George Bernard Shaw vs. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

 

Below is a series of “Letters to the Editor,” written by George Bernard Shaw and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which were published in the "Daily News and Leader" in May 1912.  I came across this correspondence in a biography called "Conan Doyle," by Hesketh Pearson, 1997.  Any mistakes in the typing or phrasing of what follows are entirely mine.

 

 

This touches on the Californian incident only tangentially.   The first letter, from G.B Shaw, appeared in print on the same day that the British investigators heard the Californian testimony, so whatever Shaw knew most likely came from accounts from coverage of the U.S. hearings, or perhaps from speculation in the local papers.  However, by the time of his second letter to the Press, Shaw and England have been made much more aware of the Californian’s involvement, and Shaw refers to both that and the Duff Gordon episode in his follow-up.  Personally, I would not categorize what follows as great literature, but it is a matter of historical interest to see what some of the greatest writers and philosophers of the day had to say about the Titanic disaster.  I have kept the actual text of the letters in quotes, with some occasional remarks of my own in separate paragraphs.

 

 

To provide the context for Shaw's outburst, it is May 14th - a month to the day after the Titanic disaster.  The facts of the case are just now being brought out by Mersey's Inquiry.  The US Inquiry has finished a week or two before, although its final report remains to be published.  Much of the British press has been using the interim to ridicule Senator Smith and to defend British seamanship, which has taken a beating in the US.  Bruce Ismay was given what some thought amounted to a hero's welcome on his return to England, with a crowd of well-wishers greeting his arrival at the dock.  Captain Smith has been canonized by the press, going down with either a self-inflicted bullet in the head, a cry of "Be British, boys!" or any number of similarly dramatic endings.  The American millionaires, to a man, stood aside to allow the women and children to be saved, and the ship's officers have unfailingly maintained discipline and perfect order to the end.  All this has been duly reported in the Press, long before any official government inquiry has begun...  the witnesses having been detained in America.

 

 

But by May 14, the Mersey Inquiry has met for seven days, and piece by piece a detailed - and more accurate - picture of the disaster is slowly being put before the public's eyes.  Among the revelations are the actual statistics by gender and class of the saved vs. the lost; two-thirds of steerage children drowned; the lack of binoculars for the lookouts; the high rate of speed; the warnings of ice ahead; foreigners attempting to rush boat 14; the refusal of lifeboats to return to pick up swimmers in the water.  Joseph Scarrot has told of hundreds of corpses in the water amid masses of wreckage: his was the only lifeboat to go back and help.

 

 

The exchange between Shaw and Doyle begins with a letter to the editor of the "Daily News and Leader" from George Bernard Shaw:

 

 

First Letter: GB SHAW

 

 

May 14th

 

SOME UNMENTIONED MORALS

 

Why is it that the effect of a sensational catastrophe on a modern nation is to cast it into transports, not of weeping, not of prayer, not of sympathy with the bereaved nor congratulation of the rescued, not of poetic expression of the soul purified by pity and terror, but of a wild defiance of inexorable Fate and undeniable Fact by an explosion of outrageous romantic lying?

 

 

What is the first demand of romance in a shipwreck?  It is the cry of Women and Children First.  No male creature is to step into a boat as long as there is a woman or child on the doomed ship.  How the boat is to be navigated and rowed by babies and women occupied in holding the babies is not mentioned.  The likelihood that no sensible woman would trust either herself or her child in a boat unless there was a considerable percentage of men on board is not considered.  Women and Children First: that is the romantic formula.  And never did the chorus of solemn delight at the strict observance of this formula by the British heroes on board the Titanic rise to more sublime strains than in the papers containing the first account of the wreck by a surviving eye-witness, Lady Duff Gordon.  She described how she escaped in the captain's boat.  There was one other woman in it, and ten men: twelve all told.  One woman for every five men.  Chorus: "Not once or twice in our rough island history," etc. etc.

