W.T. Stead by George Bernard Shaw

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W.T. Stead by George Bernard Shaw

Quoted in Frederick Whyte, The Life of W.T. Stead (London: Johnathan Cape, 1925) vol. I, pp. 304-6

Stead was impossible as a colleague: he had to work single-handed because he was incapable of keeping faith when excited; and as his hyperaesthesia was chronic he generally was excited. Nobody ever trusted him after the discovery that the case of Eliza Armstrong in the Maiden Tribute was a put-up job, and that he himself had put it up.

We all felt that if ever a man deserved six months’ imprisonment Stead deserved it for such a betrayal of our confidence in him. And it was always like that, though the other cases were not police cases. He meant well: all his indignations did him credit; but he was so stupendously ignorant that he never played the game. The truth is that he seldom knew that there was any game to play, and was delivered up to a complete infatuation with his own emotions which prevented him from noticing or remembering or even conceiving that other people were otherwise preoccupied. He had, as far as I could see, no general knowledge of art or history, philosophy or science, with which to co-ordinate his journalistic discoveries; and it was consequently impossible for cultured minds to get into any sort of effective contact with his except on the crudest common ground. This is the explanation of his ineffectiveness for anything wider and deeper than a journalistic stunt. He was so extraordinarily incapable of learning anything even from daily experience, that when he attempted to edit a new daily paper years after his retirement from the old Pall Mall, his secretary wrote to me as one of his old reviewing staff, and informed me that she proposed to send me a batch of books for review on the old terms (two guineas a thousand) precisely as if I were a young journalist still in my thirties. And he himself resumed his articles on Home Rule just where they had left off in the ‘eighties.

The daily paper fiasco disposed of Stead’s imaginary reputation as an editor. Nobody had been much surprised at the fact that, though in his Pall Mall days he had had Oscar Wilde and myself actually under his hand on his reviewing staff, with William Archer and others, yet, being unable to distinguish us from the office boy, he let us drift away to the real editors, Yates, Russell, Scott, Massingham, Frank Harris, and Garvin. But when it turned out that he could not even see the sun crossing the heavens and the moon waxing and waning, or buy a calendar later than 1885, the younger men in Fleet Street began to wonder, not merely who Stead was, but whether he had ever been a journalist. When you told them that his leading articles had once been read by statesmen as factors in political life with which they were bound to be acquainted, and that some of his stunts had been as successful as those of Swift and Voltaire, they simply did not believe you.

We never quarrelled; but he was of no use to me; I was smuggled on to the old Pall Mall by Archer, with Armstrong (not Eliza) and Henry (now Sir Henry) Norman , as his accomplices. Stead once induced me to support him at a public meeting at Queen’s Hall; and I attended accordingly, only to find that he did not know what a public meeting was (he thought it was just like a prayer meeting), or what public procedure was, or what a chairman was. Treating the assembly as his congregation and nothing else, he rose and said, “Let us utter one great Damn!” Then he burst into hysterical prayer; and I left. He had no suspicion that to invite Catholics, Jews, Agnostics, Hindoos (sic), and so forth to support him at a public meeting, and then treat them to a revivalist orgie (sic), was in any way indelicate or improper.

Though utterly impossible, Stead was not unamiable. One night he was crossing Westminster Bridge with John Burns, who had listened in grim silence to a long history of Julia. Burns stopped suddenly, and said with terrible impressiveness: “Stead, if I were a true friend to you I should chuck you over that parapet into the river.” That was the nearest anyone ever got to disliking him. Grant Richards, and all the young people who slaved for him secretarially, seemed devoted to him. The older people, who could do nothing with him, gave him up without bitterness. Within human limits there was no malice in him: he would let you down as he let Mrs. Emily Crawford down; but he did not stab nor sneer; he was not envious or jealous; and he was quite modest in himself if not in his missions; a conceited man would have been ashamed to have such a registered telegraphic address as “Vatican, London.” When he had committed some specially exasperating indiscretion or disloyalty to an unwritten understanding (mostly, I repeat, through ignorance of the unwritten law), the sufferers might swear at him for a week or two; but it was impossible to keep it up against him.

In a State like ours, where men can acquire social training and liberal culture only at the cost of acquiring class prejudices and incurring anti-social obligations, and losing moral courage and republican honesty in the process, it is hard to say that Stead’s deficiencies did not often serve as assets: but they certainly limited and frustrated him sufficiently to prevent him from realizing anything like his potential social value.