The study of literature has been impoverished by excessive concentration on the big names and neglect of the minor figures in the background. There are a thousand superfluous essays on Shakespeare for every one on the neglected but fascinating dramas of contemporaries and successors such as Jonson, Webster, Massinger, Middleton and Ford. There are a thousand essays on Yeats, Joyce or Beckett for every one on George Moore, and even the little critical attention Moore has received has tended to focus on his personality, often in a gossipy or prurient manner, rather than on his thought or his immense literary achievement. If we broaden our outlook, and take the entire landscape of Irish literature in English into view, Moore emerges as a seminal figure whose influence spreads far and wide. His early novel of the landlord class, A Drama in Muslin, sets a tone taken up in the ‘Big House’ novels of Elizabeth Bowen, Jennifer Johnston and Molly Keane. His dramas are at the heart of the Irish theatrical revival centred on the Abbey Theatre. His comic autobiographies lie behind Joyce’s Ulysses, the witty memoirs of Oliver St. John Gogarty. He is the father, along with Chekhov, of the Irish short story, a genre distinguished by the exquisite work of Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Mary Lavin and many other delightful writers. But Moore is seminal also as one who brought into English literature the most advanced currents in the French literature of his time, beginning with his early Pagan Poems, which make Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal a presence in English verse, and going on to draw on Flaubert, Zola, Huysmans and the Goncourts in a series of novels that brought Naturalism and Decadence to the Victorian reading public.
Neglect of Moore is perhaps partly due to the nationalistic character of much current criticism of Irish literature. Moore was too inclined to make fun of his native land, and too much at home in Paris and London, to win the warm appreciation of post-colonialist critics whose audiences expect the ‘national question’ and the ancient oppression of Ireland to be treated in tones of unrelieved solemnity. As one of the first Senators of the Free State, Moore’s brother was a hate-object of the unreconciled Republican opposition and Moore’s birthplace, Moore Hall, was burnt by the IRA in 1923, one of many Big Houses destroyed in this way in the twenties. Nationalist dislike of Moore is reinforced by sexual Puritanism and by religious orthodoxy. Moore came of the small minority of Roman Catholic families in the landlord class, but he publicly renounced his church in a flamboyant letter to the Irish Times in 1900 and joined the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. Politically, morally, and religiously, Moore was identified by his sensitive compatriots as a mocker, and was himself made an object of constant mockery in turn. He shielded himself against this by his own self-mockery, and achieved a remarkable triumph of humour over pettiness in his sunny and serene memoir, Hail and Farewell, the work that most attractively establishes his portrait for posterity.
The rather misty, if not marshy, sensibility of George Moore is a product of Mayo soil, but it was in Paris that he was born as a writer, though he had gone there under the misconception that he was to be a painter. In Paris Moore’s Protean nature revealed itself both in his receptivity to aesthetic influences and his capacity to mingle with the world, striking up friendships with such giants as Zola, Manet and Mallarmé. His courtship of the muse was no less adroit and persistent. Yet though it produced a vast oeuvre, there hangs about it an air of disappointment. The final consecration won by his detested rivals, Hardy, Conrad, and James, was withheld. His was not a name to launch a thousand monographs and a million exam questions. But he is sufficiently central to English and Irish literary history to draw a constant trickle of visitors to his neglected temple, where they may still stumble on undiscovered delights.
Haunted by the unattainable perfection of Madame Bovary and steeped in the psychological and environmental realism of the naturalists and decadents, Moore, in his first public role as the inventor of the English realistic novel, did not conceal his contempt for the conventionality, prudishness and artlessness of Victorian fiction. It was not literary sophistication, however, but his own abundant powers of observation that allowed him to import successfully the techniques of the French masters. The best of the early novels, and the most gripping for Irish readers, is A Drama in Muslin (1886, revised as Muslin in 1915). A tale of Ascendancy girls in search of suitable husbands is set against the background of the Land League agitation; Austenesque delicacy in Flaubertian counterpoint to Zolaesque animality. Moore was a chronic reviser of his own writing, and a comparison of the two versions of this novel would be of particular interest. The second version comes after his stint in Ireland as a pillar of the Literary Renaissance (from 1901 to 1911). One might trace the degree to which it tones down his earlier aversion to Ireland, as expressed also in Parnell and his Island (1887), which he had disowned as ‘mere gabble’ (Hail and Farewell).