 

 

Second romantic demand.  Though all the men must be heroes (except the foreigners, who must all be shot by stern British officers in attempting to rush the boats over the bodies of the women and children), the Captain must be a superhero, a magnificent seaman, cool, brave, delighting in death and danger, and a living guarantee that the wreck was nobody's fault, but, on the contrary, a triumph of British navigation.

 

 

Such a man Captain Smith was enthusiastically proclaimed on the day when it was reported (and actually believed, apparently) that he had shot himself on the bridge, or shot the first officer, or been shot by the first officer, or shot anyhow, to bring the curtain down effectively.  Writers who had never heard of Captain Smith to that hour wrote of him as they would hardly write of Nelson.  The one thing positively known was that Captain Smith had lost his ship by deliberately and knowingly steaming into an icefield at the highest speed he had coal for.  He paid the penalty; so did most of those for whose lives he was responsible.  Had he brought them and the ship safely to land, nobody would have taken the smallest notice of him.

 

 

Third romantic demand.  The officers must be calm, proud, steady, unmoved in the intervals of shooting the terrified foreigners.  The verdict that they had surpassed all expectations was unanimous.  The actual evidence was that Mr. Ismay was told by the officer of his boat to go to hell.  Boats which were not full refused to go to the rescue of those who were struggling in the water in cork jackets.  Reason frankly given:  they were afraid.  That fear was as natural as the officer's language to Mr. Ismay: who of us at home dare blame them or feel sure that we should have been any cooler or braver?

 

 

But is it necessary to assure the world that only Englishmen could have behaved so heroically, and to compare their conduct with the hypothetical dastardliness which lascars or Italians or foreigners generally - say Nansen or Amundsen or the Duke of Abruzzi - would have shown in the same circumstances?

 

 

Fourth romantic demand.  Everybody must face death without a tremor; and the band, according to the Birkenhead precedent, must play "Nearer, my God, to Thee" as an accompaniment to the invitation to Mr. Ismay to go to hell.  It was duly proclaimed that it fell out exactly thus.  Actual evidence: the Captain and officers were so afraid of a panic, that, although they knew the ship was sinking, they did not dare to tell the passengers so - especially the third class passengers - and the band played Rag Times to reassure the passengers, who therefore, did not get into the boats and did not realize their situation until all the boats were gone and the ship was standing on her head before plunging to the bottom.  What happened then Lady Duff Gordon has related, and the witnesses of the American inquiry could hardly bear to relate.

 

 

I ask, what is the use of all this ghastly, blasphemous, inhuman, braggartly lying?  Here is a calamity which might well make the proudest man humble, and the wildest joker serious.  It makes us vainglorious, insolent and mendacious.  At all events, that is what our journalists assumed.  Were they right or wrong?  Did the press represent the public?  I am afraid it did.  Churchmen and statesmen took much the same tone.  The effect on me was one of profound disgust, almost of national dishonor.  Am I mad?  Possibly.  At all events, that is how I felt and how I feel about it.  It seems to me that when deeply moved, men should speak the truth.  The English nation appears to take precisely the contrary view.  Again I am in the minority.  What will be the end of it?  for England, I mean.  Suppose we came into conflict with a race that had the courage to look facts in the face and the wisdom to know itself for what it was.  Fortunately for us, no such race is in sight.  Our wretched consolation must be that any other nation would have behaved just as absurdly."

 

 

 (Note, the Duff Gordons have not yet returned from America, so their story is based on newspaper accounts.  The Californian's role has not yet been brought to light, either.) On May 15th - the day after Shaw's piece - a Harold Spender defended the English race by describing Shaw as "Mephistopheles," and then wrote:

 

 

"Put aside all the stories of false pathos and ignoble action,

and there still remains a star!

Throw out all the dross into the slag-heap, and there still emerges

a nugget of shining ore!"

 

 

On May 16th, reader R.B. Cunninghame Graham wrote to agree with Bernard Shaw, calling Spender's letter unfair.  Four days later, on May 20th, Conan Doyle's protesting letter appeared.

