The asymmetrical George Moore.
Moore was born in 1852, the oldest son of George Henry Moore, Member of Parliament for County. Mayo, a Catholic landlord, horseman, and famed orator from an old landowning family, who defended the rights of Ireland's impoverished Catholic tenant class. When his father died in 1870, the young George found himself heir to Moore Hall, a Palladian mansion overlooking Lough Carra in the west of Ireland with an estate of over 12,000 acres, yielding a sizeable income. The first of many instances of irreverence in a career filled with a determination to shock occurred when the heir realized that his father's death made him glad, because it "gave me the power to create myself."
Moore's childhood had not been ideal. His appearance was odd, and his parents succeeded in making him feel stupid. From early days on, an air of the ridiculous--in looks, manner, and opinions--attended Moore. But it was a ridiculousness backed by self-confidence. Moore was born the defiant contrarian. "To be ridiculous has always been mon petit luxe," he wrote in Salve, "but can anyone be said to be ridiculous if he know that he is ridiculous?" The sublime poet W. B. Yeats, his sometime friend and a chief foil of Moore's Dublin years, was described by contemporaries as ridiculous, but was oblivious, apparently, to this aspect of himself. By Moore's standards, then, Yeats was truly ridiculous, while Moore, who built his persona on it, was not.
"It is the plain duty of every Irishman," Moore wrote in Ave, "to disassociate himself from all memories of Ireland--Ireland being a fatal disease, fatal to Englishmen and doubly fatal to Irishmen." He at first thought he wanted to be a painter, and this took him to Paris, where he became not an artist but an art critic. The young man who had rejected his role as Moore of Moore Hall (which is how in his years of literary eminence his publishers would designate him), had by his mid-twenties become acquainted with Manet and Zola and placed himself in the thick of the new developments in Paris: naturalism and Impressionism. Manet was fascinated by Moore's strange looks, and the young Irishman is the subject of several works by Manet:
Is it my fault if Moore looks like a squashed egg yolk and if his face is all lopsided? Anyway, the same applies to everybody's face and this passion for symmetry is the plague of our time. There is no symmetry in nature.
Manet's Portrait of George Moore (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1879) is astonishing in its impressionistic approach to human likeness. The right eye is ringed in burnt umber; around the left is an almost bruise-like circle of light purple. The chest-nut beard is a study in chaos, the ear like a wobbly slice of aubergine. On each side of Moore's head above the ears, his hair is teased out like two extended points of a waxed moustache. His fleshy lips, his frank and curious eyes express a look of bafflement. Yet behind this "squashed egg yolk," if one looks at it with some knowledge of Moore's character, lie self-possession and determination.
His Paris years were formative. In the cultural capital of the world, the young man who had been an awkward schoolboy only a few years before found himself taken seriously by the leading figures of the French avant-garde. In the English-speaking world he would become known as the "discoverer" of Manet and would later write two influential books on what was then the dernier cri in art, Modern Painting and Reminiscences of the Impressionist Painters. Most of all he would adapt from Manet his personal motto, "Be ashamed of nothing but to be ashamed"--a dubious philosophy, but it was what made George Moore who he was.
For Moore the ephebic novelist, exposure to the naturalism championed by Zola provided an all-important orientation for his entire career. Zola was the model for Moore's realistic novels like A Mummer's Wife and Esther Waters. Early on, he wrote of himself as "un ricochet de Zola en Angleterre."
Events in Ireland precipitated an end to this Parisian idyll. The formation of the Land League in 1879--the same year Manet painted Moore's portrait in Paris--would change things forever for Irish landlords. Moore's letter to his estate agent shows him in his guise as conservative landowner: "This question of the tenants refusing to pay rent is horrible! What does it mean--communism? If you don't get the rents what is to be done?" Almost as soon as the news came, Moore settled his affairs in Paris and returned to Moore Hall where, soon after, he declared on the side of Parnell and Home Rule. But his heart was not, and would never be, in Irish politics. He was first and foremost an aesthete and a writer: "Of all the latest tricks that had been played with French verse," he wrote describing himself in a series of letters for Le Figaro, which were later published in book form as Parnell and His Island,
he was thoroughly the master; of the size, situation, and condition of his property he knew [nothing]. Indeed he hated all allusion to be made to it, and he looked forward with positive horror to meeting his tenants.
