Charlotte Payne-Townshend, the daughter of Horace Townshend, was born in 1857. She grew up in a wealthy Irish family in County Cork before moving to England. Charlotte met Beatrice Webb in 1895. Webb wrote: "A large graceful woman with masses of chocolate brown hair... She dresses well, in flowing white evening robes she approaches beauty. At moments she is plain."
Mrs Payne-Townshend was determined to find her daughter a husband. Charlotte later commented: "Even in my earliest years I had determined I would never marry." She turned down Count Sponnek, Finch Hutton and Arthur Smith-Barry. Charlotte fell in love with Axel Munthe, but he never asked for her hand in marriage.
Beatrice and Sidney Webb persuaded Charlotte to donate £1,000 to the London School of Economics library and the endowment of a woman's scholarship. Charlotte also joined the Fabian Society. Beatrice later commented: "By temperament she is an anarchist, feeling any regulation or ruke intolerable, a tendency which has been exaggerated by her irresonsible wealth... She is a socialist and a radical, not because she understands the collectivist standpoint, but because she is by nature a rebel. She is fond of men and impatient of most women, bitterly resents her enforced celibacy but thinks she could not tolerate the matter-of-fact side of marriage. Sweet tempered, sympathetic and genuinely anxious to increase the world's enjoyment and diminish the world's pain."
According to Michael Holroyd, Webb developed a plan "to marry Charlotte off to" Graham Wallas, who worked at the London School of Economics. In January 1896 she invited Charlotte and Graham to their rented home in the village of Stratford St Andrew in Suffolk. However, Charlotte was bored by his company.
Beatrice Webb also invited George Bernard Shaw to stay and he took a strong liking to Charlotte. He wrote to Janet Achurch: "Instead of going to bed at ten, we go out and stroll about among the trees for a while. She, being also Irish, does not succumb to my arts as the unsuspecting and literal Englishwoman does; but we get on together all the better, repairing bicycles, talking philosophy and religion... or, when we are in a mischievous or sentimental humor, philandering shamelessly and outrageously." Beatrice wrote: "They were constant companions, pedaling round the country all day, sitting up late at night talking."
Shaw told Ellen Terry: "Kissing in the evening among the trees was very pleasant, but she knows the value of her unencumbered independence, having suffered a good deal from family bonds and conventionality before the death of her mother and the marriage of her sister left her free... The idea of tying herself up again by a marriage before she knows anything - before she has exploited her freedom and money power to the utmost."
When they returned to London she sent an affectionate letter to Shaw. He replied: "Don't fall in love: be your own, not mine or anyone else's.... From the moment that you can't do without me, you're lost... Never fear: if we want one another we shall find it out. All I know is that you made the autumn very happy, and that I shall always be fond of you for that."
Michael Holroyd has pointed out in his book, Bernard Shaw (1998): "Charlotte had an apprehension of sexual intercourse... Over the next eighteen months they seem to have found together a habit of careful sexual experience, reducing for her the risk of conception and preserving for him his subliminal illusions... Charlotte soon made herself almost indispensable to Shaw. She learnt to read his shorthand and to type, took dictation and helped him prepare his plays for the press."
Beatrice Webb recorded in her diary that Charlotte Payne-Townshend was clearly in love with George Bernard Shaw but she did not believe that he felt the same way: "I see no sign on his side of the growth of any genuine and steadfast affection." In July 1897 Charlotte proposed marriage. He rejected the idea because he was poor and she was rich and people might consider him a "fortune-hunter". He told Ellen Terry that the proposal was like an "earthquake" and "with shuddering horror and wildly asked the fare to Australia". Charlotte decided to leave Shaw and went to live in Italy.
In April 1898 Shaw had an accident. According to Shaw his left foot swelled up "to the size of a church bell". He wrote to Charlotte complaining that he was unable to walk. When she heard the news she travelled back to visit him at his home in Fitzroy Square. Soon after she arrived on 1st May she arranged for him to go into hospital. Shaw had an operation that scraped the necrosed bone clean.
Shaw's biographer, Stanley Weintraub, has pointed out: "In the conditions of non-care in which he lived at 29 Fitzroy Square with his mother (the Shaws had moved again on 5 March 1887), an unhealed foot injury required Shaw's hospitalization. On 1 June 1898, while on crutches and recuperating from surgery for necrosis of the bone, Shaw married his informal nurse, Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend, at the office of the registrar at 15 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden. He was nearly forty-two; the bride, a wealthy Irishwoman born at Londonderry on 20 January 1857, thus a half-year younger than her husband, resided in some style at 10 Adelphi Terrace, London, overlooking the Embankment." George Bernard Shaw later told Wilfrid Scawen Blunt: "I thought I was dead, for it would not heal, and Charlotte had me at her mercy. I should never have married if I had thought I should get well."
Three veterans of the women's suffrage campaign, Dora Marsden, Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe, began publishing their a feminist journal, The Freewoman on 23rd November, 1911. In its first edition Rebecca West wrote an article in support for free-love: "Marriage had certain commercial advantages. By it the man secures the exclusive right to the woman's body and by it, the woman binds the man to support her during the rest of her life... a more disgraceful bargain was never struck."
