George Moore: the neglected man of Irish letters
A Monaco symposium seeks to shed fresh light on a literary trailblazer with a massive if overlooked oeuvre who was a champion of French modernism
A sketch of George Moore by his friend Edouard Manet
Glenn Close and Mia Wasikowska in Albert Nobbs, based on a screenplay by John Banville, adapted from a George Moore short story
From October 3rd-5th, the important biennial symposium at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco will be entirely devoted to the Irish writer George Moore (1852-1933). On this prestigious platform for Irish studies, a gathering of world-class Moore specialists will deliberate on Moore’s artistic endeavours, speculate on the nature of further investigation into his writings, and seek to copperfasten Moore’s enthronement in the pantheon of major Irish literary figures.
It is a happy coincidence that celebration of this very remarkable Mayo literary man will take place in a venue that celebrates the Mayo ancestry and artistic legacy of Princess Grace.
Moore, often better known as GM, still needs introduction to a wider public. Born in Carnacun, near Claremorris, Co Mayo, in 1852, the eldest son of Irish Party MP George Henry Moore, he spent significant periods of his life in Paris and Dublin, and died in London in 1933 – and the importance of each of those locations resounds repeatedly in his writings.
He was the author of a truly massive oeuvre: 65 titles include prose, drama and early poetry but many exist in multiple editions for he was a perfectionist and a tireless reviser. It has always been widely accepted that Moore, visual art disciple and discriminating art critic, was to a great degree responsible for popularising the Impressionists’ art in Britain. Literary historians credit him with playing the key role in bringing French literary modernism to English readers, especially in the 1880s and 1890s.
In the light of his acknowledged excellence and ground-breaking achievements, why is his name less widely recognised than that of someone like JM Synge, whose Complete Poems and Plays constitute but a single small volume? It is an interesting story, one now very easily understood in an era when Ireland can uncover the prejudice, prurience and scandals of its Victorian past and the pressure of its early independent existence.
Many social, literary, historical, psychological and artistic grounds influence reception and acknowledgment of GM’s work. He did not, and does not, fit in to any country’s confining literary formats or categories; he resolutely refused limitation. He constantly changed his focus and interest, altered his style, and was often far ahead of prevailing taste: his incorporation of elements of French naturalistic technique were too graphic and explicit for many readers of English novels in the late-nineteenth century; the pared realism of GM’s short stories was too near to the bone for Irish readers of the Irish literary revival period; his immensely popular “Bible” story, The Brook Kerith (1915), scandalised many Christians and enthused others.
Moore was not a typical Irish nationalist although he was eagerly involved in many aspects of literary revival production and after a brief, unsuccessful attempt to learn Irish, “Seorsa Ó Mórdha” enthusiastically ensured publication of An tÚr-Ghort before its appearance as The Untilled Field. Neither was GM an “English” novelist, being very hostile to the humorous and fireside amateurishness of much popular, post-Dickens, English fiction. Like his childhood friend, Oscar Wilde, GM was loudly and irritably articulate on the subject of English hypocrisy.
Moore was appreciably influenced by his residence in France in the 1870s when he became friends with Degas and Manet (three of whose portraits of GM still exist), and where he initiated a collaboration with Zola in international naturalism. From that time on, GM was always very much more a European artist than one identifiably limited to one geographical or literary heritage. He wanted to be recognised for the quality of his books, but only so long as he did not have to compromise with the public in any respect whatsoever.
So, just as the English often regarded Moore as never quite respectable (too French, too Irish, too Catholic, and too daring), bourgeois Ireland followed that pattern, with the variation that Moore was not considered sufficiently Irish or Catholic. Literary envy and jealousy also played a part in influencing how his persona and oeuvre would be viewed.
However, Moore has not been a “neglected” writer during the past 20 years: several monographs and many articles have been published on his work; six volumes of his prose are currently in print, and some have never been out of print over more than a century while others are easily found from internet booksellers; a Hollywood movie starring Glenn Close, and with script by John Banville, was made of Moore’s widely-acclaimed story, Albert Nobbs; there have been six international conferences, leading to five collections of critical essays.
