George Bernard Shaw to Ellen Terry
In the summer of 1892 the vivacious and
beautiful British actress Ellen Terry exchanged a few letters with George Bernard Shaw, then a witty
music critic. At first they wrote about an Italian soprano, a protégé of Ellen Terry,
then they ranged over more personal topics. Shaw was 36 and had not yet made his name; Terry, at 45,
was an international star. Shaw's letters moved quickly from being, as Ellen described the, "stiff and
prim," to cosy intimate exchanges that delighted both of them. After a while, Shaw stopped writing,
but not before he had made the declaration that Ellen Terry had
"all the nameless charm, all the skill, all the force, in a word, all the genius"
need to play Ibsen, the Norwegian dramatist who represented the new theater in the 1890's. He thought
that as Sir Henry Irving's leading lady she was wasting herself in inept productions played in an
outdated, though fashionable, theatrical style. In spite of all that, Shaw said, she had created her
"incomparable self...irresistible Ellen."
Three years later, in March 1895, Ellen Terry revived the correspondence. By
this time Shaw was a controversial dramatist himself, interested in writing plays with strong parts for
women. The state of the theatre became a central theme in their intimate exchanges. It was, as Shaw
"a paper courtship...perhaps the pleasantest and most enduring of all courtships."
Shaw and Terry carefully avoided meeting, though they only lived 20 minutes
apart. Instinct told them that meeting might spoil their open, playful delight in each other. Shaw, of
course, saw Ellen on the stage, and her likeness often appeared in the newspapers and in shop windows.
In one of her letters to Shaw, Ellen interrogated a photograph of him in an attempt to get closer to
the real man:
"So this is you, is it G.B.S? well turn your eyes round to me, and don't hide your
mouth (for that tells all about one!)...Is that your ear? I don't like it. It's rather like mine,
but so much the worse for both of us. A lovely forehead...And your eyes? Look at me! Nicely cut nose,
a jolly chin...And you are red! So am I, now..."
Her tone is a subtle mix of bold actress and coy lover--or perhaps even of a fond mother--musing
on a photograph. There was a good deal of the maternal in Ellen's attitude to Shaw. He, for his part,
clearly enjoyed being amorous in his letters. In October 1896, he wrote to Ellen:
"Everything real in life is based on need: just so far as you need me I have you tightly
in my arms; beyond that I am only a luxury..."
and then went on to describe his "love affairs" Ellen, whose experience of men was more thorough
than Shaw's of women, responded with a simpler honesty:
"I'll wait until you 'need' me, and then I'll mother you. That's the only unselfish love.
I've never been admired or loved (properly) but one and a half times in my life, and I am perfectly
sick of loving. All on one side isn't fair."
The letters from this period suggest that neither one felt sure of where they stood.
The correspondence reached its peak in 1897--the year of the letter abridged
here--when they were writing approximately every three days to each other. In another letter about
that time Shaw wrote:
"Lord, what a supernal night it was last night in the train and coming home. A ten inch
moon, a limelight sky, nightingales, everything wonderful. Today, the same clearness and an Italian
heat...I finished the revision of 'Mrs. Warren' yesterday. And now I must do some work. But--to
sustain me in it--keep on loving me (if you ever did) my Ellenest--love me hard, love me soft, and deep,
and sweet, and for ever and ever and ever."
A year later the affection remained, but the letters contained more talk of the theatre. Perhaps
Shaw was distracted by the green-eyed Irish millionairess, Charlotte Payne-Townsend, whom he met in
1896 and often talked about in his letters to Ellen. On June 1, 1898, Shaw and Charlotte were married.
Ellen wrote, apparently without jealously,
"How splendid! What intrepidity to make such a courageous bid for happiness. Into it you
both go! Eyes wide open! An example to the world, and may all the gods have you in their keeping."
However, in the months that followed, the,
"perfect fury for writing letters to each other,"
as Ellen called it, slackened, and the content of their letters focused on new plays and theatre gossip.
In 1902 Shaw invited her to play Lady Cecily in Captain Brassbound's Conversion, a part he wrote
with Ellen in mind. In her autobiography, she suggested that her letters must have been "good copy"
because Lady Cecily's character came entirely from them. Ellen declined the part, but met Shaw for the first
time at the opening of the production.
"He was quite unlike what I had imagined from his letters,"
she said enigmatically. In 1906 she finally played Lady Cecily on stage and found Shaw,
"wonderfully patient at rehearsals...a good, kind, gentle creature."
For one who had been such a close confidante, she summed him up rather curiously in 1908:
"It doesn't answer to take Bernard Shaw seriously. He is not a man of conviction.
Shaw, for his part, commented on the whole correspondence when it was
published in 1931, three years after Ellen's death:
"...a clever woman's most amusing toys are interesting men."
The letter romance had its season. If Shaw and Ellen Terry grew more
distant with time, they could at least enjoy the memory of an intimacy some never experience.
Famous Love Letters
Messages of Intimacy and Passion
Edited by Ronald Tamplin