven’t been able to find a good subject,” Charlotte replied. He wrote: “I must have looked astonished, for she continued, ‘Yes, I sometimes find ideas for plays for the Genius [meaning Shaw]. If we can find a good subject for a play, he usually writes it very quickly.”

Most of the time, egter, Charlotte did not take any credit for the help she gave Shaw. “She was very modest,” said Oakley. “I suspect that she didn’t want people to know how important she was to George Bernard Shaw’s work, because then they might have thought less of him.”

As a result, the extraordinary role she played in Shaw’s life has been continually overlooked, Oakley said: “It’s the patriarchy, I’m afraid. Charlotte is one of very many women whose lives have been treated disrespectfully, because they were married to great men and it was assumed they weren’t doing anything important.”

It is for this reason, Oakley argues, that Charlotte’s own independent intellectual work has been largely forgotten or attributed to Shaw. For example, she translated the plays of Eugène Brieux – “Shaw’s French equivalent” – into English for the first time, an achievement usually credited to Shaw.

She was also a founder of the London School of Economics (LSE). “She rented the building where the LSE started out, and paid for a lot of the early teaching and research work,” said Oakley. “She endowed a programme of research into women’s history, which was really the first time anyone in Britain had ever seriously researched what went on in women’s lives before the industrial revolution.” Yet the Shaw Library, which is named after her, is usually assumed to be named for her husband.

She also worked on the manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom deur TE Lawrence – better known as Lawrence of Arabia – for years, encouraging him in letters and suggesting edits and revisions. “She had this extraordinarily close intellectual relationship with Lawrence, which you can see from the correspondence. There is evidence she had a massive impact on Lawrence’s writings and was essential to the success of his work, but again people have assumed she played some kind of minor role – that she was correcting his punctuation or passing on the comments that George Bernard Shaw had made.”

In werklikheid, George Bernard Shaw only discovered her correspondence with Lawrence after she died. Lawrence wrote to her admiringly about her writing abilities, hinting that he had guessed how much help she gave Shaw with his work: “You can write the plays by yourselfor parts of them. Don’t imagine that by this I really mean that George isn’t a colossus, and us little mortals: but how often you hold his hand.”

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