 

 

Following is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's reply in the "Daily News and Leader:"

 

 

Second Letter: Sir AC DOYLE

 

 

 

 

May 20th

 

"Sir -

 

I have just been reading the article by Mr. Bernard Shaw upon the loss of the Titanic, which appeared in your issue of May 14th.  It is written professedly in the interests of truth, and accuses everyone around him of lying.  Yet I can never remember any production which contained so much that was false within the same compass.  How a man could write with such looseness and levity of such an event at such a time passes all comprehension.  Let us take a few of the points.  Mr. Shaw wishes - in order to support his perverse thesis, that there was no heroism - to quote figures to show that the women were not given priority in escape.  He picks out therefore, one single boat, the smallest of all, which was launched and directed under peculiar circumstances, which are now matter for inquiry.  Because there were ten men and two women in this boat, therefore, there was no heroism or chivalry, and all talk about it is affectation.  Yet Mr. Shaw knows as well as I know that if he had taken the very next boat he would have been obliged to admit that there were 65 women out of 70 occupants, and that in nearly all the boats navigation was made difficult by the want of men to do the rowing.  Therefore, in order to give a false impression, he has deliberately singled out one boat; although he could not but be aware that it entirely misrepresented the general situation.  Is this decent controversy, and has the writer any cause to accuse his contemporaries of misstatement?

 

 

His next paragraph is devoted to the attempt to besmirch the conduct of Captain Smith.  He does it by his favorite method of "Suggestio falsi" - the false suggestion being that the sympathy shown by the public for Capt. Smith took the shape of condoning Capt. Smith's navigation.  Now everyone - including Mr. Bernard Shaw - knows perfectly well that no defense has ever been made of the risk which was run, and that the sympathy was at the spectacle of an old and honored sailor who has made one terrible mistake, and who deliberately gave his life in reparation, discarding his lifebelt, working to the last for those whom he had unwillingly injured, and finally swimming with a child to a boat into which he himself refused to enter.  This is the fact, and Mr. Shaw's assertion that the wreck was hailed as a "triumph of British navigation" only shows - what surely needed no showing - that a phrase stands for more than truth with Mr. Shaw.  The same remark applies to his "wrote of him as they would hardly write of Nelson."  If Mr. Shaw will show me the work of any responsible journalist in which Capt. Smith is written of in terms of Nelson, I will gladly send 100 pounds to the Fabian Society.

 

 

Mr. Shaw's next suggestion - all the more poisonous because it is not put into so many words - is that the officers did not do their duty.  If his vague words mean anything, they can only mean this.  He quotes as if it were a crime the words of Lowe to Mr. Ismay when he interfered with his boat.  I could not imagine a finer example of an officer doing his duty than that a subordinate should dare to speak thus to the managing director of the Line when he thought he was impeding his life-saving work.  The sixth officer went down with the Captain, so I presume that even Mr. Shaw could not ask him to do more.  Of the other officers I have never heard or read any cause for criticism.  Mr. Shaw finds some cause for offense in the fact that one of them discharged his revolver in order to intimidate some foreign emigrants who threatened to rush the boats.  The fact and the assertion that these passengers were foreigners came from several eye-witnesses.  Does Mr. Shaw think it should have been suppressed?  If not, what is he scolding about?  Finally, Mr. Shaw tries to defile the beautiful incident of the band by alleging that it was the result of orders issued to avert panic.  But if it were, how does that detract either from the wisdom of the orders or from the heroism of the musicians?  It was right to avert panic, and it was wonderful that men could be found to do it in such a way.

 

 

As to the general accusation that the occasion has been used for the glorification of British qualities, we should indeed be a lost people if we did not honor courage and discipline when we see it in its highest form. That our sympathies extend beyond ourselves is shown by the fact that the conduct of the American male millionaires has been warmly eulogized as any single feature in the whole wonderful epic.  But surely it is a pitiful sight to see a man of undoubted genius using his gifts in order to misrepresent and decry his own people, regardless of the fact that his words must add to the grief of those who have already had more than enough to bear."

