Several months ago, my friend and I visited a local used bookstore. Among the gems that I collected were a short story collection by Aleister Crowley (a superstitious sort, I have not and do not intend to open the pages for fear of inducing daemonic juju) and a two-dollar copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” (previewed back in January).
There was also, to my surprise, a copy of George Bernard Shaw’s novel “Love Among the Artists.” Surprise, I should say, not because the novel was a rare or valuable find, but because I had no clue that Shaw ever wrote a novel, much less novels. Many, I venture to say most, Shaw readers undoubtedly know the writer as the Nobel Prize-winning composer of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” “Pygmalion”, or “Man and Superman.” Others may regard Shaw for his volumes of music criticism, much of it extoling the current wonder of Wagner. And yet, there are still others who fail to perceive Shaw as either writer or critic and instead regard the writer in contempt for his communist politics, or for his atheism (though an “involuntary” one, as stated by Gary Sloan).
I came across Shaw for my first time last year and only at the request of my professor, with whom I was reading privately. The subject matter of the class was broad, with a name like “Irish Literature of the Early Twentieth Century” and a syllabus that promised the greats: Yeats, Synge, Sean O’Casey, Joyce, and Beckett. Shaw was added later to the syllabus, and though I didn’t openly object to his inclusion (the professor was being generous enough in doing an undergraduate reading), I didn’t enjoy his plays or his Victorian humor near as much as I enjoyed the (very) Irish “Juno and the Paycock” or “The Playboy of the Western World.”
Shaw was far too much the aristocrat for me to consider him a proper Irish writer, most of whom appeared in my mind as rebel writers, outlaws, and romantic, literary vagabonds. “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” should have convinced me that there was something rebel-rousing in Shaw (the play was banned after it premiered in London, in 1902), but it wasn’t enough. The riots following Synge’s “Playboy” in 1907, or Yeats’s pro-nationalism “Kathleen Ni Houlihan” was more of the thing that I was after; Shaw was a poser, poking fun at society in the manner of the much more entertaining Oscar Wilde. I didn’t see why I needed him.
I’ve come a long way in appreciating Shaw within the last year (thank God), though this is due more to what I’ve read about the writer during that time than what I’ve read by the writer. Suffice to say that my admiration for Shaw as a man eclipses my admiration for him as an artist: I find that I enjoy quoting him more than I enjoy quoting his characters:
“It is no defense of an immoral life to say that the alternative offered by society collectively to poor women is a miserable life, starved, overworked, fetid, ailing, ugly. Though it is quite natural and right for Mrs Warren to choose what is, according to her lights, the least immoral alternative, it is none the less infamous of society to offer alternatives.”
This comes from “The Author’s Apology,” a prelude to the play alluded to. The quote brings nothing new to one’s perceptions about the play, and yet it does an excellent job of condensing the play’s theme that the immoralities practiced by the protagonist are the fault of a villainous society more than they are the fault of the character that practices them. The ambitious person who lives in such a society has no other choice but to act immorally, yet Shaw does not go so far as to excuse Mrs. Warren: he does not praise her occupation as “right” but her choosing of “the least immoral alternative.” The choosing of the greatest division between immoralities is what’s being praised, not the decision itself. Shaw does not provide an alternative for the least immoral decision; he exposes the pitfalls of society and the problems they lead its citizens to make, but shies away from providing a perfect solution. Perhaps there is none, his silence suggests: the perfect resolution might just be an ideal and one that it would be foolish, even contrary to human nature, to consider attaining.
The writing of “Love Among the Artists” predated that of “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” by seventeen years, which is ample time for one’s opinions and philosophies to reverse completely. “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” exposes the vilified society for all it is worth but even then its purpose remains ambiguous for we still do not know the proper way to react. In Shaw’s own words “it does not follow that the people who take offence [at the villain of the piece] are all champions of society.”
Compare Shaw’s words then to his novel: “ ‘Love Among the Artists’ is what is called a novel with a purpose…illustrating the difference between that enthusiasm for the fine arts which people gather from reading about them, and the genuine artistic faculty which cannot help creating, interpreting, or at least unaffectedly enjoying music and pictures.”
A far cry from “Mrs. Warren?” It may appear so, but the similarities are greater than the differences. Society looks down upon the enterprising businesswoman, but it also looks down upon that “genuine artistic faculty” which compels the ‘real’ artists to create, criticize, or interpret.
