The story begins in 1870 with the sudden death of George Henry Moore, member of Parliament for Mayo, days after he was called back to Ireland by threats to his tenants at Moore Hall. His son, George Moore the novelist, was then eighteen, the oldest of four children. He came into ownership of a 12,000 acre estate, then worth several thousand pounds a year in rents. Moore recalled being hideously pleased with his new condition in life, and the opening chapter, through an exploration of his childhood, explains what it was about his childhood that might have made him relieved by the departure of his excellent father. The future novelist had been made to feel himself a disappointment to his parents: not handsome as a child, not at all successful at school, and not ambitious of any particular career, other than painting, where he manifested no early signs of genius. The sense of having been born for great things, and particularly that his mark would be made in self-expression, and of having been by nature poorly endowed, never really left him.
His sails filled by the wind of a large annuity, Moore set off for Paris as soon as he came of age. His hope was to learn to be a great painter, but he slowly learned in Julian’s Academy that painters are born as well as made. A crush on his fellow student, Lewis Hawkins, made him feel his lack of both talent and good looks. He turned to writing under the tuition of an old hand, the playwright Bernard Lopez, and came to love the pleasures of collaborative composition. Moore’s poems attracted a good deal of attention when published—all furiously negative attention, on account of their exaggerated decadence. Finally finding his way around the cafes of Paris, Moore began to catch on to the modern movements in painting and literature. He met Mallarmé, Zola, and Manet; he even briefly crossed paths with Turgenev, later his hero. When Manet painted Moore in the spring and summer of 1879, painting him over and over, he began a lifelong search for what it might have been in his character that attracted the painter’s attention. Manet also remarked to Moore, “An artist should be ashamed of nothing but to be ashamed,” which ultimately became a guiding maxim for Moore. No sooner had he at last found his way to the heart of artistic discussions at the Café Nouvelles Athènes, than he was called home by a letter from his uncle and agent: the Moore Hall tenants had gone on a rent-strike, and were organising violent resistance to its collection.
Ricochet of Zola
George Moore had to go home, but he did not aim to stay there throughout the Irish Land War. After trying to play a part as a Liberal landlord, with no happy results, he arranged to put his affairs into the hands of another agent, Tom Ruttledge, and by the beginning of 1881 he had settled in London. He set his hand to earning his own living as a novelist. His hope was to become known as a “ricochet of Zola in England,” and he succeeded only too well. Moore’s first novel, A Modern Lover (1883), actually owes more to the lively spirit of “aestheticising” that he had enjoyed at the Café Nouvelles Athènes than to Zola’s theories of fiction. The novel was seen to be the debut of a gifted writer, but one with dangerous tendencies. The circulating libraries refused to stock it in any numbers. For his next book, Moore turned to another mode of publication—the modern single-volume novel, issued at a cheap price from Vizetelly and Co.—and wrote a story that is itself a powerful critique of the moral effect of the romantic fiction circulated by the libraries. A Mummer’s Wife (1885), his one truly naturalist novel, was banned by the circulating libraries; worse yet, Moore was silently blackballed in a concerted attempt to stamp him out as a writer.
It was Moore’s custom in the early and mid-1880s to spend part of each year in Ireland, visiting his mother in Mayo or his boyhood acquaintance Edward Martyn at his castle in Galway. On such visits, Moore gathered material for his third novel, a Flaubertian rather than Zolaesque study of the Irish marriage market, A Drama in Muslin (1886). As a London literary celebrity, Moore had come into the acquaintance of members of the Men and Women’s Club (such as Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner) for adult discussion of the rights of women and the “sex question.” In A Drama in Muslin Moore pondered the Irish question in light of such discussions. His novel—one of the best “Big House” novels in Irish literature—proved too controversial for contemporary readers. What is more, the author dared not return to the country for many years for fear of encountering offended friends and family members. He compounded his fault by publishing in a Paris newspaper a series of satirical essays on the state of the province without Home Rule, republished in English as a volume entitled Parnell and His Island.
Moore’s acquaintance with Henry James and Walter Pater, and the example of Joris-Karl Huysmans, combined to draw him away from the hazards of being Zola’s ricochet. When he rather dashed off—with unpremeditated brilliance—his fictionalised reminiscences, he treated Zola with the same sort of joyful disrespect as he treated everything else in Confessions of a Young Man (1886). Once the volume was translated and published in Édouard Dujardin’s La Revue indépendante, a reckoning with the Master was inevitable. At Medan, Zola sternly read the pages out loud to Moore, and concluded, “It is the law of nature for children to devour their parents.” Uncrushed, Moore went home to write the scene in Confessions of a Young Man in which he finds himself strangely delighted at the funeral of his own father.
