The Undercover Ladies’ Man: George Bernard Shaw

You can be as romantic as you please about love. But you mustn’t be romantic about money. 

- George Bernard Shaw

  George Bernard Shaw, by Sir Emery Walker, 1888

George Bernard Shaw, by Sir Emery Walker, 1888

On May 15, 1940 the English novelist Virginia Woolf picked up her pen to write what started out as a thank you note but ended up being a passionate declaration. She wanted it to be perfect because she was writing to one of the great loves of her life. The letter read:                

Dear Mr. Shaw,

"Your letter reduced me to two days silence from sheer pleasure. You won’t be surprised to learn that I promptly lifted some paragraphs and inserted them into my proofs. You may take what action you like… As for the falling in love, it was not, let me confess, one-sided. When I first met you at the Webbs [Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the Victorian British Socialists who, with Shaw, founded the London School of Economics] I was set against all great men, having liberally been fed on them at my father’s house. I had only wanted to meet business men and say, racing experts. But in a jiffy you made me re-consider all that and had me at your feet. Indeed you have acted a lover’s part in my life for the past thirty years, and tho I daresay, it’s not much to boast of, I should have been a worse woman without Bernard Shaw….”

  Virginia Woolf's letter to Shaw

Virginia Woolf's letter to Shaw

When imagining the quintessential ladies’ man—one doesn’t immediately think of the Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)—or at least, I don't. Indeed the public persona he so carefully constructed over eight decades as scathing curmudgeon, showman, intellectual, critic, pundit, Socialist, playwright and Nobel Laureate seems to have been so carefully constructed as to leave the impression that he hated women. He was also a strange looking man; not a bundle of cuddles.  The English novelist Edith Nesbit described him as “very plain, like a long corpse with a dead, white face—sandy sleek hair, and a loathsome straggly beard, and yet is one of the most fascinating men I ever met!”

For all his aloofness, which was really acute shyness, Bernard Shaw adored ladies, believing them to be the world’s saving grace, and, in turn, it was impossible for women to resist his charm. And why would they? Here was the original thinking woman’s crumpet, especially if you were a woman who believes that the sexiest part of a man is his brains. (Don’t you wish men knew that?) From famous actresses such as Stella Tennant (Mrs. Patrick Campbell) to, as noted above, feminist authors such as Virginia Woolf, women fell under his spell and delighted in every minute of it.   

Of course, women love those who love us, believe in us, urge us to strive for our personal best and help us to do so. G.B.S. was a staunch supporter of woman’s rights, including equality of income as well as the vote and the right to serve in public office. He marched for the Suffragettes in 1908,  supported them financially and seems to have endowed all of his women characters—from Eliza Doolittle to St. Joan— with the extraordinary qualities he found in the women he encountered. If he were alive today I have no doubt he’d be at the front of our present marches,  wearing a pink knitted hat and carrying a sign that proclaims: "Men of Quality Do Not Fear Equality" ; organizing a theatrical benefit to raise money for women’s causes, writing editorials and telling us to “buck up girl, you can’t let the side down” in public. In private, he would share his white linen handkerchief without being asked and coax us to please eat one of those delicious scones that we love, to build up our strength.    

  George Bernard Shaw, 1937 - Photo by Madame Yevonde

George Bernard Shaw, 1937 - Photo by Madame Yevonde

During his life, George Bernard Shaw wrote 50 plays and was the only writer to win both the Oscar (in 1938 for the film script of Pygmalion), as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 (for his play Saint Joan).  In true cantankerous streak, he accepted the honor but refused the money. Ironically, it’s George Bernard Shaw’s attitudes on money and women that have me inspired today and I think they’ll bring a smile to your face as well. In a little book I cherish, George Bernard Shaw on Women, G.B.S. takes on the economics of marriage in a correspondence with his cousin Georgina who writes to her aged relation to ask him for money for a trousseau. She’s pretty but rather clueless, and he takes her to task for not being precise about her request. How much money does she want? What will she be using it for exactly? (He recommends spending it on undergarments which last longer than fashion). What does her fiancé do for a living?  Is he a millionaire or a pauper? “You are not taking this seriously enough,” G.B.S. writes.  “Nobody is going to throw a £100 note to a young woman whom who has never had to handle such sums…”   

Finally after getting his cousin to create a budget, (£65 for clothes, £5 for a trunk, £10 for odds and end and pocket money, £10 for the wedding breakfast) he offers to give her £100 as a wedding present with the proviso that she is to open up a bank account “to keep it open for the rest of your life—a separate account in your own name.”  Can you imagine how every woman’s life would be different and how the trajectory of our journey would have altered if we had been given this loving advice instead of having to learn it the hard way?

