Letter to Beatrice Webb

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Letter to Beatrice Webb  (1898) 
by George Bernard Shaw
1898

Pitfold. Haslemere
21st June 1898

   All manner of extraordinary events have happened to me in consequence of your departure. After you left, there was nothing to take me out of town or away from my work. Adelphi Terrace was closed by the visit [of Charlotte] to Rome. I simply worked straight on end at all times & all hours, and gave up half my eating because I got no change or exercise to give me an appetite, & large meals disturbed my digestion without one. However, I got the book finally off my hands, gave the Saturday notice to quit, & generally prepared myself for a better life later on. If I had gone away at Easter, I should have saved the situation; but I had nowhere to go and nobody to go to; and the theatres were very exacting; so I ventured to let the opportunity slip. By this time I was in an almost superhuman condition—fleshless, bloodless, vaporous, ethereal, and stupendous in literary efficiency. Then the bolt fell. I rode out one night to Ealing & back on the bike; and when I returned, my left foot was like this: Shawfootl.gif Even then I had it all but cured with simple hot water fomentation when the Vestry Election caught me & induced me to walk to a meeting & back. That settled it. The thing became an abscess, and after a few more days of fomenting, I had to deliver myself over to the knife & the ether bag. One of my ancient flames acted as nurse & her husband operated. The anaesthetist was in the last agonies of influenza; but he managed to perform his function without inconveniencing me: I wasnt sick afterwards, only rather drunk, in which condition, when the anaesthetist had gone home to bed, & the surgeon had left the room to talk to my mother, I pretended to be delirious and raved all sorts of love to, the nurse, who was deeply affected.

   The surgeon did not trouble himself in the least about my etherized philanderings, but kicked up a tremendous row about my health. He said I was killing myself. When he cut into the foot he not only found no blood—"only some wretched sort of ichor" he said—but the bone was necrosed. He swore it was tubercular caries; drew up a dietary of the most butcherly kind; and told me flatly that I had to choose between it & death.

   As it. happened, somebody before the operation suggested the possibility of my dying under the anesthetic, and I then found that the prospect was not in the least disagree able to me—rather too tempting to be dwelt on, if anything. I backed vegetarianism to the extent of my life without a moment's hesitation. It did well enough too: I soon began to pull myself together. Sharpe (the doctor) no doubt took the case by the ordinary standard of breakdown deferred to the utmost point by the abuse of stimulants, whereas it was really a perfectly simple case of exhaustion & starvation (of fresh air & rest as much as food). But matters were left in a detestable way. Sharpe had not been prepared for a necrosis operation; and though he scraped away the bad bit of bone as well as he could, there is still a bit that will not heal & that must some day exfoliate and come away. Meanwhile the hole in my foot has to be packed afresh every day with iodoform gauze & treated constantly with boracic fomentations.

   Meanwhile Charlotte had returned from Rome & was on the scene. It was now plain that I must go away to the country the moment I could be moved, & that somebody must seriously take in hand the job of looking after me. Equally plain, of course, that Charlotte was the inevitable & predestined agent appointed by Destiny. To have let her do this in any other character than that of my wife would (in the absence of your chaperonage) have involved our whole circle and its interests in a senseless scandal. You may wonder why I did not find that out long ago, instead of exploiting the chaperonage with complete selfishness. I can only say that I dont know—that the situation was changed by a change in my own consciousness. I found that my objection to my own marriage had ceased with my objection to my own death. This was the main change: there were of course many other considerations which we shall probably discuss at some future time. Possibly one of them was that the relation between us had never until then completely lost its inevitable preliminary character of a love affair. She had at last got beyond that corrupt personal interest in me, just as "The Devil's Disciple" had relieved me of the appearance of a pecuniary interest (more than was reasonable) in her. The thing being cleared thus of all such illusions as love interest, happiness interest, & all the rest of the vulgarities of marriage, I changed right about face on the subject and hopped down to the Registrar, who married me to her on one leg, after beginning the ceremony with [Graham] Wallas, who had a new coat on.

   The papers noticed the event as eagerly as the death of Gladstone. Mrs Chumly (I forget the full length spelling) wrote to Charlotte, "Do not ask me to meet This Man. And as a last kindness to me, & for my sake, I ask you to secure your money."

   At last, after much nursing, we secured this house, on the south slope of Hindhead, until October. I came down on crutches. The air was so fine that our troubles seemed to be over, but they had only just begun. The moment I began to get strong, I recklessly returned to work on a Quintessence, of Wagner which I had begun earlier; and in a few days I was at it as savagely as ever. Sharpe wrote vehemently commanding me not to tempt the gods. Before his letter arrived I found out, after dictating Wagner criticism one morning for half an hour, that I was myself conscious that all the strain was on again. I called a halt, and went upstairs on the crutches (a foolish feat) to get something from my bedroom. Coming down again, the crutches got planted behind my centre of gravity & shot me into the air. I snatched at a bannister on the landing above, and caught it in my right hand; but it snapped like an Argoed tree; and I was precipitated fifty fathom or thereabout into the hall, with my left arm doubled up in ruin under me—like this:Shawarml.gif

   Imagine poor Charlotte's feelings! She got a pair of butter pats & made splints of them. The local doctor, who did not come for half an hour, during which I lay in the hall with all the strain gone, perfectly relieved and happy, was fortunately a capable man; and the setting was a success. But fancy my condition now (this happened four days ago[)]. I am helpless—a nurse (disciple of Honnor Morten) has to wash and dress and all but feed me. I have a wheeled chair, which I cannot wheel, since when worked with one hand only, it simply spins round & round. Heaven knows what will happen to Charlotte when the anxiety about me is over. Last night a cat, shut up accidentally in the pantry, simulated a burglar so successfully that I sallied out, walking recklessly on the bad foot, at three in the morning, & thereby did myself as much harm as possible. I no longer feel any confidence in my ultimate recovery: it seems certain to me that I shall presently break all my other limbs as well.

   I am sitting in my wheeled chair on the lawn, looking over the hills through a gap in the trees to a bit of .heather which reminds me of the Argoed, and of all my previous honeymoons, with respect to which I may now, as a correctly married man, speak to you, dear Beatrice, with frank sentiment. Not until you left me a widower was I driven to be unfaithful to your fireside.
G. Bernard Shaw

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).