Digressions of a Young Man
Moore’s friend, publisher, and ally in his war against the circulating libraries was Henry Vizetelly. In the wake of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment, Vizetelly was targeted for prosecution as a publisher of obscenity by the new National Vigilance Association. His crime was to publish Gautier, Flaubert, Maupassant, and especially Zola. Over the course of several prosecutions, each leading to a conviction, Moore was one of the very few to stand by Vizetelly. Furious with the age in which he lived, Moore continued to write books of eccentric morality, including the three volumes of his “Don Juan trilogy”: A Mere Accident (1887), Spring Days (1888), and Mike Fletcher (1889), about a homosexual, a family of philanderers, and a mean-spirited seducer. Although himself fascinated with the forms and vagaries of male sexuality in the late 19th century, not one of these subjects appealed to the public. Moore’s career as a novelist was on the rocks in 1889. His doubts about himself—that he had a sentiment of greatness, but not the talent to achieve it—are dramatised in Vain Fortune (1891). He rebounded, however, by vigorously recreating his sensibility through experimental writings in periodicals, writings about painting, drama, and literature, some of which were subsequently published in Impressions and Opinions (1891), Modern Painting (1893), and Memoirs of My Dead Life (1906). His writings about Manet, Degas, and other Impressionists earned him credit for introducing modern painting to England, and for leaving to posterity vivid portraits of these painters. In addition to making him one of the thinkers who shaped the 1890s, Moore’s prose experiments clarified his own sense of direction and improved his artistic control. His sexual uncertainties had been assuaged by a romantic correspondence with Marquise Clara Lanza and an affair with Mrs. Ada Leverson. Throughout the early 1890s, Moore slowly pushed forward the composition of Esther Waters (1894), a sort of counter-Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in which the story of a unmarried woman with a child is told realistically, not as pastoral tragedy. Although Esther Waters was, like all his books, banned by the libraries, Moore had the satisfaction of seeing it become a critical and commercial success, recommended to the public by Prime Minister Gladstone.
Meeting Maud Burke
In early 1894, Moore began a whirlwind courtship of the novelist Pearl Craigie (“John Oliver Hobbes”), the daughter of an American millionaire. He entertained the hope that his efforts might bring him to her bed, or even to the altar, but suddenly she broke off the affair in May 1894, just after the publication of Esther Waters. Moore had never laid himself open so fully to injury from a woman, and he was badly wounded. However, within a matter of weeks, at the Savoy Hotel he met Maud Burke, a very young American heiress. Toward the end of the summer, they met again in Germany, where Moore had gone with Edward Martyn to hear Wagner’s operas. The affair continued in France and London until January 1895, when Maud set sail for New York. She returned in May, by then married to Sir Bache Cunard; however, Lady Cunard and Moore resumed their affair. When Maud became pregnant, doubt lingered over the paternity of Nancy, born in spring 1896. The possibility that Moore was her father played a key role in the lives of both George Moore and Nancy Cunard.
Joyce and Yeats
In the late 1890s, Moore was drawn into the schemes of Edward Martyn, W. B. Yeats, and Augusta Gregory to start the Irish Literary Theatre. Moore was distressed by the continued coldness of the English press and public toward his work and himself; his Irish friends told him it was the result of anti-Irish bigotry. The icy artistry of Celibates (1895) was unappreciated; Evelyn Innes (1898) and Sister Teresa (1901), his Wagnerian diptych, did not make the extravagant success for which he hoped. The Irish theatre appealed to his love of collaboration, his delight in controversy, and his mistaken belief that his genius extended to the drama. Furthermore, as the characterisation of Ulick Dean in Evelyn Innes shows, Moore had developed a crush on W. B. Yeats. The two had become best of friends by 1900, when Moore was the script-doctor, part-author, ghost-author, or author of nearly all the plays of the Irish Literary Theatre. So Moore decided to move to Dublin.
Living a block away from St. Stephen’s Green on Ely Place, Moore regarded the whole city and its inhabitants as “copy”: life on the way to becoming literature, and he engaged, by literature, to reshape public life. He tried to launch an Irish language theatre; he wrote stories to be translated into Irish (The Untilled Field, 1901, which was Joyce’s model for Dubliners) — indeed, his brief but intense dedication to the Irish language was the immediate cause of his bruising break-up with Yeats. Moore renounced his Catholicism in the pages of the Irish Times; he wrote a stream-of-consciousness novel — the first in English — in which he depicted a priest thinking himself out of Catholicism (The Lake, 1905). Irish Catholicism had become hateful to Moore for the same reasons it was hateful to writers like Joyce and Yeats: its clergy were repressive, powerful, and ignorant. Seeing Ireland once again after decades away, Moore particularly disliked the effects he observed of the devotional revolution in the Church, and the obdurate opposition of Rome to Biblical modernism, that scholarly movement to read the Gospels in a critically historical fashion. Once Moore began his autobiographical trilogy, Hail and Farewell, he had projected it not only as a farewell to Ireland, and a vengeful satire on his erstwhile friend Yeats, but as an attack on the Irish Church. He stayed in Dublin only until the manuscript of the first volume was ready for the printer (1911), and left before he had to face the originals of the characters in the book. However, a key figure, his own brother Maurice, he could not run away from, and the two brothers had a most terrible falling out when Salve was published.
