Commentary On Denis Johnston’s Shaw Article

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June 1, 2012 · Posted in Commentary 

Dear Editor:

The latest Boryanabooks issue is, as you say, the biggest and best to date. I very much enjoyed Denis Johnston’s tour of the Shavian personality and life. In high school I started reading Shaw avidly and fell in love with “Heartbreak House,” Caesar and Cleopatra” and “Man and Superman.” In later years the attraction of these and other plays dimmed, though “Joan” still holds up well.

Johnston is also right about the T. E. Lawrence and Charlotte Shaw relationship. She and Shaw (as he was officially named then) entered into a kind of epistolary friendship that lasted for years. Both confessed to each other things they wouldn’t confess to anyone else, particularly the rape they both suffered, his at Deraa by the Turks and hers at home by her father. This was the reason she only agreed to marry GBS if the relationship was to be strictly sexless. TEL was one of the four or five greatest English letter writers, and the combined collection of correspondence between them fills three large volumes. The copyright to all TEL’s writings is owned by Jeremy Wilson of Castle Hill Press, which has been printing superbly edited but very expensive volumes of all his writings. TEL’s younger brother transferred copyright before his death because Jeremy published what is still the longest, most detailed and most accurate biography of TEL. He thought very highly of Shaw’s plays, though in private he was sometimes critical of the socio-economic-philosophical underpinnings of many. GBS himself played a very important role in helping to edit the 1922 Oxford Edition of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” after he finished the hand-written manuscript. He had eight copies printed in double-column newspaper-type pages at the Oxford Times. This edition ran to 350,000 words but lacked literary polish. Shaw made massive editorial changes in shortening, tightening and simplifying it. That produced the famous 1926 subscriber’s edition, published for the mass market after TEL’s death without all the magnificent typography, binding, design and commissioned art that he had reproduced in color prints. The huge expense of printing the subscriber’s edition nearly bankrupted him, so he published a cut down and bowdlerized potboiler version of “Seven Pillars” to pay expenses, “Revolt in the Desert.” That potboiler was an international success, though Lawrence always disowned it, but he used the money to pay off the subscriber’s edition and put all the profits into an account for retired RAF aircraft men and widows.

The first volume I bought from Castle Hill Press was the Oxford Edition in two magnificent folio volumes housed in a beautiful slipcase containing all the subscriber edition artwork in its original size. That ran nearly $400. I have the first two volumes of the Shaw-Shaw correspondence, but not yet the third. My Oregon study has some of TEL’s other correspondence to various authors and literary critics (TEL was one of the best critics of his time). The correspondence between the two Shaws is psychologically complex, wide-ranging and full of great literary criticism by both, but apparently Jeremy does not plan to issue a cheaper paperback mass market edition. My son, who has a great regard for “Seven Pillars,” covets my Oxford Edition. That edition, while less dramatic and more verbose than the subscriber edition, has far more historical detail. TEL considered it substantially accurate as history, but much of the detail and the sharp critiques of some British officers and politicians were cut for the subscriber version.

If you haven’t read “Seven Pillars,” put it on your agenda. Winston Churchill thought it one of the greatest works of English literature, comparable to “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Steve Willett
Of Oregon and Japan

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