As for these ‘real’ artists, Shaw’s dashing, smiling, gentle protagonist Adrian Herbert is certainly not one of them. An amateur painter, Herbert is much more of the former quality of artist: the kind that expresses a false enthusiasm patched together by too much reading and not enough genuine enjoyment. His tragedy is his own self-deception: he believes and boasts himself a true artist to all those around him, no more vigorously than to his dear friend Mary Sutherland, to whom he unveils his crowning painting, a depiction from an Arthur legend whose story he narrates:
“ ‘The Lady of Shalott’…had a task to perform; and whilst she was at work upon it, she was, on pain of a curse, only to see the outer world as it was reflected by a mirror which hung above her head. One day, Sir Lancelot rode by; and when she saw his image she forgot the curse and turned to look at him.’ “
Of course, the story is a representation for Herbert’s own work and status as an artist. He views his art not through the ‘true’ spectrum but through the filtered and distorted image of a mirror whose image is only later to be interrupted by the Lancelot. The symbol is further compounded by the three-part symbolism of Lancelot, who represents simultaneously: interruption, loyal love, and perfection.
It would be tedious to analyze the symbol further and ignore Shaw’s many characters, many of which make their appearance shortly into the narrative. Chief among these is Owen Jack, a music composer and reluctant tutor whom Adrian stumbles upon when walking in Kensington gardens. Ugly, irascible, incorrigible, Jack is every inch the fiery artistic temperament with no room to spare for social pleasantry. Owen Jack’s Welshman rage sends every polite Englander away in a “well, I’d never!” huff with noses raised in frivolous defiance. He’s like Christian Bale on a set, or Klaus Kinski storming off of one. These are the novel’s most fun moments, and the young Shaw enjoys himself most when Jack takes center stage and allows these scenes to play out in full. This scene is one of Jack’s strongest, and occurs after the young composer leaps aboard a moving train and into a private cabin occupied by a stern gentleman and his daughter in order to escape from a former employee:
“The young lady bit her lip and reddened. ‘I think—‘ she began.
‘Be silent,’ cried her father, seizing his umbrella and rapping it peremptorily on the floor. Jack sprang up.
‘Sir,’ he said: ‘how dare you behave so to a lady?’
‘This lady is my daughter, k—k—confound your impertinence,’ replied the other irascibly.
‘Then don’t treat her as if she were your dog,’ retorted Jack. ‘I am an artist, sir—an artist—a poet; and I will not permit a young and beautiful woman to be tyrannized over in my presence.’
‘If I were a younger man—‘ began the gentleman, grasping his umbrella.
‘If you were,’ shouted Jack, ‘you would have nothing but tenderness and respect for the lady; or else, by the power of sound, I would pulverize you—allegro martellatissimo—on the spot.’
‘Do not threaten me, sir,’ said the old gentleman spiritedly, rising and confronting his adversary. ‘What right have you to interfere with the affairs of strangers—perfect strangers? Are you mad, sir; or are you merely ignorant?’
‘Neither. I am as well versed in the usages of the world as you; and I have sworn not to comply with them when they demand a tacit tolerance of oppression. The laws of society, sir, are designed to make the world easy for cowards and liars. And lest by the infirmity of my nature I should become either the one or the other, or perhaps both, I never permit myself to witness tyranny without rebuking it, or to hear falsehood without exposing it. If more people were of my mind you would never have dared to take it for granted that I would witness your insolence towards your daughter without interfering to protect her.’
To this speech the old gentleman could find no reply. He stared at Jack a few moments, and then, saying, ‘I request you to mind your own business, sir. I have nothing to say to you,’ went back in dudgeon to his set. The leady then leaned forward and said haughtily,’ Your interference is quite unnecessary, thank you. I can take care of myself.’
‘Aye,’ retorted Jack, frowning at her: ‘you are like other children. I was not such a fool as to expect gratitude from you.’ “
Alas, most of the novel is downhill from here. “Love Among the Artists” is as much about courtship as it is about the struggles of art, which unfortunately loses precedence in the face of the former. Adrian Herbert and Mary Sutherland lose prominence in the story as Owen Jack rises—becoming gainfully employed as a tutor, during which time one of his compositions, a fantasia, is accepted by a music society and premiered to thunderous acclaim. Jack the irascible hermit gives way to Jack the reluctant celebrity—a change no reader will like.
