On 14 February 1886, George Bernard Shaw wrote in his diary: "Got a handsome Valentine." The hand-painted card he had received showed a procession of pre-Raphaelite maidens worshipping at his shrine, his noble profile floating on a banner among the trees over their heads. It had been sent anonymously, but he knew instantly who it was from: May Morris, the daughter of his great friend William Morris, the socialist author, artist and designer.
The card, with the teasing verse "Even your very crotchets form no bar/ To our affection; just the minimum/Of kindness - one brief note! One little line/is all we ask", has now been identified again by Alice McEwan, a researcher working through an uncatalogued albums of cards sent to Shaw, now in the British Library. She recognized May Morris's artwork and, from the date Shaw had noted on the back, matched it with his diary and correspondence. Shaw told May Morris he had been sent a Valentine, and she responded: "I must not forget to ask you about this wonderful Valentine. What female pen think you, was bold enough to put down on paper the inscrutable countenance of GBS?" McEwan, who discovered the card while researching her doctorate with the National Trust, based at Shaw's old home at Ayot St Lawrence, believes it is tangible proof that Shaw was the great love of Morris's life, but that he felt unable to reciprocate, unwilling to get seriously involved at a time when he was still struggling to earn his fame and fortune.
In 1886 Shaw was 29, still living with his mother, highly regarded as a witty and frequently savage theatre and music critic, and an unsuccessful novelist. Success and money would come a decade later from his plays, beginning in 1894 with the box office hit Arms and the Man. Morris was 24. They had met at a lecture by Shaw, and were good friends, going to concerts, plays and exhibitions. He admired her embroidery, she admired his writing, but he was also involved with a much older woman, Jenny Paterson, a friend of his mother's.
The Valentine was the turning point, McEwan believes. Within months Morris became engaged to Henry Halliday Sparling, secretary of the Socialist League, to the dismay of her mother. They married in 1890 but it lasted only four years, not helped by Shaw coming to live with them for months, fed up with the work on the drains at his mother's home.
Years later, Shaw wrote of his "mystic betrothal" to Morris in the year of the Valentine, in his introduction to a volume she was editing of her father's work. "I looked at her, rejoicing in her lovely dress and lovely self, and she looked at me very carefully and quite deliberately made a gesture of assent with her eyes," he wrote. "I was immediately conscious that a Mystic Betrothal was registered in heaven, to be fulfilled when all the material should melt away, and my own position rescued from the squalors of my poverty and unsuccess."
In the real world, in 1898 he married a wealthy Irish woman, Charlotte Payne-Townsend, and the relationship lasted until her death in 1943. Shaw died in 1950, aged 94, after falling out of the apple tree he had climbed to prune a branch, impatient of waiting for the gardener. The card will go on display for the first time next October, in an exhibition devoted to May Morris at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, north London.
The writer is a staff news writer for The Guardian www.theguardian.com