Perhaps because Shaw grew up in poor circumstances (his father was such a “drunkard”, which prompted G.B.S. to be a lifelong  teetotaler) from an early age he was distressed for his mother’s and sisters’ welfare. The theme of women, money and self-respect and self-reliance runs as a deep vein of gold throughout his work.  From the play Pygmalion’s heroine, Eliza Doolittle (which went on to become My Fair Lady) accepting the challenge of Professor Higgins to transform her from an urchin into a Lady (“The only difference between a Duchess and a flower girl is how she’s treated.”) to Mrs. Warren’s Profession, written in 1894, the importance of a woman handling her own money is dominant and a woman's financial independence is paramount.  There can be no equality until there is freedom from want.

  George Bernard Shaw, seated, speaks to actors on a visit to Elstree studios, where he watched the filming of his play How He Lied To Her Husband in October 1930.

George Bernard Shaw, seated, speaks to actors on a visit to Elstree studios, where he watched the filming of his play How He Lied To Her Husband in October 1930.

In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, we meet a Cambridge University educated young woman, Vivie Warren, who has just graduated with an honours in mathematics and is eager to begin her career in finance. Full of storm, thunder and of strong opinions, Vivie has been raised in English boarding schools and has an awkward relationship with her mother who is virtually a stranger; she really doesn’t know the source of her mother’s wealth or even the name of her own father.  What is the profession of “Mrs. Warren” (a protective alias) which has permitted her daughter to become part of “good society” thus enabling her to marry into the British upper and ruling class?                                                                                                                                        
Well, you don’t have to take a very big leap to guess that Vivie doesn’t know what her mother does for a living, because her mother doesn’t want her to find out that she was once a “lady of light virtue”, who is now a Madam.  “I was a good mother,” declares Mrs. Kitty Warren, “and because I made my daughter a good woman she turns me out as if I were a leper.” When Mrs. Warren defends her choice to become a high class escort and then a Madam, in order to give her daughter a good life and proper education instead of enduring a life of poverty and drudgery, Vivie accepts her mother’s history and even begrudgingly begins to appreciate the sacrifices her mother made for her. But after the shock of this revelation, mother and daughter are tested to extremes when Vivie discovers that Kitty, now a successful wealthy woman of substance, owns a string of high class brothels from Brussels to Vienna.  Her mother is rich and Vivie recoils in horror at the thought that she runs brothels instead of bakeries and wants nothing more to do with her.                                                   
If ever there was an iconic play that was of its time and ours, it’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, but a century ago just the whiff of this play caused a scandal on both sides of the Atlantic. It took Shaw eight years to get it produced and when it was finally performed in New York in 1902, the actors were arrested for indecency. Shaw knew how controversial his play would be—he wanted to take the righteous hypocrites on and demonstrate that the “oldest profession” for women was out of economic necessity, just as prizefighting was for men who had no choice but to have their heads beaten in by crooked boxing matches to feed their families.

I’ve always found dramatic literary heroines to be my first line of instruction and defense and the women of George Bernard Shaw, “all-together are a superior species.”  If you don’t know the women of George Bernard Shaw, there are videos of all his plays (which have also been made into movies).  What a treat it will be to keep company with Eliza, Kitty, Joan, Major Barbara,  Candida, or Epifania from The Millionairess, (the richest woman in the world) who gives each potential suitor six months to transform £150 into £50,000 before she’ll consider having a glass of champagne with them.  So let this unorthodox economics tutoring begin. Some of the best financial advice I’ve ever received is from literary mentors.  "You can be a romantic as your please about love," G.B.S. cautions us, "But you mustn't be romantic about money."

  Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend, later Mrs George Bernard Shaw. Painting by Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1895

Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend, later Mrs George Bernard Shaw. Painting by Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1895

One last thought (or the beginning of many more!) George Bernard Shaw took great delight in the fact that he had no access to the personal fortune of his real-life “green eyed millionairess,” his wife, Charlotte Payne-Townsend. He once commented to a British Inland Revenue tax official that he could only guess at his wife’s wealth.  “Her property is a separate property.  She keeps it at separate banking account at a separate bank.  Her solicitor is not my solicitor…I have no more knowledge of her income than I do of yours.”  They were happily married for nearly forty-five years and at his own death in 1950, G.B.S. requested that their ashes be mingled and scattered together.

Imagine for a moment that you received a letter that declared, "You are my inspiration and my folly. You are my light across the sea, my million nameless joys, and my day's wage. You are my divinity, my madness, my selfishness, my transfiguration and purification. You are my rapscallionly fellow vagabond, my tempter and star. I want you." Perhaps now you can understand why there are simply some men that I shall never give up, and neither should you, Babe. 

Sending dearest love and blessings on your courage as you journey towards peace and plenty,

XO SBB


PS - For those of you charmed by Shaw and his thoroughly modern views on women and money--there are more tales where that came from!  Some of which will be covered in my new webinar, Women & Money: A Peace and Plenty Webinar of Comfort and Well-Being, which kicks off February 22nd. If you want to join me for frank and spiritual conversations on money, you can learn more and sign up on our classes page, or by clicking here