His youth at Moore Hall in a world centered on racing supplied rich material for the horsy elements in Esther Waters (1894). The racing scenes there are depicted in a manner that realizes,if only in the medium of words, Moore’s early ambition to be a painter. Its account of the frustrations of a single mother battling Victorian bureaucracy and moralism is painfully convincing. Its marked Englishness and its focus on an eponymous heroine (compare Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Tess of the D'Urbervilles) may have helped give this novel the ‘classic’ status it enjoyed. Nowadays it is rather an absentee from the canon of English fiction. Esther is too little crushed by her woes to attain the tragic grandeur of Tess or Emma Bovary. Moore was impeded by excess of sympathy with her, though in A Mummer's Wife (1885), when the French influence was still fresh, he had come closer to the ruthless sadism with which Flaubert and Hardy treat their creatures. The sedulous and weighty account of the life of the pottery, the heroine’s seduction, and her bumpy ride with the travelling theatrical company she takes up with make this an authoritative novel, even if it holds out little urgent attraction for readers today. This makes it just the kind of novel that most deserves the services of the literary critic, who can bring out excellences neglected by the impatient reading public. But perhaps the best way to save all of Moore’s output is to regard it, in Goethe’s phrase, as ‘fragments of a great confession’ and to carry further the psychological delving that most commentators on Moore have attempted. My own hypothesis is that he writes as a psychological orphan: he spent his time with the stable labourers as a boy and seems to have suffered parental neglect; the protagonists of The Lake or ‘So on he fares’ and the uprooted exiles of other stories in The Untilled Field all seem cut off from family context; the mother in the John Norton stories is cold, manipulative and oppressive, whereas the idealization of motherhood in Esther Waters suggests that Moore is seeking to fill a lack in himself, to mother himself into being; his capacity to empathize with dissatisfied and frustrated women (in Muslin, A Mummer’s Wife, Evelyn Innes) no doubt reflects his quest for an affective harbour that eluded him.
In this regard, special interest attaches to a string of minor works in which Moore used his cousin Edward Martyn as copy for the analysis of a homosexual temperament: A Mere Accident (1887), ‘John Norton’ in Celibates (1895), along with its revision as ‘Hugh Monfert’ in In Single Strictness (1922). These aim at a Huysmanesque psychological finesse, but fail to carry their full punch; the narration meanders dreamily. This vein is more felicitously exploited in the sly comedy of Hail and Farewell (1911-14) or when the homosexual protagonist reappears as Joseph of Arimathea in The Brook Kerith (1916), knit into the larger tapestry of a plot later imitated by D. H. Lawrence (‘The Man who Died’) and Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ). Moore rewrote the end of ‘Hugh Monfert’ between the London and New York editions of 1922 (failing to adjust the pagination in the table of contents accordingly). In the New York edition the protagonist at last casts off the shackles of family and church to indulge a Gidean dream of erotic encounter with Arab boys. One can hear Moore chortle with satisfaction as he cocks a snook at the nannyism and censorship that had blocked realism in English literature and that had made him fell like an Ishmael or a Cain in the English literary world. But even here one is left with an impression of second-hand literary pastiche. It is only when Moore indulges a riotous, carnivalesque sense of humour in the transvestite story, ‘Albert Nobbs’ (Celibate Lives, 1927) that he can handle the topics of sexual heterodoxy in a fresh and individual way.
Moore’s primary concern in these fictions is not, however, comedy (though it will keep breaking in), but liberation from the constrictions of social convention. The New York version of ‘Hugh Monfert’ strikes this note: ‘Ideas, principles, beliefs, he said, are lashed into us by our mothers, our fathers, by priests, schoolmasters, and our lives are spend going through our tricks, our antics, in fear and trembling, till the original wild instinct breaks out in us and we fall upon our trainers and rend them’. Here sounds, in the characteristic rather naïve accents of Moore, the gospel of self-fulfilment also preached by Samuel Butler (The Way of All Flesh), E. M. Forster, Gide, Lawrence and Joyce. But Moore as a liberator has failed to stir the world; instead there has been much petty speculation on the erotic experience, or lack of it, from which his fictions grow. A full appreciation of Moore’s intellectual range and of his insight into the human comedy has been impeded by this reductive biographical focus. But perhaps if the biography were pursued more subtly, in a mapping of its most basic psychological or psychoanalytical dynamics, a coherence between the various achievements and failures, convictions and postures, farces and melodramas that make up the Moore kaleidoscope might begin to emerge.
