The manuscripts of George Bernard Shaw

3e5c4065586acf3e602e984d11e6506f--george-bernard-shaw-vintage-surfIn The Book Handbook for 1947 F.E.Lowenstein, the biographer of G. Bernard Shaw, quotes from an article published in The Daily Sketch of 3rd November 1941 which recounted how in 1928 American bookseller Frank Glenn headed a syndicate of dealers which bid in London for some Shaw MSS.

“…Shaw unblushingly mentioned £5,000 at first with the remark that ‘you cannot buy the writings of a genius for a farthing ‘ . But eventually he must have come down, for the group obtained some manuscripts for £400. Now a single item has been sold for £500.”

This notice caused Bernard Shaw to write a letter to the paper, which was duly printed in the issue of 12th November. Here is an extract:

“ Allow me to warn Mr Glenn and all who it may concern that I have never sold a manuscript in my life, nor autographed an edition for sale, nor even a single copy to be auctioned at a bazaar.

“…The transaction to which Glenn refers no doubt arose out of the enterprise of somebody who, having obtained specimens of my handwriting from some correspondence on which he had engaged me, imitated it as best he could in pages from my published works, had photostats made of them and sold them as Shaw manuscripts.

“No such manuscripts had ever existed, as I write for the Press in Pitman’s phonetic script (without reporting contractions) which is then translettred on the typewriter by another hand and sent to the printer.

I have presented a few pages of the Pitman script to public libraries with a fancy for such relics ( I kept ten pages of St Joan picked at random for this purpose ), but the rest have been ruthlessly torn up and are not available even for the waste paper war salvage”.

However, Lowenstein points out that if Shaw never sold a manuscript in his life, how is it that there were ( in 1947 at least ) ‘ so many Shaw manuscripts about ?’ Bizarrely, he contends that ‘editors, journalists, biographers and translators’ might be the sources of a few. It sounds highly unlikely that any of these would had have a chance to own a Shaw manuscript, apart from editors to whom a letter or article by Shaw might have been sent for publication in a magazine or newspaper. But Mr Lowenstein may have been closer to the truth when he maintains that authors occasionally give friends or relatives presents of manuscripts for which they no longer have a use. Alas, it is true that such MS rarely come onto the market compared with, say, presentation copies of books.

For instance, Mr Lowenstein tells us, one such friend still owns the MS in longhand of John Bull’s Other Island, while the shorthand copy of St Joan, which the author thought he had torn up, but which he found twenty years later among his papers, was presented to the British Museum. Moreover, the ten pages of St Joan referred to by Shaw were not from this shorthand version, but were pages from the first typed transcript.

Elsewhere Shaw courted controversy by claiming that he had a greater mind than Shakespeare. On the subject of the Bard and his missing manuscripts Mr Lowenstein asked Shaw if he would like to see one of these turn up somewhere, to which Shaw replied: ‘If I had the choice of examining either one of Shakespeare’s manuscripts, or his tailor’s bills, I would choose the latter ; they would tell me much more about the Man and his Times’.

Shaw also shared Dickens’ views on letters received. One day at Gad’s Hill the novelist decided to burn them all. I think we all know now why Dickens felt he had to do this.Something to do with the adulterer preserving his reputation after his death. Similarly, in 1947 Lowenstein was in constant fear that Shaw would discover

‘the enormous letter material I am working on and will make a ‘ bonfire ‘ of it, as he calls it . These letters date back to 1876, the year before he came to London , and they have given me , and are still yielding , an amount of biographical data, the value of which it is impossible to assess’

One question arises from this. How was Lowenstein able to work on letters that Shaw himself had yet to ‘discover‘? Had Lowenstein secreted them somewhere in the playwright’s home? It seems unlikely, but if true, wasn’t Lowenstein taking a risk by hinting at this in a periodical, however obscure?

Lowenstein makes a good point when he suggests that all authors ought to retain their manuscripts as ‘a safeguard against forgeries ‘. An enemy of Shaw ( there must have been quite a few ) would have found it relatively easy to imitate his hand with a Shaw manuscript at his side. A forged article or letter containing controversial opinions and published under Shaw’s name could have done a good deal of harm to his reputation. Perhaps this is what Shaw had in mind when he insisted that he had never sold any of his manuscripts. Nowadays, impecunious living authors who sell their manuscripts to literary archives, such as the Harry Ranson Humanities Research Center in Austin ( where only yellow paper is allowed into the reading room), would do well to consider the danger to their reputations now that the photocopier has made it easier for talented forgers to ply their trade. Back in Shaw’s time, however, such forgeries, with only the ‘ photostat ‘ as an aid, would have been more difficult to carry out.

This is a truly fascinating area in literary studies and one in which those working in literary archives seem reluctant to discuss for fear of sowing doubt among literary scholars. A similar situation prevails in the art world, where the mere suggestion that modern forgers have successfully passed off their imitations as originals by certain big name artists, and that some of these have been sold at auction, will depress the market. As with manuscripts, however, the feeling among many dealers is that there are enough fools willing to pay good money for these forgeries. [R.M.Healey]





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