For the immediate future, Moore's working life lay in London. It was there he could earn the living that the Land Wars in Ireland were increasingly depriving him of. (In this he resembles Edith Somerville and Martin Ross, the decline of whose families' fortunes led to authorship as a form of support in the late nineteenth century.)
Adrian Frazier gives an exhaustive account of the Moore's early career as a literary corner in London. The young Irishman was extraordinarily adept, both as a literary, politician and, more tellingly, as a tireless writer of poems, reviews, and novels, in making his way in the English capital. "I am working hard for fame," he wrote his mother back in County Mayo, "and I think I shall succeed. I feel that I must conquer. I am conscious that I am a force, rather that I am becoming a force."
Traditionally the route to fame for an Irish writer has led through the capital city of the empire of which Ireland used to be a member. In the eighteenth century the Irish-born playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan needed the London stage as a platform for his success. In Moore's own times, Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats preceded him as masters of London's literary politics. George Bernard Shaw, who knew Moore before he made his name as a novelist, was yet another Irishman who reached the top of the heap in London. Shaw's comments on Moore, as reported by an earlier biographer, are telling:
"There was always a certain delicacy about George and he knew how to be a gentleman when he wanted to." However, he was "always telling stories about himself and women"; the stories usually ended up with the woman throwing a lamp at George. "If you said," Shaw recalled, "`But George, don't talk such nonsense, you are making it all up,' he was not in the least put out ... but just said, `Don't interrupt me,' and went on as before." Shaw lost sight of Moore. Then one day William Archer said he had been reading a wonderful naturalist novel by a new author. Shaw asked who it was. "Well," Archer replied, "his name is George Moore." "`Nonsense,' Shaw replied. `But I know George Moore. He couldn't possibly write a real book. He couldn't possibly do anything.' But there it was. He had written it, and then I began to understand the incredible industry, of the man."
High praise coming from one of the most industrious writers who ever lived! As he went back and forth between thriving, late-Victorian London and an Ireland shaken by agitation on behalf of tenants' rights and the drive toward Home Rule under Parnell, Moore began a lifelong friendship with Edward Martyn, a man whose background and activities paralleled his own. Martyn's estate, Tyllira Castle, lay only a few miles from Coole Park, Lady Gregory's house near Gort, a dozen miles from Galway City. "Edward," in Frazier's words, "was a `woman-hater,' the contemporary phrase for a man who loved men, though for all that Edward was a misogynist as well." Though markedly limited in his literary talents, Martyn was a key figure in the Literary Revival. He was present at the meeting at Mount Vernon, Lady Gregory's seaside house in Dooras, near Kinvara, where plans were laid for the "Celtic Literary Theatre," which would become the Irish National Theatre. (Moore was in London writing fiction when this meeting took place.) Martyn wrote his play The Heather Field from a synopsis by Moore, and it appeared as part of a twin bill with Yeats's Countess Cathleen at the opening of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. The homosexuality of Martyn's youth appears to have been sublimated into a strict, celibate Catholicism as he aged. In addition to the literary patronage he offered such ventures as the National Theatre, he was a major patron of St. Brendan's Cathedral in the town of Loughrea, not far from Tyllira, which is decorated with outstanding examples of modern Irish stained glass by Irish artists such as Sarah Purser and Harry, Clarke.
On a personal note, I wangled an invitation to Tyllira some years ago from the owners, a Texas couple who had traded a large yacht for the place and were unaware of its literary-historical significance. It is as fine an example of the neo-Gothic you will see, but few people do, as it is not open to the public. By contrast, practically every literary tourist in Ireland goes to Coole Park just down the road, where Lady Gregory's house was torn down years ago. The chief delight of visiting Tyllira, however, is not the "new" part but the twelfth-century tower house, where Edward Martyn retreated from his mother's matrimonial schemes. Frazier can be a very good descriptive writer, and I quote his description of the eccentric aesthete-turned-ascetic's domicile:
Up the steep stair of the tower, on the first stage Martyn had set up his private place of worship, with a seven-foot-tall candlestick, and a wooden chair copied from a picture by Durer; on the next stage was the study, lit by Pre-Raphaelite stained-glass windows just completed in 1883 in London by Edward Frampton: the saints depicted are Chaucer, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, and Plato. The bedroom at the top had a flagstone floor, a slightly cramped oak four-poster (hardly big enough for two) made in 1616. Beside it was Edward's prie-dieu, kneeler, and prayer rail. Cloistered and encastled, Martyn had built his aesthetic stronghold against his mother' matrimonial plans.