Throughout his decade in Dublin, Moore visited Lady Cunard and Nancy at Nevill Holt, her husband’s country house. Cunard and Moore reignited their affair in 1905, as Moore’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian foundered. So as Nancy grew to girlhood, Moore became her favourite friend. Yet about the time that Moore returned to London, settling on Ebury Street, Maud Cunard separated from her husband and began an affair with Sir Thomas Beecham, the conductor. The change was painful, but Moore did not allow it to end his friendship with Lady Cunard or his interest in Nancy, now old enough to visit him in his London house. He half thought of asking Nancy to accompany him to on a trip to the Holy Land in 1914, where he went to prepare for the writing of the life of Jesus, a Jesus who does not die on the Cross. It was Moore’s luck to happen on caves very near those where the Dead Sea Scrolls were later discovered; he used them as the location for a community of Essenes, where Jesus begins and ends his spiritual journey. The Brook Kerith (1916), the fruit of his studies in Biblical modernism, caused entirely predictable outrage; more surprisingly, it was embraced by young soldiers returning from the war who thought the time had come to rethink old pieties.
A Famous Man & an Old Tory
Moore was now a famous old man — after the death of James, among the last of the great nineteenth century novelists. The lion of country house parties, hostesses allowed scope to his improprieties; indeed, they expected them. Returning to Ireland in June 1916, he inspected the damage to Dublin from the Easter Rebellion, and was disgusted. The last trace of his Irish nationalism was long gone; he had become an old Tory. On this visit to Ireland, he concocted a merry outrage to the Irish Church and puritanical patriots, A Story-Teller’s Holiday (1918), in which George Moore and a rural seanachaí engage in a story-telling contest, most of the tales being ancient, droll, and very risqué. Contemptuous of the book-buying public that had never given him his due, Moore issued this, and all subsequent books, to a list of private subscribers (though cheap editions were subsequently published).
His circle of friends in the 1920s included old friends like Édouard Dujardin, Edmund Gosse, and, closest of all, the painters Henry Tonks and Philip Wilson Steer. Of course, they did portraits of Moore, who in the course of his life was painted more times than most professional models. He was painted by Manet, Sickert, Blanche, Mark Fisher, Sarah Celia Harrison, Lavery, Orpen, Menpes, AE, Sickert, J. B. Yeats, and others, and Max Beerbohm delightedly caricatured Moore’s drooping figure in 33 cartoons. A character of undecidable complexities, in each portrait, he is always himself and always different. One portrait produced in the 1920s gave him special pleasure. He had often tried to get Lady Cunard to allow him to dedicate a book to her, but his dedications were for her unacceptably indiscreet. Finally, she agreed to sit for a dual portrait with Moore seated on a divan in the Ritz Hotel, painted by John Lavery in a style he often used for husbands and wives at home. It was as close to public acknowledgement of his role in her life as she came. When the end of his life approached, she coldly withdrew her cooperation from his chosen biographer, Charles Morgan. Nancy had led Lady Cunard in a merry dance because of Nancy’s affair with an African-American saxophonist, Henry Crowder, and Lady Cunard developed a terror of shameful exposure.
Kidney infection, hospitalisation, and surgery made Moore’s final years painful, but his passion for writing never ended. He wrote twelve books after 1920, some of them (like Celibate Lives, 1927), among his best. Within days of his death, he was writing a draft of A Communication to My Friends, his last autobiography. He contemplated calling it, “The Story of a Persecution,” because at the end of his life he felt himself to have been wickedly treated by English moralists, for his worldly devotion to art, love, and beauty; for his standing outside the pieties of nation, family, and home; for his persistent interest in the byways of the lives of those who are not heterosexual monogamists, and, most profoundly, for his honesty. When revising The Brook Kerith, he had come up with a simple philosophy of his own which he put in the mouth of Jesus: “It is better to love the good than to hate the wretched.” From having been hated by moralists, he knew what it was like to be judged harshly for honestly being what he was. Given the small number of titles by Moore now in print, it is doubtful if the cloud of disapproval has yet lifted over his abundant life and variously wonderful books—A Mummer’s Wife, Confessions of a Young Man, Esther Waters, The Untilled Field, The Lake, Hail and Farewell, The Brook Kerith, A Story-teller’s Holiday, Avowals, Conversations in Ebury Street, and Celibate Lives. With tireless perfectionism, George Moore did not just write books, or another book in the old manner; he created styles new to English literature, giving birth sometimes to trends, and other times leaving a masterpiece unique in its kind. In his stories, he did things that Hardy, James, or Conrad would not have thought of doing, and did them as well as they could be done.