(Research Student, Andhra University)


“My novels are very green things; very carefully written.”

–Bernard Shaw


Bernard Shaw’s literary career chiefly consists of imaginative fiction though the form varied from the novel and the short story eventually to the play. His narrative fiction, which runs to nearly two thousand pages in six volumes in the Standard Edition of his works, has not received adequate attention till now. Even his critical biographers were content with a few sketchy chapters on the five novels, while historians of fiction hardly took notice of them. A few critics found striking similarities between his novels and his plays. Dr. Archibald Henderson very rightly stated: “Not the least significant feature of the novels, to my mind, is their foreshadowing of the future dramatist.” Shaw himself remarked, on reading the proofs of his first novel (which was published fifty years after it was written) that, like Goethe, he knew it all along, that his opinions had been the same all through. It is therefore salutary to attempt a critical review or the five novels, in however summary a fashion.


These novels were written according to a definite plan–five pages a day and one novel a year–in Shaw’s early London years when he was still struggling to stand on his own feet. He began a sixth novel in 1888 but left it unfinished. He received rejection slips from all the publishers to whom he sent the five novels, one after the other. However, the Socialist revival of the 1880’s gave birth to a number of propaganda magazines, and Shaw, who had  by then become an ardent Socialist, could get his novels (except the first) serialised in them in the reverse order of their composition.


Immaturity (1879), the first novel, true to its title, betrays the author’s own immaturity and inexperience. Robert Smith, the hero of this novel, resembles the young Shaw in many respects. He is shy, self-conscious, ill at ease with the women he comes across. He has read a great deal and is critical of people and events. As a clerk in a carpet company, he lives in private lodgings, where he meets Harriet Russell, the self-supporting milliner. He is rather enamoured of this New Woman. But in course of time, she marries a painter, who is “altogether different from the pale scholar”. Smith leaves the carpet company on a point of self-respect, becomes the private secretary of an idle Member of Parliament, whose daughter, an incorrigible flirt, enchants him for a while. At the end, he meets Harriet to learn from her that he is only a boy–“just a bad case of immaturity”. The plot of this novel is not coherent and the interest is not quite sustained. But there are many amusing portraits of the Victorian types. Also there are many purposive discussions on marriage, art, music, literature and education. Discerning readers will observe that Shaw’s views on these subjects had been the same from the beginning.


Soon after finishing his first novel, Shaw joined the debating club called the Zetetical Society where he learned to speak and argue, to be rational and practical. These attempts of Shaw are clearly seen in his second novel, The Irrational Knot (1880). This novel shows marked improvement in plot-construction, characterisation and in maintaining a balance between narrative and dialogue. The hero of this novel is an electrical engineer, Edward Conolly, who is rational and critical to the bone. He comes into contact with Marian Lind, an upper middle class girl, with all the inhibitions of her class. But these were only latent. When Conolly stabilizes his position by the invention of the Electro-Motor, he marries Marian, facing a great deal of opposition from her father’s side. But soon he discovers that she is not quite the sort of woman he took her to be and realises that an ordinary working girl would share his tastes and interests much better than Marian. She also feels unhappy with the intellectual machine she had married and so flirts with Sholto Douglas, a conceited young poet of her own class. Though she rejected his proposal on two occasions earlier, she elopes with him to New York when a suitable opportunity arose. Now Conolly applauds her grit in running away and wants to make things easy for her by seeking divorce. But Marian is not happy with Sholto. He was jealous of her and suspects her too often even during their voyage. On hearing that Conolly is seeking divorce, Sholto quarrels with Marian and they part on bad terms in New York. She lives in poor lodgings and cables the news to her cousin in London. Conolly guesses the hardships of a woman in a new city, goes to New York and offers to take her back without any fuss. But she would not return since she was already with child.


Into this plain story is skilfully dovetailed the story of Conolly’s sister, Susanna, and Marian’s cousin, Marmaduke. Susanna earns her livelihood independently by operas and ballets. She attracts Marmaduke. They live together as man and wife, without any formal ceremony of marriage, and they have a daughter also. But Susanna becomes an incurable dipsomaniac. Consequently her reputation on the stage suffers. When a reconciliation with Marmaduke was found impossible, she leaves for the States to accept a longstanding theatrical engagement. She is a failure on the American stage and sinks day by day and dies in the same lodgings where Marian also lives, a few days after her (Marian’s) arrival. Later, Marmaduke consents to marry according to the wishes of his parents. Shaw claimed that the morality in this novel is original, which fact entitles it to be called ‘a fiction of the first order’. He also clarified that he had anticipated the morality of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in this novel. The proximity of the last chapter of the novel to Ibsen is cited as further evidence in favour of his contention. It is not an exaggeration to say that this novel is an epitome of much of Shaw’s later teaching.


