Monday, September 02, 2013

Shaw's Corner

Shaw’s Corner

On my last day in Hertfordshire we went to Shaw’s Corner.  MTL and I had been over 20 years ago but all I could remember was the revolving shed where Shaw wrote and occasionally hid from visitors.

He was 50 and already established as a writer and playwright when he came to live in The New Rectory at Ayot St Lawrence
 Shaw had seen a tombstone to

 ‘Mary Anne South.  Born1825.  Died 1895.  “Her time was short.”

This prompted Shaw to move in as longevity appeared to be the norm in the parish.  He was right and was active and creative until he died in 1950 aged 94.

He married Charlotte Payne-Townsend in1898 aged 42.  He had turned down her proposals in 1897 as he didn’t want to be accused of being a fortune hunter.  Their friendship continued with Charlotte acting as his secretary.

Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary:

‘To all seeming, she is in love with the brilliant Philanderer and he is taken in his cold way with her.’

Then in 1898 he developed a large abscess on his left foot which required an operation.  Realising he would need careful nursing he decided that Charlotte would do this task admirably and wrote to Beatrice Webb:

Charlotte was the inevitable and predestined agent, appointed by Destiny.  To have her do this in any other character than that of my wife would (in the absence of your chaperonage) have involved our whole circle and its interests in scandal.  I found that my objection to my own marriage had ceased with any objection to my own death.’

That’s Shaw in a nut shell; Heaven forfend that he should admit to loving a woman.

Years ago I directed ‘Dear Liar’ a play by Jerome Quilty based on the letters written to the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell - a clandestine affaire de plume that spanned 40 years.  I became convinced that his so called affairs were ‘all mouth and no trousers.’

That to him the pen was mightier than any other love implement.

I believe he said:

The perfect love affair is one conducted entirely by post’ and he had quite a few.


In later years Mrs Pat – hard up, wanted to publish the letters.  Shaw insisted on them being edited to avoid upsetting Charlotte.  They were published and Charlotte was upset.

Shaw greatly admired his friend William Morris (remember Cuckolding in the Cotswolds) and described him as ‘four great men rolled into one.’

Shaw fell in love with Morriss’s daughter May, portrayed so often by Rossetti in his paintings.  He tells of how he noticed her radiant beauty as he was about to leave, their eyes met and he knew there was a mystic betrothal between them but he said nothing as he was poor and thought it hardly became him to claim any nuptial association with such a famous family.

‘I attended the meetings as usual, but to my stupefaction, she married another and he worse off than myself.’

Shaw went to stay with the married couple but eventually felt he had imposed on the couple’s hospitality long enough.

On his departure the husband found himself in the possession of an iceberg rather than a warm lovable companion and the marriage broke up.

In spite of his mischievous philandering I believe that he did truly love Charlotte.  During the war years Charlotte became very ill with osteitis deformans which left her hunchbacked and unable to walk.  In the evenings Shaw would play the piano in the hall whilst Charlotte listened in her bedroom.  She died in 1943 and Shaw was surprised at the depth of his grief and the villagers often saw him in tears on his walks.

‘I lived with Charlotte for 40 years, and now realise there was so much about her I didn’t know.’

Anyone interested in Shaw, and I haven’t mentioned a fraction of his talents would be richly rewarded by visiting Shaw’s Corner; it’s as if he has just gone out for his walk round the village and every room has a treasure.  There is nothing grand about the house which is very much of its time when it was the norm for a middle-class family to have maids, a cook and gardener.

The front of the house faces north where the servant’s rooms were and the reception rooms and main bedrooms are on the south side.  Shaw didn’t want the servants to be able to watch him and his wife Charlotte as they took their daily walks in the garden

From the brass door knocker depicting Shaw with the inscription Man and Superman to his famous hats and walking sticks in the hall it is like stepping into a time capsule.

His desk in the study looks out onto the garden but the distraction didn’t apparently interfere with his output. Alongside is a smaller desk used by his secretary Miss (Cross) Patch.  Throughout the house are paintings and photographs of literary giants.

The Drawing room was Charlotte’s room with a beautiful portrait of her over the mantelpiece.  The Oscar ( the only person to have an Oscar and a Nobel Prize – he gave the money away)  for ’Pygmalion’ and a statuette of Joan of Arc  are displayed and there is a cushion embroidered with the Shaw arms and motto Te Ipsum Nosce ( know thyself – I believe).  There are three bronzes and, to my great excitement, Rodin’s bust of Shaw.

In the dining room – Shaw was a vegetarian - he would often sit for two hours eating and reading.  There are many relics here including a gold dress watch given him by Marion Davies and Randolph Hearst and on the wall a magnificent oil portrait by Augustus John.

The photographs on the mantelpiece are representative of his sympathies.  From left to right: Gandhi, Djerdjinsky (one of the early Bolsheviks) Lenin, Stalin, Granville Barker, his birthplace in Dublin and Ibsen.  Shaw sent Ibsen’s photograph to be framed just before he died.  It was in this room he died the day after the picture was returned.

We enjoyed strolling round the garden which has been restored to how it was.  It has a natural charm with wild grasses swaying in the breeze – a perfect habitat for bees and insects.  We discovered it wasn’t iced tea that was being served but Pimm’s so we sat on the lawn and toasted that brilliant imp of a man: George Bernard Shaw.

See photos below.


kenju said...

What a nice day you had! I don't know much about Shaw; I've read some of his work (mostly while in college) but maybe I ought to revisit it.

Pat said...

Judy: 'My fair lady' was based on his play 'Pygmalion'.
Pygmalion in 1938 was made into a film and won an Oscar with Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard.

OldLady Of The Hills said...

Now that was a treat, Pat...I feel as if I had a bit of a visit, myself....! I was just talking to someone about seeing Vivian Leigh in "Ceaser & Cleopatra" (In rep with "Anthony and Cleopatra",) on Broadway, many many MANY years ago...She was FABULOUS in both!!!
I LOVED the film "Pygmalion", and always thought Wendy Hiller was pretty extraordinary---Leslie Howard, too!

Having admired Shaw from afar for a very long time, This is a place I would LOVE to have visited---so I thank you, my dear, for bringing it to me....!

LL Cool Joe said...

2 hours!! We all eat in about 15 minutes. :D

Sounds like a fascinating place to visit.

Mage said...

Ivy is a darling, and old George was a misogynist. You tell his story well, and thanks for the delightful photos. :)

Granny Annie said...

Keep educating us. Thanks!

lom said...

Sounds fascinating

Pat said...

Naomi: I'm so glad you enjoyed it. His oeuvre is so vast I found it difficult to get some cohesion but wanted to get across my perception of him as a man.
Wendy Hiller was quite charming when I met her towards the end of her life.

Joey: I think it was because he read at the same time and of course you and I are far too well bred to do that:)
Because if the surrounding countryside one feels it could be the last century you are walking into.

Mage: it's so good to feel the message is getting through:)

Granny Annie: just so long as I haven't bored the pants off you:)

Exile on Pain Street said...

Shaw had the first man cave!

Most surprising part of this post: The revelation that you are a director. I never knew! It's not such an easy job. It's akin to a lion tamer. I hear.