To hear the worst about Moore one may turn to Yeats's ‘Dramatis Personae’ (in Autobiographies). Here we meet a noisy, impulsive, egotistic and irresponsible gossip, ill-bred, ill-read, and wallowing in ‘now sentimental, now promiscuous amours, the main matter of his talk’. ‘It is so hard not to trust him, yet he is quite untrustworthy. He has what Talleyrand calls “the terrible gift of familiarity”’. The Moore blood was coarsened, Yeats coarsely tells us, because as Catholics they were forced to marry peasants. But Moore Hall was not quite the wilderness Yeats imagines. Moore recalls his grandfather, author of a lost history of the French Revolution: ‘He stops short almost in the middle of a sentence, and I can see him in my thoughts staring at the lake, associating it in some dim way with his own loneliness’. As a boy Moore would read for hours in the old man's library, with its ‘view of the lake winding sadly mile after mile by low shores’ (Conversations in Ebury Street, ch. 5).
The spontaneous, insinuating Moore, unable to flatter, was a thorn in the side to all who took themselves too seriously, and his irreverence cost him dear. There is a credibility gap between Yeats’s remarks, ‘He spoke badly and much in a foreign tongue, read nothing... I doubt if he had read a play of Shakespeare’s even at the end of his life’, and Moore's droll Paris lecture on Shakespeare and Balzac, written in an easy French (Conversations in Ebury Street, ch. 4); could Yeats read it with ease? But amid his strictures, Yeats singles out as ‘great novels’ A Mummer's Wife, Esther Waters, Sister Teresa (1901), Muslin and The Lake (1905, greatly improved in the second revision of 1921), counting the latter two, which are set in Ireland, as ‘masterpieces’. Sister Teresa is the sequel to Evelyn Innes, which Yeats perhaps leaves unmentioned because in one of its versions a principal character is a caricature of Yeats himself. This saga of an opera singer who tires of profane love and takes refuge in the religious life probably contains valuable material for those who would like to define Moore’s psychological profile. Even Moore’s ‘great novels’, Yeats added, ‘gained nothing from their style’. A ‘misunderstanding of his powers’, a misguided search for a ‘charm and rhythm’ for which he was unfitted, condemned Moore to wrap himself in the shroud of Pater in other works, presumably The Brook Kerith or Heloise and Abelard (1921), which was admired and imitated by Jun’ichirô Tanizaki, or A Story-Teller's Holiday (19 ), another autobiographical jaunt in which Moore jousts with a seanachie (storyteller) in relating tales from Kuno Meyer, the German Celtic scholar.
No doubt Moore’s success as a stylist inadequately repays the labour it cost him, labour all the greater in that he seems to have suffered, like Yeats himself, from some variety of dyslexia. It is reported that even at the height of his renown for style and technique his first drafts were an ungrammatical chaos. But without the striving for style Moore would not have been Moore, a man assembling his striking literary personality out of disordered fragments. Style triumphs in the last version of The Lake, which gives voice to the innermost lyrical core of his imagination. Lake Carra, the site of Moore's birthplace and of his grave, with its meandering outlines and changing hues, murmurs in the background of all his writing, in the fleeting lyrical moments of Esther Waters for example. But in The Lake this childhood landscape becomes a glorious symbol of the riddle of life, as Father Gogarty circles it in fretful meditation until at last he plunges naked into its baptismal embrace, to assume a new life on the other side. The scene is echoed in Forster's The Longest Journey, another novel of existential confusion, self-division and the quest for liberation. Should any phenomenological literary critic map Moore's imaginative world, its centre would be the image of the lake. The protagonist murmurs: ‘There is a lake in every man's heart,... and he listens to its monotonous whisper year after year, more and more attentive till at last he ungirds’. The apparent shallowness of a world of impulse and indecision would in certain lights turn out to have its own precious integrity. When Moore’s stylistic fumblings touch that ‘unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself’ (‘Home Sickness’ in The Untilled Field, 1903), something magical happens and his name acquires the lustre of a poet's.
There is perhaps a tension between the aesthetic dimension of The Lake – its lyrical style, its psychological introspection, its symbolism and its musical structure (use of Wagnerian leitmotifs and a structure that can be analyzed as a sonata movement, with exposition, development, reprise and coda), on the one hand, and its wish to comment on church and society in Ireland, on the other. The latter element is less convincing and is largely erased in the final version. This novel was originally intended as the concluding story of The Untilled Field, a collection in the manner of Turgenev’s A Sportman’s Sketches, originally published in an Irish language translation, in which there is a piquant to-and-fro between the register of humour and satire and that of poignant evocation.