Occurring alongside this are the vignettes of England’s other affiliated artists. Herbert and Mary fade as Madge Brailsford (the young lady whose father Jack rebuked on the train) steals the novel’s second act when she mounts the acting stage and rises to fabulous success: success due in no small part to private lessons she took with Jack. But Madge is likewise dismissed as a third party, the genius pianist Aurélie Szcympliça, enters the novel as the musician who rose to fame the night of Jack’s fantasia.
If the novel sounds overcrowded with artists it’s because it is. Owen Jack is the novel’s supreme achievement and representation of true artistic spirit, and Adrian Herbert the opposite, but the remainder of the characters (and there are many) feels forced and perfunctory. Madge Brailsford is introduced and promptly forgotten: she serves the purpose of characterizing Jack and later falling in love with him, inspiring the novel’s final testament that artists, like superheroes, must remain inviolable, incorruptible, and duty-bound:
“ ‘Wake up, Miss Madge; and realize what nonsense you are talking. Rub your eyes and look at me, a Kobold—a Cyclop…What sane person under forty would be likely to fall in love with me? And what do I care about women older than forty…I like them young and beautiful, like you.’ Madge, as if unconsciously, raised her hand, half offering it to him. He took it promptly, and continued humorously, ‘And I love you, and have always done so. Who could know such a lovely woman and fine genius as you without loving her? But,’ he added, shaking her fingers warningly,’ you must not love me. My time for playing Romeo was over before you ever say me; and Juliet must not fall in love with Friar Lawrence, even when he is a great composer.’ “
Aurélie Szcympliça, in contrast, receives far too much of the spotlight once she and Herbert become wedded. Undoubtedly, Shaw is seeking to advance a claim that the purely artistic temperament cannot suffer a union such as marriage that depends upon mutual dependability: the artist is self-supporting; indeed she has to be in order to survive. As we have already learned from the novel’s opening pages and from his own character, Adrian Herbert is not a real artist and therefore not self-supporting; his marriage to the spitfire pianist is doomed to fail from the start (curiously, Shaw does not dissolve the marriage within the pages, perhaps fearing the recourse of Protestant England). Once we realize this, the rest of the marriage is all variation on an old theme.
But the chief problem, all this being said, boils down to Owen Jack. With an impropriety that threatens to displace the carefully refined manners of the plush society that surrounds him, Jack works the best when he is at odds with other people—an unsocial dilettante with a sandpaper personality. Why does Shaw then choose to have society embrace him as the cultural flavor of the month: a position Jack, making more than he can spend, seems perfectly willing to keep despite his protestations. Undoubtedly to show the hypocrisy of society and its regard for artists, whom it attempts to stifle and defeat at every turn, only to welcome them with open arms when the moment becomes convenient. This is what Shaw meant by “a novel with a purpose.”
But why the purpose, if at the cost of good narrative and good character? I chalk this up to a young writer’s ambition. Shaw was only twenty-five when he wrote (but failed to publish) the novel, his third, and having discovered his Wildeian wit, he was likely trying to pursue the limits of what he could accomplish in the novel. To his credit, “Love Among the Artists” is certainly a success in some of its characters: Owen Jack for the first half of the novel, the pathetic Adrian Herbert whose perfect conciliatoriness to his wife in the novel’s second half creates a wonderful pity and juxtaposes Jack’s refusal to conform. The dialogue, of course, is the novel’s greatest strength (Shaw would go on to be a playwright, after all) but also its greatest weakness, for it begs the question of whether we can even consider “Love Among the Artists” to be a novel at all.
To this I would say no. Scenes do not emerge from Shaw’s narration, for which he has no talent, but through his dialogue. The sheer volume of dialogue likewise gives the ‘novel’ a spoken-word drama: it is an audible piece, not a visual one, and it is not through their character but their voices, dramatically rendered by the reader, that Shaw’s cast succeed. Owen Jack, it should be said, fails in the novel’s second half but that again is a fault of his character, which the reader cannot help but read as sentimental.
Contrary to what the book jacket of my copy boasts, this is not “George Bernard Shaw at his very best” but a shadow of what George Bernard Shaw’s very best would look like later. “Love Among the Artists” is, at worst, a shallow pseudo-novel about artist courtships stitched together with some wit, and, what I would prefer to name it, a writing training exercise for one of the 20th century’s most influential playwrights. It’s less refined than the plays but more accessible for an emerging Shavian: a beautiful introduction, surely, to a later genius.
Shaw, George Bernard. Love Among The Artists. 1914. London: John Murray, 2012. Print.