The third novel was interrupted by an attack of small-pox which made him grow his famous beard. James Lecky had introduced him to phonetics, the knowledge of which helped him in writing Love Among the Artists (1881). It is the story of two artists, a Welsh composer, Owen Jack, and an actress, Magdalen Brailsford who has to struggle hard against a Philistine public and the tyranny of a family of prudes respectively, to pursue their vocations independently. These two are contrasted with the pseudo-painter, Adrian Herbert, and the commercial-souled, Polish pianist, Aurelie. Love inevitably plays a prominent part and there are mutual attractions and repulsions. At the end, however, the genuine artists, who are either ‘complete’ in themselves already (Jack) or strive for perfection (Madge) remain unmarried.


This novel anticipates the motifs of Candida, Man and Superman and Pygmalion, Mary Sutherland and Aurelie refuse to marry Jack and Charles respectively, even as Candida subtly refuses Eugene Marchbanks, because they had to look after Adrian who was ‘spoiled’ by doting women. Also, it shows that artists and poets like Jack and Eugene do not need love. Madge is rightly identified by Dr. Archibald Henderson as an early version of the Life Force, Ann Whitefield. Madge hunts down Jack in almost the same cunning way as Ann did Tanner. But Madge could not hold him in her grip. He was, after all, her teacher and she adheres to his advice that she should master the Art which is inspired by a passion for beauty, which would enable her to make true love. The theme of Pygmalion, the teaching of phonetics and the successful transformation of a flower girl into an aristocratic lady, is hinted at in the novel, where Madge takes lessons in elocution from Jack and becomes a first-rate actress.


Cashel Byron’s Profession (1882), the fourth novel, was the most popular of Shaw’s novels. This is the story of an actress’s son who becomes a famous pugilist. He gradually works his way to Lydia Carew, the orphan owner of a large estate, with whom he falls in love. She is also in love with him. But his status is believed to be inferior compared to hers. Besides he is engaged in a questionable occupation. These two complications keep the lovers apart for some time. They are got over by the dramatic appearance of Cashel’s mother who announces that Cashel is the sole heir to a big fortune. Cashel marries Lydia and forsakes pugilism for politics. But the most thrilling event in the novel is the actual wrestling contest at the Agricultural Hall between Cashel Byron and another champion, Paradise. This is described in detail and was thoroughly enjoyed by the reading public. We have Frank Harris’s testimony that Shaw practised boxing in his younger days and the knowledge he gained thus stood him in good stead in writing this scene. Due to the great enthusiasm evinced in this novel and also to protect his stage rights, he hastened to dramatise it in blank verse and declared that it is much easier to write in blank verse than in good prose. This play was performed a number of times drawing ‘huge applause’. The success of this play shows that the natural medium for Shaw was the drama, but not the novel.


In the last novel, An Unsocial Socialist (1883), Shaw pours out his new faith, Socialism. He had been converted to it just then by Henry George and Karl Marx. The hero of this novel, Sidney Trefusis, is the son of a capitalist. Educated in Cambridge he presently understands that ‘property is theft’. He preaches this with unabated passion and exposes the villainies of Capitalism. He marries an intensely passionate girl of his own class, Hetty, but after a short period refuses to live with her on the plea that, in her bewitching presence, he cannot carry on his work of serving the cause of the workers. In his wanderings, he comes across a few aristocratic College girls with whom he flirts. His wife learns this and hazards a journey to him in biting cold. He pacifies her and sends her back. But she contracts high fever of which she dies shortly after her return home. The pompous funeral arranged by her wealthy and snobbish father, and his typically bourgeois reactions, were nauseous and intolerable to Sidney. Hence he boycotts the funeral, but erects an humble and cheap memorial which wounds the vanity of his father-in-law. But in course of time they are reconciled. Sidney takes a lead in the labour movements and dedicates his life to the amelioration of the condition of the workers. He gains a variety of experiences. He marries a second time a very clever and quick-witted girl and a cousin of his first wife, Agatha Wylie.


Every interest in this novel–story, plot, characterization–is subordinated to the preaching of Socialism. The hero goes on lecturing on the slightest provocation, laying bare the grave injustices done under the system of Capitalism and offering Socialist remedies. In this novel, we come across the themes which were later developed in plays like Misalliance and The Apple Cart? The title is appropriate because the hero is unsocial in his behaviour even towards his closest relatives. In this novel, we have a clue to Shaw’s change-over to play-writing. Speaking of the future of the arts in a Socialist State, Sidney Trefusis says: “Works of fiction superseded by interesting company and conversation, and made obsolete by the human mind outgrowing the childishness that delights in the tales told by grown up children, such as novelists and their like.” We have plenty of such ‘interesting company and conversation’ in his plays.


