An Unsocial Socialist by George Bernard Shaw.

George Bernard Shaw (1946).
An Unsocial Socialist, originally called The Heartless Man, was my introduction to George Bernard Shaw, most famous I dare say for his play Pygmalion (1912), and it was all rather bizarre. I can't honestly say if I liked it or not: The Guardian, who reviewed it in 1887 (four years after publication), sums it up quite neatly: "This is very nearly a good book, and still more nearly a bad one." I've no idea what to make of it.

It tells the story of Sidney Trefusis, our unsocial socialist, who is married to Henrietta (by Victorian ideals it was a very good match), who he swiftly leaves to live a true socialist life and encourage others to do the same. It begins in a girls' boarding school,
In the dusk of an October evening, a sensible looking woman of forty came out through an oaken door to a broad landing on the first floor of an old English country-house. A braid of her hair had fallen forward as if she had been stooping over book or pen; and she stood for a moment to smooth it, and to gaze contemplatively—not in the least sentimentally—through the tall, narrow window. The sun was setting, but its glories were at the other side of the house; for this window looked eastward, where the landscape of sheepwalks and pasture land was sobering at the approach of darkness.
It was that opening paragraph that sucked me in, such is my love of autumn, and the novel did more or less hold my attention (there was an unfortunate brief lapse about half way through which I regret). Shaw continues: Trefusis is a wealthy man, and he feels it necessary to adopt a disguise: he becomes Jeff Smilash and spends his time either trying to convince the lower classes to adopt socialism, or the upper middle classes to do the same. Meanwhile he falls in love, and we see his struggle to reconcile marriage with socialism and the ideas of property and capitalism which was so inherent in the Victorian era, even with regards to marriage.

Honestly it's so bizarre I can't go on. What helped a smidgen was knowing that George Bernard Shaw was himself a socialist and a member of the Fabian Society (a British socialist organisation): knowing nothing about Shaw I did assume when I bought it it was a satire, perhaps from a right-wing perspective. What it actually is, it seems, it is a left-wing social satire on prejudice. There are in it moments of humour, but they were largely down to the girls' activities in the boarding school and not so much Trefusis. What was good was his (Shaw's or Trefusis') challenging of the norms of Victorian society who (not unlike myself to be fair) were thoroughly confused and frustrated with Trefusis. What damned it was the rather misogynistic attitudes throughout. It's very hard to say what Shaw was doing in this novel, but it does seem as though he's writing, perhaps from his own experience, the difficulties of the middle and upper classes living as socialists, understanding socialism, and overcoming the perception of socially acceptable behaviour. It's a very strange work showing a dichotomy within Trefusis and is on the whole engaging.

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Further Reading

Comments

  1. i don't know a whole lot re GBS, other than the plays and a book "On Music", which i've tried, unsuccessfully, to read... and that he lived a long time and climbed trees at an advanced age... this work sounds intriguing in a rather warped sort of way... if i ran across it in a book sale, i'd probably buy it...

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    1. I hope you do, then you can explain it to me :)

      Well, at least now I've read GBS. I'd been meaning to for so long...

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    2. I'm going to aspire to climbing trees at an advanced age. What fun! :-)

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  2. He was apparently a great friend of G.K. Chesterton which I find so funny because Chesterton was a conservative (I think) Catholic and Shaw a socialist atheist. They quite respected each other though. This book sounds bizarre enough that I want to read it. :-D

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    1. As I said to Mudpuddle, please do then explain it to me :) Got a block with this book!

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