Friday, November 30th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: A Paper Courtship

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Ellen Terry as Lady Cicely Waynflete from Shaw’s Captain Brassbound's Conversion: cabinet photograph, ca. 1906. MS Thr 731 (7)In a noticeably hurried hand, George Bernard Shaw dashed off a letter to famed actress Ellen Terry. He was sending along the last proofs of his play Mrs. Warren’s Profession for her opinion. “The post is just going,” he wrote, “and there is no further communication with this place for 48 hours.” Having had time to fill only half the page when he was in the habit of using every scrap within reach, Shaw hastily drew a rectangle in the blank space below and wrote inside it, “Fill up all this with my LOVE. G. B. S.”

George Bernard Shaw, letter to Dame Ellen Terry, 7 Aug 1897. Autograph File

Shaw and Terry’s thirty-year correspondence is full of these reckless declarations of devotion which so scandalized and captivated the public upon their publication in 1931. This one unpublished letter is peculiar for its brevity when set alongside letters from the same period, when the volley had reached its feverish pitch before tailing off. Two months earlier Shaw had spared no extravagance. His secret thoughts he flung down on the page with rapturous spontaneity, without contrivance, without dissimulation—or so he would have us believe:

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. . . . 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 ever you did) O my Ellenest—love me hard, love me soft, and deep, and sweet, and for ever and ever and ever. (Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence, 1931)

Shaw maintained in the preface which he supplied for the volume that theirs was a love affair in all but the technical sense. It was strictly “a paper courtship,” though they lived scarcely twenty minutes apart. A long and intimate exchange could not have been sustained between people who met in person, he said. And by his account the two never saw one another, except across the footlights, until Terry rehearsed as Lady Cicely Waynflete in Shaw’s own Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, some 14 years after their correspondence began.

Ellen Terry as Lady Cicely Waynflete from Shaw’s Captain Brassbound's Conversion: cabinet photograph, ca. 1906. MS Thr 731 (7)

Shaw exulted in writing ascendant roles, even entire plays, for the women he courted, perhaps as favors or as a way of keeping them in his sights. (See the May 25th post in this series on Shaw’s attachment to Mrs. Patrick Campbell.) When in 1913, Terry, then 66, turned to Shaw for help securing minor work, Shaw replied dismayed:

What am I to do or say? It’s as if Queen Alexandra came to me and asked me to get her a place as cook-housekeeper, except that I’m not in love with Queen Alexandra. . . . A tiny yacht may throw its mast overboard and end its days quietly and serviceably as a ferry boat; but a battleship cant do that; and you are a battleship.

Shaw waxed on for a few paragraphs more before bidding adieu: “Let us tie ourselves together—close—and give some respectable boatman our last shilling to row us out and drop us into the sea.”

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 Dale Stinchcomb, Harvard Theatre Collection Curatorial Assistant, for contributing this post.]

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