On 28th December 1911, Dora Marsden began a five-part series on morality. Dora argued that in the past women had been encouraged to restrain their senses and passion for life while "dutifully keeping alive and reproducing the species". She criticised the suffrage movement for encouraging the image of "female purity" and the "chaste ideal". Dora suggested that this had to be broken if women were to be free to lead an independent life. She made it clear that she was not demanding sexual promiscuity for "to anyone who has ever got any meaning out of sexual passion the aggravated emphasis which is bestowed upon physical sexual intercourse is more absurd than wicked."
Dora Marsden went on to attack traditional marriage: "Monogamy was always based upon the intellectual apathy and insensitiveness of married women, who fulfilled their own ideal at the expense of the spinster and the prostitute." According to Marsden monogamy's four cornerstones were "men's hypocrisy, the spinster's dumb resignation, the prostitute's unsightly degradation and the married woman's monopoly." Marsden then added "indissoluble monogamy is blunderingly stupid, and reacts immorally, producing deceit, sensuality, vice, promiscuity and an unfair monopoly." Friends assumed that Marsden was writing about her relationships with Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe.
Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw was a regular reader of The Freewoman. She wrote to Dora Marsden "though there has been much I have not agreed with in the paper", the journal was nevertheless a "valuable medium of self-expression for a clever set of young men and women".
The articles on sexuality created a great deal of controversy. However, they were very popular with the readers of the journal. In February 1912, Ethel Bradshaw, secretary of the Bristol branch of the Fabian Women's Group, suggested that readers formed Freewoman Discussion Circles. Soon afterwards they had their first meeting in London and other branches were set up in other towns and cities. Charlotte attended several of these meetings. Other members included Edith Ellis, Rona Robinson, C. H. Norman, Edmund Haynes, Huntley Carter, Guy Aldred, Grace Jardine, Stella Browne, Harry J. Birnstingl, Rebecca West, Havelock Ellis, Lily Gair Wilkinson, Françoise Lafitte-Cyon and Rose Witcup.
In September 1912, The Freewoman was banned by W. H. Smith because "the nature of certain articles which have been appearing lately are such as to render the paper unsuitable to be exposed on the bookstalls for general sale." Dora Marsden argued that this was not the only reason the journal was banned: "The animosity we rouse is not roused on the subject of sex discussion. It is aroused on the question of capitalism. The opposition in the capitalist press only broke out when we began to make it clear that the way out of the sex problem was through the door of the economic problem."
The last edition appeared on 10th October 1912. Dora Marsden told her readers: "The editorial work has not been easy. We have been hemmed in on every side by lack of funds. We have, moreover, been promoting a constructive creed, which had not only to be erected as we went along, we had also to deal with the controversy which this constructive creed left in its wake.... The entire campaign has been carried on indeed only at the cost of a total expenditure of energy, and we, therefore, do not hold it possible to continue the same amount of work, with diminished resources, if in addition, we have to bear the entire anxiety of securing such resources as are to be at our disposal."
Marsden appealed to readers to help fund a new magazine. Charlotte was one of those who sent money. So also did Harriet Shaw Weaver, who had just inherited a large sum of money from her father. The New Freewoman was launched in June 1913. The journal, published fortnightly, was priced at 6d but readers were asked to pay £1 in advance for 18 months' copies.
George Bernard Shaw opposed Britain's involvement in the First World War. He created a great deal of controversy with his provocative pamphlet, Common Sense About the War, which appeared on 14th November 1914 as a supplement to the New Statesman. It sold more than 75,000 copies before the end of the year and as a result he became a well-known international figure. However, given the patriotic mood of the country, his pamphlet created a great deal of hostility. Some of his anti-war speeches were banned from the newspapers, and he was expelled from the Dramatists' Club.
Shaw's status as a playwright continued to grow after the war and plays such as Heartbreak House (1919), Back to Methuselah (1921), Saint Joan (1923), The Apple Cart (1929) and Too True to be Good (1932) were favourably received by the critics and 1925 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Cyril H. Joad was one of those who believed Shaw was a genius: "Shaw became for me a kind of god. I considered that he was not only the greatest English writer of his time (I still think that), but the greatest English writer of all time (and I am not sure that I don't still think that too). Performances of his plays put me almost beside myself with intellectual excitement."
Charlotte's support of her husband was vitally important to his career. As Stanley Weintraub has pointed out: "Childless, they indulged in surrogate sons and daughters whose children often went to school on quiet Shavian largess. Granville Barker and Lillah McCarthy had their Royal Court and Savoy seasons underwritten by G.B.S., who lost, unconcernedly, all his investment."
During the Blitz, the Shaws, now in their middle eighties, moved out of London. Shaw was a strong opponent of Britain's involvement in the Second World War, which he described "fundamentally not merely maniacal but nonsensical". He wrote very little but he did find the energy to produce Everybody's Political What's What (1944).
Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw, who had suffered from osteitis deformans for many years, died aged eighty-six on 12th September 1943.