Readers of Yeats's Autobiographies will recall that on a visit to Tyllira the great Irish poet, staying in the room in the tower above Martyn's, conducted a seance, during which the spirits, as spirits will, made quite a bit of noise beating on the table and thrashing around the room. Martyn, disturbed both by the noise and by the intrusion of paganism into his inner sanctum, prevailed upon Yeats to desist.
In 1883-84, Moore courted Maud Browne, the daughter of his mother's sister. In this brief courtship as in so many circumstances, Moore proved himself to be a man on whom nothing is lost. His attendance at the Dublin "season"--centered around the Shelbourne Hotel on St. Stephen's Green and the State Ball at Dublin Castle where matches were arranged between the marriageable young women and the eligible young men of Irish society--allowed him to do research from the inside on the upper-class marriage market in Ireland. The figure Moore cut at Dublin Castle and the Shelbourne is suggested by this description he gave of himself later in life: "his lank yellow hair (often standing on end), his sloping shoulders, and female hands--a strange appearance which a certain vivacity of mind sometimes rendered engaging." While his cousin Maud accepted George as a suitor, her family rejected the match. "I consider everything now over between Maud and me," he wrote his mother, "but I shall never forget the horrible system of terrorism to which she has been subjected." The result of his experiences was A Drama in Muslin (1886).
The book presents itself as a conventional women's novel of the late Victorian age, but has many veiled explorations of the unconventional and unsanctioned areas of life. In a plot device suggestive of Maeve Binchy's Circle of Friends, it begins tamely enough as the story of a group of Irish schoolmates at the Convent of the Holy Child in England and then follows their adventures as they return to their homes in County Galway and go up to Dublin for the social season I have touched on above. Old money in the person of Lord Dungory, a vainglorious elderly roue, cooperates with new money in the person of Mrs. Barton, whose ambition through much of the book is to marry, her beautiful daughter Olive to the marquis. Though his only hope of avoiding financial ruin is to marry someone like Olive, who will bring to the marriage a hefty dowry, he does the improvident thing and marries for love. As befits the tact of the age, we are never told clearly that Mrs. Barton and Lord Dungory are lovers until we overhear a conversation between the two on the train as they return front Dublin to Galway. Even then the reader is shielded from the implications of their conversation unless he or she knows French. The two are discussing the latest outrage, a murder in the Irish midlands whose commission has been facilitated by the lawless conditions that prevailed during the Land Wars.
"I wonder," said Mrs. Barton, "what those wretches will have to do before the Government will consent to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act, and place the country in the hands of the military. Do they never think of how wickedly they are behaving, and of how God will punish them when they die? Do they never think of their immortal souls?" "L'ame du paysan se vautre dans la boue comme la mienne se plait dans la soie." "Dans la soie! dans la soie! oh, ce milord, ce milord!" "Oui, madame," he added, lowering his voice, "dans le blanc paradis de ton corsage."
What makes the novel's political commentary so effective is the effortlessness of it. Moore never strains to make a point, because the living conditions of the peasantry, the oafishness of the provincial Catholic clergy, the frivolity of the rentier class were all out in plain view for anyone with eyes to see. Here is how word of the Phoenix Park murders, a pivotal act of terrorism that shocked the ruling establishment in 1882, comes to one gentry dinner table:
At that moment the butler entered the room with an entree. Speaking to Mr. Barton he said: "Very dreadful news has just been received in Gort, sir: Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke were murdered last night in the Phoenix Park." The knives and forks dropped clinking on the plates as the entire company looked up with white terror painted on their faces. Mr. Adair was the first to speak: "This is," he said, "an infamous and lying report that has been put into circulation ..." "It is, unfortunately, quite true, sir; it is in all the Sunday papers."
The agitation for land reform and Home Rule was so unignorable that it seeped inexorably into every conversation in Ireland. It even gives the much-sought-after marquis a chance to escape from the clutches of the marriage his hostess is trying to bribe him into: "I'm afraid I must leave you tomorrow, Mrs. Barton. I shall have to run over to London to vote in the House of Lords."