These novels were written in the prime of his youth–between his twenty-second and twenty-seventh years. The subjects which interested him most at the time, marriage, the place of artists in society and the reorganisation of society, found expression in them. Shaw found that there are as many types of marriage as there are people and that marriage is essentially ‘irrational’ and unsound in its basis. Most marriages are fraught with many incompatibilities of tastes and temperaments. Hence happiness in marriage is a matter of chance. The place of the artist in the self-complacent Victorian society was anything out honourable. The Philistine public were insensible to good art and good music, Artists, whether professional or amateur, had to struggle hard to earn their livelihood and to uphold the traditions. Shaw visualised a bright future for the artists in a Socialist State in his last novel where the hero declared: “Art rises when men rise and grovels when men grovel.” With the raising of living standards of people it is possible to improve the lot of the artists. Finally, Shaw thought of a Socialist State as a remedy for all the ills of the world. The co-existence of extreme poverty and fabulous wealth, the Victorian prudery and conventional respectability, the self-deceptions of the clergy and the lethargy of the politicians–these are all the evil results of Capitalism. They can be rooted out only in the Socialist order. The country should be the property of all its inhabitants collectively. Such is Shaw’s preaching in his last novel. Summing up the themes of Shaw’s novels St. John Ervine said: “The hatred of hypocrisy and pretentious respectability and irrational social cleavages and stupefying poverty and every kind of organised priestcraft, whether of the law, or the church, or of medicine or of politics, which he acquired in Dublin as a boy and as a youth, was poured into his novels and distilled from them into his plays.”


Coming to the characters, we find traces of Shaw in almost all the heroes. In the depiction of types the novelist excels. The Nobility, the clergymen, the prudes, the pseudo-artists, the flirt and several others are portrayed with an amazing faithfulness. These types are very amusing. Shaw also portrayed the New Woman in Harriet Russell, Elinor McQuinch, and Agatha Wylie, who are the companions of Nora Helmer. The pursuing woman is depicted in Magdalen Brailsford and Henrietta Jansenius. Almost all the characters belong to the urban areas, most of them to the upper middle class. One of the finest creations is Lydia’s footman, Bashville. The children, though few, are self-willed and brought up according to the Shavian formula. In spite of being Shaw’s mouthpieces, quite a few of these characters are memorable.


There is in the novels a lot of ‘theatrical element which shows that they are ‘a preparation for the plays’. Dialogue and discussion take the place of narrative and description more and more as we proceed from the earlier to the later novels. They are the chief ingredients of the New Drama which Bernard Shaw initiated in England under the influence of Ibsen. The root of the long speeches of characters like John Tanner is the speeches of Edward Conolly and Sidney Trefusis. Some chapters in the novels can be adapted easily to the stage, retaining much of the original dialogue. The descriptive part will be helpful for settings and the narrative for stage directions. As Dr. Archibald Henderson pointed out, Shaw always saw his characters in a situation. Besides, in the first four novels, a number of actors, actresses, dancers, musicians or composers appear. There are ballets, concerts and dramas in the course of the novels. Finally, the motifs of some of the important plays of Shaw are found in these novels.


They were written in conformity with the Victorian novel. But they were full of biting satire and carping criticism of all the ugly aspects of Victorian life. They were daring exposures of the villainies of Capitalism. That partly explains why the novels were rejected by the publishers. It is rather difficult to decide which of the five novels is the best. Mr. A. C. Ward thinks that the first is ‘the best in most respects’. The late Dr. C. E. M. Joad was swept off his feet by the last novel. R. L. Stevenson showered a lot of praise on the fourth novel which was also the popular choice. But popularity cannot be a reliable test of merit in the world of letters. Shaw remarked very pungently that admiration for Cashel Byron’s Profession is the mark of a fool. The second and third novels are very satisfactory from many points of view, though a devoted Shavian would prefer The Irrational Knot to all the others.


Though the novels were rejected, they gave Shaw a good training in the art of writing, in inventing stories, in constructing plots and in creating characters. This training was responsible in not a small measure for Shaw’s extraordinary output. The play-wright is not an isolated phenomenon or a sudden offshoot but quite a logical and natural growth. Shaw’s novels are really plays which, as J. P. Hackett shrewdly observed, took the wrong turning.