Friday, 5 February 2016

Erica Cotterill

Untitled Document

Rummaging through Camilla's bookshop in Eastbourne, and unearthed an interesting looking stream-of-consciousness novel, published anonymously in 1939. But it did have a curious quote by George Bernard Shaw on the cover,

“You have a talent which is more irresistible than Shelley's and Tolstoy's rolled together... You will be one of the greatest of English women writers, in fact one of the greatest of all English writers before you thirty-three”

Intrigued I tried to find out more about her - there's not a hell of a lot of info on her,

She was born in 1881, the only child of a revolutionary Victorian preparatory-school headmaster, whom she hated. For her education she turned to someone very different, her cousin Rupert Brooke, who taught her subjects beyond the school curriculum. He revealed the secret of sexual ethics and the mystery of aesthetic socialism. To complete her education he took her to Bernard Shaw’s plays.

She began writing to Shaw, signing herself “Miss Charmer”. Shaw described her first letter in 1905 as “the greatest nonsense” which she took for a Shavian compliment. Then Shaw began sending her tickets for his plays. This was good but not enough. She wanted to enter his world, be close to him, declare her need for love. She began driving up to his house on a motorbike and sleeping in the wood nearby, knocking at the door at all times of the day or night.

Michael Holroyd

So, she had unrequited love George Bernard Shaw, and was dtermined to become his lover...

Poor Erica Cotterill was allowed to entertain her hopes of conquest too long, but one doubts whether it was because Shaw was toying with her affections: he probably believed that by an application of common reason he could fill her head with something else besides passion. Shaw’s friendships were so disinterested as to be hardly recognizable as friendship. He lent money to acquaintances of good character but would never grant a loan to his friend Charles Charrington, whose bad character he would forgive but not abet. He supported Wells in the Fabian power struggle until the moment when Wells’s reckless indolence was proved, whereupon he destroyed him overnight. Shaw can appear callous only to the selectively compassionate — i.e. to nearly all of us. Most of us love unreasonably, tell half-truths and favour our friends. The world is like that — which is what I mean by saying Shaw was out of it. He was a moral genius.

. . .

I was too forgiving, of course, about Shaw’s behaviour vis-Ã-vis Erica Cotterill and his other female acolytes: he did toy with their affections. Sexual dysfunctionality, like power worship, is one of those things about Shaw that are best admitted outright, so as more quickly to face the problems posed by his overwhelming charm.

Clive James - from A Dinosaur at Sunset

Eventually Shaw’s wife sent her a strong letter (drafted by Shaw) forbidding her to come to the house again.

[11 October 1910]

My dear Miss Cotterill,

I think I had better write to you to explain exactly why I intentionally shewed you that I strongly disapproved of your presence in my house, and that I did not—and do not—intend that your visit should be repeated. You might easily think that I was merely annoyed by your coming at an inconsiderate & unusual hour—as indeed I was—or that I disliked you. That was not it at all. I should object to your coming at tea time just as much as I do not particularly dislike you. On the contrary, it is because you are in some ways rather fine and sensitive, so that it is very difficult to be unkind to you, that I am determined to put a stop at once and for ever to any personal intimacy between us.

The matter is a very simple one. You have made a declaration of your feelings to my husband; and you have followed that up by coming to live near us with the avowed object of gratifying those feelings by seeing as much as possible of him. If you were an older and more experienced woman I should characterize that in terms which would make any further acquaintance between us impossible. As you are young and entirely taken by your own feelings, I can only tell you that when a woman makes such a declaration to a married man, or a man to a married woman, there is an end of all honourable question of their meeting one another again—intentionally at least. You do not understand this, perhaps; but you will later on, when you are married and know what loyalty men owe one another in that very delicate and difficult relation. The present case is a specially difficult and dangerous one, for my husband is not a common man; if you become at all intimate with him he would become a necessity of life to you; and then the inevitable parting would cost you more suffering that it can now. I could not trust him to keep you at a distance: he is quite friendly and sympathetic with everybody, from dogs and cats to dukes and duchesses, and none of them can imagine that his universal friendliness is not a special regard for them. He has already allowed you to become far more attached to him than he should; and I do not intend to let you drift any further into an impossible situation.

If I must end by saying that this letter does not admit of any argument or reply, and that I do not mean it to lead to any correspondence between us, do not conclude that I am writing you in an unfriendly spirit. It would be no use to discuss the matter now; and later on, when you are married and as old as I am, it will not be necessary. Meanwhile believe that my decision is quite inevitable and irrevocable.

Yours sincerely,

Charlotte F. Shaw

Michael Holroyd

So then

She occupied herself in various ways from teaching cricket at a girls’ school to managing a farm in north Devon. Before the second world war she changed her name to Mrs Erica M. Saye and somehow adopted two boys. She produced several self-published books and a Shavian play (while GBS borrowed her character for two of his plays). Her single novel, “Form of Diary”, contains a quote from one of Shaw’s letters prophesying she would be “one of the greatest of English women writers”. She had genuine literary talent but her prose is hypnotic.

When she died in 1950 Shaw felt a sense of relief and sadness. “Nobody who had not seen her and known her could possibly believe in her existence,” he wrote. “She was not mad but born before her time.”

Michael Holroyd

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