The novel's most celebrated scene is the procession of carriages headed for the viceroy's reception at Dublin Castle, seat of British rule in Ireland:
Notwithstanding the terrible weather the streets were lined with vagrants, patriots, waifs, idlers of all sorts and kinds. Plenty of girls of sixteen and eighteen come out to see the "finery. Poor little things in battered bonnets and draggled skirts, who would dream upon ten shillings a week; a drunken mother striving to hush a child that dies beneath a dripping shawl; a harlot embittered by feelings of commercial resentment; troops of labourers battered and bruised with toil: you see their hang-dog faces, their thin coats, their shirts torn and revealing the beast-like hair on their chests; you see also the Irish-Americans, with their sinister faces, and broad-brimmed hats, standing scowling beneath the pale flickering gas-lamps, and, when the block brought the carriages to a standstill, sometimes no more than a foot of space separated their occupants from the crowd on the pavement's edge. Never were poverty and wealth brought into plainer proximity. In the broad glare of the carriage lights the shape of every feature, even the colour of the eyes, every glance, every detail of dress, every stain of misery were revealed to the silken exquisites who, a little frightened, strove to hide themselves within the scented shadows of their broughams: and, in like manner, the bloom on every aristocratic cheek, the glitter of every diamond, the richness of every plume were visible to the avid eyes of those who stood without in the wet and the cold. "I wish they would not stare so," said Mrs. Barton; "one would think they were a lot of hungry children looking into a sweetmeat shop. The police really ought to prevent it."
A decade and a half would pass between A Drama in Muslin and Moore's return from England to Ireland at the beginning of the new century. This was the period of his blockbuster naturalistic novel, Esther Waters, his canvas for exploring those he described to his brother as
the people I love and understand--the dull Saxon. Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone--how I love that thick-witted race.... I want to paint the portrait of the Saxon in his habit of instinctive hypocrisy ... the Cotton Factory behind him starting from the cricket field.
This was also the period of his long affair with Maud Burke, Lady Cunard. Speculation is that Moore was the father of Lady Cunard's daughter Nancy, and in any case an affectionate friendship between the two developed, and she wrote a memoir of Moore which gives an intimate picture of him at his leisure. When she asked him if she was indeed his daughter he replied, "Oh my Lord! Never ask your mother that!"
During the period of his eminence as an English man of letters, Moore met Yeats in London and began to be drawn, little by little, into the Irish literary scene. Frazier's answer to the question "Why did George Moore, like a cosmopolitan Lord Jim, make a standing jump from all that he had known for the last thirty years into the strange seas of Dublin political life?" is that, in addition to several personal factors, he was motivated by
an ambition to be a playwright with an audience and a fascination with literary adventures (such as the possibility of being the father of a new literature in an ancient language), a sense of rejection as an Irish Catholic by English culture and the hope of acceptance within Ireland as a distinguished national figure. Within and above these threadlike factors there was the hovering design of the great spider spinning its self-pleasing thread even while being suspended by it.
Moore was going to expose himself to that disease "fatal to Englishmen and doubly fatal to Irishmen": Ireland. The result was his masterpiece, the three-part memoir called Hail and Farewell.
This memoir, which weighs in at just under seven-hundred pages, is rambling, to be dipped into, thumbed through, set down, and picked up again later. But for anyone wishing to get the flavor of upper-middle-class Anglo-Irish Dublin when the Irish Literary Revival was coming into flower, it remains the essential on-the-ground book to read. This despite Moore's ill-tempered dismissal of the revival: "There is no literary revival. There is only one man, Mr. Synge, and he has written only one really beautiful play, "The Well of the Saints.'" It is a book of quarrels: Moore's quarrel with the materialistic England to which he owed his success, with his brother, with Yeats, with his lifelong friend Edward Martyn, but particularly with Roman Catholicism. This is a subject where Moore carries on at tiresome lengths. It was the major bee in GM's bonnet, and his animadversions on the church obviously carried over into his conversation. Nancy Cunard noted:
even those who disliked him or whom he made uncomfortable could not deny that he was a beautiful conversationalist. Yet the subjects, the subjects! Was it really permissible to go on so much, for instance, about Catholicism, in such a flippant vein?
It almost sinks Hail and Farewell, as it threatens to sink even the novel A Drama in Muslin. Many historians argue that the church saved the Irish people through centuries of hard times and British domination. Moore felt that it was a millstone around Ireland's neck. With all its carryings-on about Ireland's ancient myths and heroes, the revival can be seen as a last-ditch effort by the Protestant ruling class, having lost the Land Wars of the nineteenth century, to define Irishness in a way that would eliminate the Catholic Church from the picture, and thus include themselves at the center. "The plot of the trilogy as a whole," Frazier writes,
is really a conceit: Moore comes to Ireland on a mission, like an aesthetic St. Paul or St. Patrick; but his aim is to save the Irish from Catholicism.... Through the whole trilogy ... there repeatedly sounds a requiem to the Irish Ascendancy, passing away amid eccentric plans for regeneration, while the Roman Catholic Church builds an empire on its ruins.