The longest story in the collection, ‘The Wild Goose’, gives a portrayal of Irish rural life through the bemused eyes of an Irish-born American journalist, which like similar material in ‘Home Sickness’ has documentary interest today. Again the story centers on a romance: ‘But it was her eyes that fascinated Ned at the time and ever afterwards; long after he had bidden her goodbye for ever he saw her turquoise eyes looking at him through a blue veil’ (compare ‘Home Sickness’: ‘a woman’s soul looked at Bryden out of her soft Irish eyes’). The failure of the romance and the long perspective of nostalgia are established even before the romance has begun (‘ever afterwards’, ‘long after’, ‘for ever’) and the reader acquainted with Bryden’s treatment of Margaret in ‘Home Sickness’ expects to see the naive and patriotic Ellen lose her heart in an affair doomed to early blight because of Ned’s ambivalence about Ireland: ‘He could just distinguish the sluggish roll of the Dublin mountains, dim and grey, and he asked himself if he would like to live in this queer, empty country, accepting its destiny as part of his destiny, the last remnant of barbarous Europe petering out, notwithstanding all Ellen might say to the contrary’. But Ellen captures Ned, as symbolized by her catching a trout, whereas Margaret was depicted, by the symbolism of Bryden’s hooking of a frog, as a helpless victim. Ned accepts the political role she designs for him, but gives it an anticlerical twist that undermines their marriage. Ellen faces the situation stoically, murmuring ‘I will conquer this’, while with the fickle blitheness typical of Moore’s male protagonists, Ned slips away. The story ends on a bitter-sweet note: ‘If he had stayed he would have come to accept all the base moral coinage in circulation; and he stood watching the green waves tossing in the mist, at one moment ashamed of what he had done, at the next overjoyed that he had done it’. The story is a pallid expansion of ‘Home Sickness’, desultory in its pacing, without a tight or gripping development, and in its lack of passion it squanders the romantic potency of the other story. Its image of Ireland, too, remains drab, in contrast to the other story’s closing image of ‘the green hillside, and the bog lake and the rushes about it, and the greater lake in the distance, and behind it the blue line of wandering hills’. Whereas Flaubert’s realism is crushing and Zola’s naturalism involves high melodrama, Moore’s realism too often flattens the contours of his characters and plots, drowning them in banal details, and sabotages his aesthetic effort as well.
Beside the naturalist and the stylist, Moore has a third, perhaps stronger literary persona. As a novelist he worked in the shadow of unsurpassable models, but, he boasted, ‘I can write auto-biography as well as anyone that has yet written it’. Yeats was not well placed to enjoy Moore's autobiographical writings, in which he transforms all his social failings into literary virtues. They are stupendous outpourings of personal and literary gossip, punctuated by occasional sighs of the lakeside dreamer concealed behind the comedian and satirist. These works are pervaded by a quiet self-mockery and a fund of good humour little appreciated by the objects of his unconscionable ridicule. The character of a buffoon was thrust upon him by the bitter tongues of Dublin, and he triumphed by assuming the role of court jester and playing it to the hilt in his autobiographical compositions. The role allowed him to blurt out indiscreet truths, including sexual innuendos, and his denigrators tried to respond in kind, producing volumes would-be witty gossip about Moore, to the detriment of serious appreciation of his art. Henry James is reported as declaring, to a hostess who had thrust them into one another’s company, that he had never met anyone ‘as unimportantly dull as Mr. George Moore’. All readers of Moore will know what he meant. But Moore, at his best, could turn the dullest events and thoughts into scintillating comedy, by a whimsical, seemingly distracted treatment reminiscent of Sterne’s manner in A Sentimental Journey. The humour is mixed with a light play of sentiment, and this vein of sentiment is siphoned off to provide the rather elegiac mood of his fiction, which can easily drop into inert prosiness, and which becomes hollow melodrama when he tries to raise it to the pitch of passion. But in the relaxed medium of autobiography he can allows his impulses to play back and forth like spring breezes, in a pellucid style that well that matches the ingenuous radiance of twentieth century Ireland’s literary springtime, and that magnifies even as it mocks.