 

 

One comment before the next round.  Note Doyle's use of the phrase: "the whole wonderful epic."  What he does not realize is that he has just provided proof for Shaw's lament that his fellow Britishers are glorifying a horrific - and needless - tragedy.  As for the "beautiful incident of the band," it was about this time, mid-May, that Joseph Conrad, in a separate publication, offered his observation that it would have been much finer "if the band had been quietly saved rather than drowned, playing - whatever tune they were playing, poor devils.  There is nothing heroic about being drowned against your will..."

 

 

 

Third Letter: GB SHAW

 

 

"Sir -

 

I hope to persuade my friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, now that he has got his romantic and warm-hearted protest off his chest, to read my article again three or four times, and give you his second thoughts on the matter; for it really is not possible for any sane man to disagree with a single word that I have written.

 

 

I again submit that when news of a shipwreck arrives without particulars, and journalists immediately begin to invent particulars, they are lying.  It is nothing to the point that authentic news may arrive later on, and may confirm a scrap or two of their more obvious surmises.  The first narratives which reached us were those by an occupant of a boat in which there were ten men, two women, and plenty of room for more, and of an occupant of another boat which, like the first, refused to return to rescue the drowning because the people in it were avowedly afraid.  It was in the face of that information, and of that alone, that columns of raving about Women and Children First were published.  Sir Arthur says that I "picked out" these boats to prove my case.  Of course I did.  I wanted to prove my case.  They did prove it.  They do prove it.  My case is that our journalists wrote without the slightest regard to the facts; that they were actually more enthusiastic in their praise of the Titanic heroes on the day when the only evidence was of conduct for which a soldier would be shot and a Navy sailor hanged than when later news came in of those officers and crews who did their best; and that it must be evident to every reasonable man that if there had not been a redeeming feature in the whole case, exactly the same "hogwash" (as Mr. Cunninghame Graham calls it in his righteous disgust) would have been lavished on the veriest dastards as upon a crew of Grace Darlings.  The Captain positively lost popularity  when the deliberate and calumnious lie that he had shot himself was dropped.  May I ask what value real heroism has in a country which responds to these inept romances invented by a people who can produce nothing after all but stories of sensational cowardice?  Would Sir Arthur take a medal from the hands of the imbecile liars whom he is defending?

 

 

Sir Arthur accuses me of lying; and I must say that he gives me no great encouragement to tell the truth.  But he proceeds to tell, against himself, what I take to be the most thundering lie ever sent to a printer by a human author.  He first says that I "quoted as if it were a crime" the words used by an officer who told Mr. Ismay to go to hell.  I did not.  I said the outburst was very natural, though not in my opinion admirable or heroic.  If  I am wrong, then I may claim to be a hero myself; for it has occurred to me in trying circumstances to lose my head and temper and use the exact words attributed (by himself) to the officer in question.  But Sir Arthur goes on say: "I could not imagine a finer example of an officer doing his duty than that a subordinate should dare to speak thus to the managing director of the Line when he thought he was interfering with his life-saving work."  Yes you could, Sir Arthur, and many a page of heroic romance from your hand attests that you often have imagined finer examples.  Heroism has not quite come to that yet; nor has your imagination contracted or your brain softened to the bathos of seeing sublimity in a worried officer telling even a managing director (godlike being!) to go to hell.  I would not hear your enemy libel you so.  But now that you have chivalrously libeled yourself, don't lecture me for mindless mendacity; for you have captured the record in the amazing sentence I have just quoted.