Religion and politics aside, Hail and Farewell is a great book of gossip, table talk, and fascinating portraits. There was no moment of the day during which Moore stopped being a writer, and it is not surprising that he "spoke of Dublin," as Frazier puts it, "not as home but as his `workshop.'" His life was "copy." Thus, GM was a bit of a cad in his books as in his life. Ely Place, where Moore lived, was a choice address, and he gave memorable dinner parties, with rare wines that seldom made it over to provincial Dublin. After dinner, one guest noted, "Moore listened, smoking his cigar, and, unlike his guest, seldom lifting the wine-glass to his lips." The artist Sarah Purser said of Moore, "Some men kiss and tell; Moore tells but doesn't kiss." George Russell (AE) wrote to the literary and artistic patron John Quinn in New York: "one half of Dublin is afraid it will be in [Hail and Farewell], and the other is afraid that it won't." As with many writers, betrayal came easily to Moore, and his remarks on Edward Martyn's sexual predilections are an early example of "outing." Though he promised Martyn that "on the subject ... there is not a word in my book, I assure you." In fact, however, Martyn's little ways are a running gag throughout the book. Noting the small harmonium in Martyn's rooms, Moore surmises: "one can only think it serves to give the keynote to a choir-boy." "Every Saturday night," Frazier summarizes, "before the Sunday performance of his specially endowed Palestrina choir at Dublin's ProCathedral, Edward takes a boy home to listen to his singing."
As for Moore himself, Adrian Frazier judges him to be "a homosexual man who loved to make love to women." Anomalous as this definition of George Moore may be, it is no more anomalous than many other things about him, and it may make some sense of the pleasure he took in torturing poor Edward Martyn in print. Moore analyzed his own sexual nature as follows:
Never before me has the soul of a man been so embroiled with that of a woman, and to explain the abnormality of my sexual sympathy for women, I can only imagine that before my birth there was some hesitation in the womb about the sex. Nevertheless, I was a happy boy and excellent sportsman: once I had a horse between my legs or a gun in my hands, I left behind all those morbid imaginations, all strange desires to travesty women, to wear their little boots and peignoirs.
Frazier comments: "That horse and gun are good: there were plenty of conscious jokes about `phallic symbols' before Freud."
Born to the life of a country gentleman, Moore quickly surmised that fulfillment for him lay elsewhere. The life of a writer meant renouncing the ideal of the gentleman, which was still a powerful force. Yeats saw and disapproved of Moore's lack of gentlemanly discretion when he first read Ave, remarking "there isn't the smallest recognition of the difference between public and private life" in the book. Moore's weakness for cruel gossip was merely the underside of an artistic credo that leads Frazier to identify his subject as one of the first modernists. Significantly, the first thing Moore did when he went to Paris as a young man was to send his valet home: "his presence stood between me and myself; I wished above all things to be myself.... Myself was the goal I was making for, instinctively if you will, but still making for it." He praised Manet because, though the painter had been "born in what is known as refined society," and was "in dress and appearance" an aristocrat, he was savvy enough to "avoid polite society."
Moore as an Irish nationalist differs from others in the movement by his complete lack of idealism and patriotic sentiment. It was not some revolutionary utopian temperament that led Moore to observations on the disgraceful inequalities of Irish life like those I have quoted from A Drama in Muslin. Perhaps it was having been brought up with an insider's view of the frivolity and lack of social responsibility of the Anglo-Irish class that emboldened him in his condemnation of the way power was exercised in the country, but the position was obvious. Moore knew his inherited class had no future--certainly not in Ireland. Adrian Frazier has produced an exhaustive, well-written and thorough biography of this singular man, whose greatest creation, over and above the millions of words he wrote in the course of a long, laborious career, was that unique and asymmetrical man, George Moore.
(1) George Moore, 1852-1933, by Adrian Frazier; Yale University Press, 604 pages, $35.
Richard Tillinghast's latest book of poetry is Six Mile Mountain (Story Line Press).
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|Title Annotation:||George Moore: 1852-1933|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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