The entertainment bubbles on generously in Avowals (1919) and with diminished spate in Conversations in Ebury Street (1924), both from Moore's later years as a fuddy-duddy literary bachelor in London. When Moore pursues some literary McGuffin, such as the thesis that Catholicism is inimical to literature, or that the English novel is not the full shilling, he frankly deplores lacunae in his reading and memory, gives the autobiographical context of the scraps he remembers, and eagerly begs his scholarly visitors for further information; and somehow in the course of this amateurish floundering he strikes off one startling and persuasive literary judgement after another. Avowals is not less rich in insight than Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927); indeed it is a crystalline stream beside Forster’s fussy swamp. The quality of the entertainment varies with the dialogue companion Moore puts on stage; the best supporting roles are played by his brother Colonel Maurice Moore, Edward Martyn and Sir Edmund Gosse.
If Moore Hall is rebuilt, it could become a centre for international Moore scholarship. This is likely to be a thriving concern, given Moore's chameleonic diversity as a switchboard of literary influences both received and transmitted, the centrality yet elusiveness of his literary presence, and the complexity created by his revisions (seven different versions of The Untilled Field). The most comprehensive critical study is Jean C. Noël, George Moore: l'homme et l'oeuvre (Paris: Marcel Didier, 1966). The fullest biographies are Joseph Hone, The Life of George Moore (Macmillan, 1936) and Adrian Frazier, George Moore, 1852-1933 (Yale University Press, 2000). I lauded the latter on the Amazon.com site in the following terms: ‘Unlike Yeats, Joyce, or James, George Moore did not have a strong and confident sense of his own identity, and has in consequence remained a rather dim and shadowy figure on the literary landscape of his time. Frazier has succeeded uncannily in getting inside Moore's skin, almost to the point of understanding him better than he understood himself. For the first time the many divergent facets of Moore's career come together in a coherent and gripping narrative. We see that though his enthusiasms, literary loyalties, and amorous propensities were as changeable as the clouds above Lake Carra, Moore was tenacious in a Quixotic quest for truth and freedom. His witty, indiscreet conversation, still so fresh in the pages of Hail and Farewell, Avowals, and Conversations in Ebury Street, was calculated to puncture many a pompous ego. A master of ridicule, he was repaid in kind. But a lifetime of struggle against British philistinism, Irish parochialism, and French cliqueishness cannot be written off as mere clowning. Moore often let himself down, yet his achievement as a whole deserves the epithet “heroic”. Had Irish Catholics and Nationalists, in particular, listened to his enlightened critique, they might have spared themselves a century of repression, mystification, and violence. Frazier illuminates Moore's sexuality (especially his relationships with Pearl Craigie and Lady Cunard) with Starr-like thoroughness. This serves to enhance our appreciation of his fiction: masterpieces such as Muslin, The Lake (1921 version), and In Single Strictness take on a new glow as we discover the erotic humus from which they spring, while the lesser or flawed works take on new interest as fragments of a great confession. Frazier has buried the George Moore of stale gossip and caricature and replaced it with a portrait as distinguished as Manet’s on the front cover – a portrait securely grounded in wide-ranging historical research’. My enthusiasm was not shared by another reader, who claimed that the biography continues the tradition of diminishing Moore by focussing on his sexual life and failing to take seriously his intellectual contributions, for instance in the field of art criticism. Among critical studies, the following may be recommended: Malcolm Brown, George Moore: A Reconsideration (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1955); George Owens, ed., George Moore's Mind and Art (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970); Richard Allen Cave, A Study of the Novels of George Moore (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1978); Robert Welch, ed., The Way Back: George Moore's The Untilled Field and The Lake (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1982); Elizabeth Grubgeld, George Moore and the Autogenous Self (Syracuse University Press, 1994). Elizabeth McConnell’s valuable discussion of the ‘John Norton’ stories, ‘Give me a passion for God or man...’: A Study of George Moore's Celibates Series, 1895-1927 (MA thesis, University College Galway, 1992), confirms my own findings in ‘George Moore between Zola and Gide: The Case of “John Norton”’, The Harp 12 (1997), pp. 90-102. The review English Literature in Transition has many articles on Moore and there are four entries in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. See also: Brendan Fleming, Rethinking the Cultural Politics of George Moore (Diss., Oxford, 2002); John Montague, The Figure in the Cave and other essays (Dublin: Lilliput, 1989); Robert Welch, Changing States: Transformations in Modern Irish Writing (Routledge, 1993); Declan Kiberd, Irish Classics (Granta, 2001).
Joseph S. O'Leary