Monday, December 21, 2020

When I first began this blog, I used it mostly to publish quotations from books and articles that I'd enjoyed for various reasons. Over the years the blog took other turns, but today I'd like to return somewhat to its roots, and give a quotation from a book by G K Chesterton. 

I've had this book on my shelves for decades, and only recently realised I'd never read it - it helps to have a clean-out of your books so that you can see what you've actually got. 

The book is George Bernard Shaw, and while it's not a biography in the usual sense, it does give a great overview of Shaw, why he was who he was, and why he wrote the way he did. Most of Shaw's plays (except, interestingly enough, Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady was based) are given some sort of review. 

At one point, in the chapter entitled, The Dramatist, Chesterton discusses Candida, a play which presents one of Shaw's 'great reversals': when Candida finds herself having to decide between two men she chooses to stay 'with the strong man because he is the weak man.'

Chesterton proceeds into one of his delightful riffs on this point, relating the statement to marriage as a whole:

The truth is that in this place Bernard Shaw comes within an inch of expressing something that is not properly expressed anywhere else; the idea of marriage. Marriage is not a mere chain upon love as the anarchists[Pg 122] say; nor is it a mere crown upon love as the sentimentalists say. Marriage is a fact, an actual human relation like that of motherhood which has certain human habits and loyalties, except in a few monstrous cases where it is turned to torture by special insanity and sin. A marriage is neither an ecstasy nor a slavery; it is a commonwealth; it is a separate working and fighting thing like a nation. Kings and diplomatists talk of "forming alliances" when they make weddings; but indeed every wedding is primarily an alliance. The family is a fact even when it is not an agreeable fact, and a man is part of his wife even when he wishes he wasn't. The twain are one flesh—yes, even when they are not one spirit. Man is duplex. Man is a quadruped.

Of this ancient and essential relation there are certain emotional results, which are subtle, like all the growths of nature. And one of them is the attitude of the wife to the husband, whom she regards at once as the strongest and most helpless of human figures. She regards him in some strange fashion at once as a warrior who must make his way and as an infant who is sure to lose his way. The man has emotions which exactly correspond; sometimes looking down at his wife and sometimes[Pg 123] up at her; for marriage is like a splendid game of see-saw. Whatever else it is, it is not comradeship. This living, ancestral bond (not of love or fear, but strictly of marriage) has been twice expressed splendidly in literature. The man's incurable sense of the mother in his lawful wife was uttered by Browning in one of his two or three truly shattering lines of genius, when he makes the execrable Guido fall back finally upon the fact of marriage and the wife whom he has trodden like mire:

"Christ! Maria! God,
Pompilia, will you let them murder me?"

And the woman's witness to the same fact has been best expressed by Bernard Shaw in this great scene where she remains with the great stalwart successful public man because he is really too little to run alone.

G B Shaw in his young days, 
before his beard grew long and white.