Cashel Byron's Profession is the fourth of five "Novels of My Nonage",written by George Bernard Shaw in 1882. In the preface of the book, Shaw heavily criticises these early works, which were rejected by the publishing houses of the time, blaming his immaturity and lack of experience in life. He was clearly unhappy about the way he had written some of his characters, stating that: "...he has not in his nonage the satisfaction of knowing that his guesses at life are true."
Despite the initial negative reaction to the story, it was eventually published in serial form in a socialist magazine and later, once it had gained sufficient popularity, in book format.
The story is about a boy who runs away to sea and ends up in Australia, where he is kindly taken in by Ned Skene, a boxer, and his wife. Ned teaches Cashel how to fight, and many years later, he returns to England as a renowned champion prizefighter. He meets and falls in love with the priggish heiress Lydia Carew and seeks to hide the details of his profession from her. According to the blurb on the back cover, the story is: "...with Shaw's inimitable wit and sparkle-a tale of miscommunication, drawing-room comedy and love." With this in mind, I was keen to begin reading, expecting a lighthearted, witty and entertaining narrative.
Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed. I agreed wholeheartedly with Shaw's preface, in which he had concluded that his characters were badly written. For example, the titular character is a sullen, rude and childish man, prone to bouts of tears or violence when things don't go according to plan. In contrast, his love interest, Lydia, is pompous, demanding and arrogant. Neither character seems to have any redeeming qualities to provoke sympathy or understanding from the reader. It is hard for a story to work if the reader does not care about the characters.
The story itself, although billed as a comedy, is quite a dark tale. Although the tone of the book is consistently lighthearted, there is a sense that there is something much deeper at its heart, bubbling just under the surface. Shaw uses the book to promote his political views and also his strongly-held views on animal rights, as seen in a passage where Cashel is justifying his career by stating that prizefighting is much more honourable than "baking dogs in ovens" (a reference to vivisection), foxhunting and pigeon shooting.
Sadly, my opinion of the book did not improve as I continued to read. The promised "wit and sparkle" seemed very thinly spread, although there were a couple genuinely funny scenes, which did make me smile. The biggest problem for me was I could not find one single character in the book that I liked and the pace of the narrative was slow and plodding. It did pick up a little halfway through, but I found the ending rather silly and contrived. Sadly, this was not the lost literary gem that I had hoped for. However, for those interested in social history, the book is fascinating as a snapshot of its time, giving revealing insights into past attitudes about class, wealth and race.
This review previously appeared under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk and I thank the publishers for my copy.