According to a famous story, Shaw was rumored to have said that the one writer better than Shakespeare was himself. Chesterton, who wrote a biography of Shaw in 1909, used this story as the starting point for what was perhaps an even more striking comparison: one between Shakespeare and Bunyan. The writer, Chesterton stated,
whom [Shaw said] was better than Shakespeare was not himself, but Bunyan. And he justified it by attributing to Bunyan a virile acceptance of life as a high and harsh adventure; while in Shakespeare he saw nothing but profligate pessimism, the vanitas vanitatum [or vanity of vanities] of a disappointed voluptuary. According to this view Shakespeare was always saying, ‘Out, out, brief candle,’ because his was only a ballroom candle; while Bunyan was seeking to light such a candle as by God’s grace should never be put out.
In reading this passage, the thought occurs that few tributes in literature are as fine as Chesterton’s tribute to Bunyan. When I first read it, I sat back in my desk chair for several moments to take it all in. I don’t know that I had ever come across an image imbued with such eloquence.
But my background research reading for a new book project was to yield another moving passage involving Bunyan, Shaw and Chesterton. I had read many of Chesterton’s reflections about Shaw, but had yet to read of any Shaw’s regarding Chesterton. And so, while happily prospecting in “Manchester-by-the Book”—a used bookstore in northern Massachusetts that is a favorite haunt (and its owner a good friend)—I purchased a biography of Shaw written in the 1950s.
It was when I returned home and began leafing through the references to Chesterton that I came across another moving story.
I learned that when G.K. Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, his widow Frances received a letter of condolence she deeply treasured. Shaw had famously been her husband’s opponent in several epic debates. They differed as widely in their world-views as they did in appearance: Shaw the rail-thin “heathen mystic,” and Chesterton, the portly champion of orthodoxy.
But Shaw had a “deep affection” for his departed friend which was warmly returned. He mourned Chesterton’s loss.
Shaw was mindful as well of a practical concern that might soon confront his widow. Chesterton had never been careful about money, and Shaw was worried that Frances’ grief might be compounded by the revelation of unexpected debt. He wasted no time in writing to her. “It seems the most ridiculous thing in the world,” he wrote on June 15, “that I, 18 years older than Gilbert, should be heartlessly surviving him. However, this is only to say that if you have any temporary bothers that I can remove, a line on a postcard (or three figures) will be sufficient.”
It was an act of great kindness—soon followed by a word of great tenderness. “The trumpets are sounding for him,” Shaw concluded his letter—a lovely allusion to The Pilgrim’s Progress and Christian’s entry into the Celestial City.
Frances Chesterton was profoundly moved by this—a final seal on Shaw’s unlikely but very genuine friendship with G.K.C. He did not share Chesterton’s hope of heaven, but something of that hope had a found a place in his heart. And this says a very great deal about how faith, wedded to a great heart, can be winsome and compelling—despite great differences in how people look at the world.
NOTE: Much of the information for this article was gleaned from St. John Irvine’s Bernard Shaw: His Life, Work and Friends, (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1956), p. 365. As for the citation about Shakespeare, Shaw and Bunyan, it can be found on pages 101-102 of Chesterton’s George Bernard Shaw, (New York: John Lane Company, 1909).