Sweet Fabian Jesus, was Shaw ever unbearable when he wrote An Unsocial Socialist! It is from his early(ish) years (1884), I grant him, and in his preface he draws a line between himself as young novel writer and the older playwright and man of political experience. I try not to confuse authors with characters, especially whey they are attempting a vaguely humourous novel. Trefusis may well be something of a caricature. Still, the heavily expository nature of this novel seems to indicate that in the main these are essentially Shaw’s views on Socialism, the position of wealth, the workings of class and most abysmally, the nature of women.
I hate it when wit, satire and misogyny get confused.
Trefusis has more public school arrogance than what he mocks in others, a great desire to constantly hear his own voice, and the emotional reach of a twig. Small wonder the Fabians didn’t get far with the working classes. That said, he was right (and occasionally witty) on a number of points.
At Cambridge they taught me that his profits were the reward of abstinence…Then came the question: what did my father abstain from? The workmen abstained from meat, drink, fresh air, good clothes, decent lodging, holidays, money, the society of their families and pretty nearly everything that makes life worth living, which was perhaps the reason why they usually died twenty years or so sooner than people in my circumstances. Yet no one rewarded them for their abstinence. The reward came to my father, who abstained from none of these things, but indulged in them all to his heart’s content (94).
Pages 272-273 contain as good an account of globalisation and the move of industry to countries of cheaper labour as any written today, though he believed the workers would follow the jobs. He writes:
As the British factories are shut up, they will be replaced by villas; the manufacturing districts will become fashionable resorts for capitalists living on the interest of foreign investments… (273)
It did take a while for this to happen, but I got a little chill reading that.
On the other hand, had I written down every grating insult to women phrased as wit contained in these pages, this post would have been as long as the book. I don’t know why these two in particular called me to mark them as I feel sure there was worse, but still:
But we Socialists need to study the romantic side of our movement to interest women in it. If you want to make a cause grow, instruct every woman you meet in it. She is or will one day be a wife, and will contradict her husband with scraps of your arguments. A squabble will follow. The son will listen, and will be set thinking if he be capable of thought. And so the mind of the people gets leavened. I have converted many young women. Most of them know no more of the economic theory of Socialism than they know of Chaldee; but they no longer fear or condemn its name (283).
On reflection, the quote below might just have been the most infuriating. I hadn’t wanted to punch an author in the stomach this much since reading Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but that feeling started up from the very beginning when he abandons his wife and commences flirting with several 17-year old school girls.
Yes; you sometimes have to answer a woman according to her womanishness, just as you have to answer a fool according to his folly (333).
Socialist women certainly had their work cut out for them in fighting for respect, a place and a voice in this movement. It makes the efforts of those like Maud Pember Reeves and the Fabian women’s group all the more impressive, and I now blame Shaw and his ilk entirely for their steadfast seriousness and abandonment of any kind of ‘femininity’ as they battled to overturn the image of flighty, emotional society women incapable of serious thought presented here. What a waste of women’s effort.
The geographies of this? From a countryside finishing school to London houses in Belsize Park and St John’s Wood and back out to a baron’s country house…far from the London I know and love.