Friday, May 25th, 2012...9:46 am

You’ve Got Mail: “If you can read this … you can read me.”

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MS Thr 372.1 (28) Date added in Shaw's hand.

And now I’ll tell you a [   ] secret secrets, wrote Mrs. Patrick Campbell, scribbling in dull pencil to George Bernard Shaw on December 9, 1912, some months after her wickedly coquettish reply to the offer that she play Eliza in his Pygmalion.  That the part of Eliza Doolittle, Cockney flower girl, was crafted by Shaw specifically for Campbell to play (she, a socialite in her late forties) gives some indication of the needlingly flirtatious relationship between them.  This complicated charm of their friendship is nicely revealed in the letter she continued to dash off that night.

I know as much about Blake as would fill a thimble – she continued, divulging her “secret.” &I know six little pieces by heart for the piano &if you heard me play one of them you’d box my ears—

Campbell as Eliza on the cover of a Pygmalion playbill, 1913

All of which may have been true (she had almost unrecognizably mangled two lines of “beloved Blake” in her letter the previous day and he, certainly, had at least threatened to box her ears roundly, one time or another).  Perhaps her opening was mostly intended to play on Shaw’s seemingly irrepressible urge to instruct and correct, offering him an opportunity to expound on Blake, her talents, or both.

Surely, she was directly fishing for compliments, which Shaw could (and did) administer lavishly, when she continued, oh dear— Lena Ashwell—Gertie Kingston—E[lizabeth] Robins how can I compete with these women?

Shaw’s well-known penchant for flirtatious friendships with leading ladies of the day hit on something particular with Mrs. Patrick though; she seemed not to be just another in the line of ladies whose relationships with Shaw led to the need of “Shaw, Bernard, 1856-1950–Relations with women” as a Library of Congress subject heading.  Even the patience of Shaw’s Fabian socialist suffragette wife, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, was sorely tried by their clandestine meetings and streams of letters back and forth.

W. A. Dwiggins marionette of Shaw, MS Thr 715

 & even if Charlotte does think I am a lunatic she might have let you bring a card for her oh of course you don’t leave cards —- oh dear…  – Your wife will never like me –

The pain Shaw’s relationship with Campbell caused Charlotte prevented him from permitting Mrs. Patrick, destitute in her later life, from publishing their correspondence in full.  In their letters Charlotte was a minor weapon wielded, a stab of reality that would dart in and then be pulled back from the fantasy spun of their proto-power-coupledom as “Mrs. P.C. and Mr. Bernard Shaw” out together in the world.

I wish I was dining with you at the Ritz tonight both of us 21!  & you in evening dress +I looking lovely too!  oh no, I mean I wish it was a wet night in the park & you were speaking + I was giving away pamphlets &leading the applause

In these competing visions, Campbell offers a wistful brush of the fantasy that held them privately: the consuming romance of youth at an elegant candlelit dinner, the burst of pride in a partner performing well.  At the same time, the inextricable public-ness of these two together both intrudes and heightens: dressed to the nines and catching eyes at the Ritz, commanding the crowds at a socialist rally.

MS Thr 372.1 (28)

—if you can read this scribble you can read me.

 Mrs. Patrick closed.  He could, through the scribbles and beyond.

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Emilie Hardman, Metadata and Reference Assistant, for contributing this post.]

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