The breadth of study can only be described as spectacular: it encompasses French influences, visual art, music, gender studies, politics, classical Greek literature, biblical study, family history, religion and comparative literary examination. Dissertations on him and on his writings continue to be written in England, Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, Brazil and the US. A significant stimulus to this output was provided by Adrian Frazier’s George Moore 1852-1933 (2000), a seminal work that offers a most entertaining guide to Moorian texts and contexts, one with appeal for both general reader and scholar.
The symposium in Monaco will surely ask why George Moore is so pertinent today. It can be suggested that it is because, a century ago, he contended that the Irish Catholic Church had stepped into the place vacated by the Ascendancy after the Land War – that the church became the ultimate and extra-constitutional authority in the land and the priesthood assumed a kind of personal rule, and assumed with it the character faults of a tyrannical class.
In addition, GM was a visionary of a post-national phase of civilisation, believing that nations often demand too much compliance and thereby diminish the development of personality and freedom. GM always asserted that human sexuality is a matter of boundless complexity, and hence that normative expectations of individuals can prove very cruel; he believed marriage, or at least nineteenth-century marriage, was an institution in which many could not find a happy home. Each of those attitudes displayed considerable honesty and prescience.
On the literary and artistic front, Moore’s highly original development of autobiographical narrative, memoir, and personal essay writing resulted in forms that satisfy the reader’s hunger for reality – this is a rapidly expanding side of the book market today. GM treated the novel as a form of philosophical enquiry, a way of shaping a personal view of life. If this was difficult and threatening a century ago, the twenty-first century reader is ready to view novels as speculative instruments, not just as mirrors of social reality.
GM’s close connections with, and esteem for, visual artists and musical composers enriched his expansion of literary boundaries; that ambition underpins much of today’s artistic engagements. GM’s appreciation and promotion of music displayed avant-garde discernment, particularly in his sensitivity to the originality of Edward Elgar, Claude Debussy and Paul Dukas, and no doubt prompted by his cousin Edward Martyn, to the smooth polyphony of Palestrina. With typical Moorian unpredictability – or maybe ongoing political conservatism – Verdi was rejected, consigned to audiences of a lower order, and compared to Dickens!
As a correspondent, GM was prolific, whether with publishers, producers, family, friends, acquaintances, or literary collaborators. That latter category included significant numbers of women (from Olive Schreiner and Eleanor Marx on) and his relationships with women were complex and interesting. Personally an abstemious drinker, his generous Dublin hospitality, complete with wine and cigars, was much sought after.
His religious beliefs? His core philosophy accorded primacy to personal conscience and abhorred “the deadly fingers of the Ecclesiastic”. When scrutinised close up rather than through the prism of artistic envy or rivalry, the portrait of Moore reveals a man of keen intelligence, dignity and integrity. It is a profile that provides a vital and authoritative counterbalance to negative personal assessments and to oft-repeated, simplistic jibes. John Butler Yeats described Moore’s as “the most stimulating mind I ever met”; Virginia Woolf finally decided that he was “great”.
While at various times Moore was condemned for honesty, innovation and daring, those very qualities are likely to be appreciated today. It is more than time to forgive him for shocking a timorous public of a certain period, just as Beckett and Joyce have been absolved. He should now be embraced as a trail-blazer who sought self-clarification outside Ireland, and not in England but rather in France.
A forerunner of modern Irish writers like Wilde, Synge and Joyce, GM’s literary achievements are extraordinary and the GM cultural tourism trail could run from Moore Hall to Ely Place and the Shelbourne Hotel, and thence to Pigalle and Chelsea, with multiple digressions via Bayreuth, Sussex and elsewhere. Whether Confessions of a Young Man, A Mummer’s Wife, A Drama in Muslin, Esther Waters, The Untilled Field, The Brook Kerith, Hail and Farewell and his other writings tantalise, inspire or enlighten, they certainly merit and reward rediscovery.
Mary Pierse is the director of the George Moore Symposium. The participating George Moore specialists are Adrian Frazier, Elizabeth Grubgeld, Ann Heilmann, Michel Brunet, Christine Huguet, Fabienne Gaspari, Mark Llewellyn and Elena Jaime. pgil.mc/events/lecture/george-moore-symposium-30