Bernard Shaw's mysterious Valentine revealed by Welwyn Hatfield research

PUBLISHED: 13:50 15 February 2017 | UPDATED: 14:17 15 February 2017

Reproduced courtesy of British Library Board MS 50563.

Reproduced courtesy of British Library Board MS 50563.

Archant

A historian working in Welwyn Hatfield has unearthed a beautiful Valentine's Day card sent to the great writer George Bernard Shaw and identified the lovelorn but anonymous sender.

May Morris, Henry Halliday Sparling,  Emery Walker, Bernard Shaw.  Hammersmith Terrace, London, 3 February 1889. (Glass plate negative, Shaw’s Corner Collection).   Left to Right: May Morris, Henry Halliday Sparling,  Emery Walker, Bernard Shaw.  Hammersmith Terrace, London,  February  3, 1889. (Glass plate negative, Shaw'’s Corner Collection). Reproduced with kind permission of The National Trust, and The Society of Authors on behalf of the Bernard Shaw Estate.May Morris, Henry Halliday Sparling, Emery Walker, Bernard Shaw. Hammersmith Terrace, London, 3 February 1889. (Glass plate negative, Shaw’s Corner Collection). Left to Right: May Morris, Henry Halliday Sparling, Emery Walker, Bernard Shaw. Hammersmith Terrace, London, February 3, 1889. (Glass plate negative, Shaw'’s Corner Collection). Reproduced with kind permission of The National Trust, and The Society of Authors on behalf of the Bernard Shaw Estate.

Working on a University of Hertfordshire PhD over the last three years, Alice McEwan has been studying the collection of artefacts at Shaw’s Corner, Ayot St Lawrence, where the playwright lived from 1906 until his death in 1950.

The hand-painted card, featuring a flirtatious 14-line poem, a pre-Raphaelite-style painting and the writer’s head in profile, was received by Shaw on February 14, 1886, and recorded in his diary.

Ms McEwan, who found it in Shaw’s papers at the British Library, realised it had been sent by May Morris, daughter of the famous textile designer William Morris.

She was 24 at the time, five years younger than Shaw, a good friend of her father through artistic and left-wing circles.

Ms McEwan told the Welwyn Hatfield Times: “I have no doubt she was deeply in love with Shaw, and hoped to marry him.”

Shaw knew the card was from May, and admired her artistic embroidery, but as he had not yet achieved literary success, he could not afford to marry.

Furthermore, he was already involved with a much older woman.

Ms McEwan believes his failure to respond to May’s advances inspired her engagement just two months later to Henry Sparling, secretary of the Socialist League.

They married in 1890, but bizarrely, Shaw, who had been living with his mother, moved into their home in Hammersmith for the winter of 1892/3.

May and Henry Sparling divorced in 1894, but her love for Shaw was undimmed.

However, he married a wealthy Irish heiress in 1898, when his plays had become very successful.

In 1936, Shaw wrote a preface to May’s book about her father, referring to a “mystic betrothal” between them.

A copy survives at Shaw’s Corner, inscribed: “To G. Bernard Shaw. Affectionate remembrances from May Morris, 1 July, 1936”.

The Valentine’s Day card has been authenticated by Jan Marsh, the leading expert on May Morris, and will be shown in an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow in October.

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