 

 

I will not accept Sir Arthur's offer of 100 pounds to the Fabian Society for every hyper-Nelsonic eulogy of the late Captain Smith which stands in the newspapers of those first days to bear out my very moderate description of them.  I want to see the Fabian Society solvent, but not at the cost of utter destitution to a friend.  I should not have run the risk of adding to the distress of Captain Smith's family by adding one word to the facts that speak only too plainly for themselves if others had been equally considerate.  But if vociferous journalists will persist in glorifying the barrister whose clients are hanged, the physician whose patients die, the general who loses battles, and the captain whose ship goes to the bottom, such false coin must be nailed to the counter at any cost.  There have been British captains who have brought their ships safely through icefields by doing their plain duty and carrying out their instructions.  There have been British captains who have seen to it that their crews knew their boats and their places in their boats, and who, when it became necessary to take to those boats, have kept discipline in the face of death, and not lost one life that could have been saved.  And often enough nobody has said "Thank you" to them for it, because they have not done mischief enough to stir the emotions of our romantic journalists.  These are the men whom I admire and with whom I prefer to sail.

 

 

I do not wish to imply that I for a moment believe that the dead man actually uttered all the heartbreaking rubbish that has been put into his mouth by fools and liars; nor am I forgetting that a captain may not be able to make himself heard and felt everywhere in these huge floating (or sinking) hotels as he can in a cruiser, or rally a mob of waiters and dock laborers as he could a crew of trained seamen.  But no excuse, however good, can turn a failure into a success.  Sir Arthur cannot be ignorant of what would happen had the Titanic been a King's ship, or of what the court-martial would have said and done on the evidence of the last few days. Owing to the fact that a member of my family was engaged in the Atlantic service, and perhaps also that I happen to know by personal experience what it is like to be face to face with death in the sea, I know what the risk of ice means on a liner, and know also that there is no heroism in being drowned when you cannot help it.  The Captain of the Titanic did not, as Sir Arthur thinks, make "a terrible mistake."  He made no mistake.  He knew perfectly well that ice is the only risk that is considered deadly in his line of work, and, knowing it, he chanced it and lost the hazard.  Sentimental idiots, with a break in the voice, tell me that "he went down to the depths:"  I tell them, with the impatient contempt that they deserve, that so did the cat.  Heroism is extraordinarily fine conduct resulting from extraordinarily high character.  Extraordinary circumstances may call it forth and may heighten its dramatic effect by pity and terror, by death and destruction, by darkness and a waste of waters; but none of these accessories are heroism itself; and to pretend that they are is to debase its moral currency by substituting sensational misfortune for inspiring achievement.

 

 

I am no more insensible to the pity of the catastrophe than anyone else; but I have been driven by an intolerable provocation of disgusting and dishonorable nonsense to recall our journalists to their senses by saying bluntly that the occasion has been disgraced by a callous outburst of romantic lying.  To this I now wish to add that if, when I said this, I had read the evidence elicited by Lord Mersey's inquiry as to the Californian and the Titanic's emergency boat, I should probably have expressed myself much more strongly.  I refrain now only because the facts are defeating the hysterics without my help."

 

 

 

Below is Doyle's final reply to Shaw, and apparently the end of the exchange.  By now it was no longer possible to extract much sentiment or romance from the stories of the survivors, as the Inquiries had brought out the most gruesome facts on a daily basis, and were ready to hear from Bruce Ismay himself, before moving on to more technical matters.   Three days after Shaw's last reply,  Arthur Doyle closed the discussion with what dignity he could on May 25th:

 

 

Fourth Letter: Sir AC DOYLE

 

 

"Sir -

 

 

Without continuing a controversy which must be sterile, I would touch on only one point in Mr. Shaw's reply to my letter.  He says that I accused him of lying.  I have been guilty of no such breach of the amenities of the discussion.  The worst I think or say of Mr. Shaw is that his many brilliant gifts do not include the power of weighing evidence; nor has he that quality - call it good taste, humanity, or what you will - which prevents a man from needlessly hurting the feelings of others."

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

A final note:  in contrast to Doyle's assertion above that he was "guilty of no such breach" as accusing Shaw of lying, go back and re-examine his first letter (May 20th) , in which his exact words were that he "can never remember any production which contained so much that was false...."  

 

Sir Arthur’s biographer notes that the newspaper's readers also glossed over this point, because "99% of them would rather have been wrong with Conan Doyle than right with Bernard Shaw."