The Staidness of Trousers

E.S. Turner

  • A Peculiar Man: A Life of George Moore by Tony Gray
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 344 pp, £20.00, April 1996, ISBN 1 85619 578 3

George Moore, ‘daring’ novelist and absentee landlord, sage and humbug of Ebury Street, seemed born to be insulted. ‘An over-ripe gooseberry, a great big intoxicated baby, a satyr, a boiled ghost, a gosling’ – these were among the Dublin epithets collected by his fellow writer Susan Mitchell and here passed on by Tony Gray. Manet thought Moore’s face had the look of a broken egg-yolk, and his first portrait of the author ‘was described by the critics as like that of a drowned man, taken out of the water’. Sickert’s portrait was likened to ‘an intoxicated mummy, a boorish goat’. Moore, entering into the spirit of the game, said Jacques-Emile Blanche made him look like a drunken cabby. Additional insults are to be gleaned from Wintle and Kenin’s Dictionary of Biographical Quotation: Henry Channon called him ‘that old pink petulant walrus’; Gertrude Stein compared him to ‘a very prosperous Mellon’s Food baby’; and Oscar Wilde found his face ‘vague, formless, obscene’.

So it is a comfort to find all these cruelties belied in the portrait of Moore by John Butler Yeats, reproduced in Gray’s book. There sits a harmless, walrus-moustached gentleman of 53, a little melancholy in expression, but by no means satyr-like, fresh-from-the-womb or squiffy. The year of the portrait was 1905, when Moore, surprisingly for a controversial man of letters, accepted the post of high sheriff of Mayo. This presumably would have required him to superintend any judicial hangings at Castle-bar. How would the would-be Voltaire of Ireland have coped with such a chore? Competently, no doubt; for it was his boast that he would have achieved an equal measure of success as a pharaoh, an ostler, a pimp or an archbishop.

Tony Gray is the author of Mr Smyllie, Sir, a life of the legend-encrusted editor of the Irish Times, and it was in Smyllie’s favourite Palace Bar in Dublin that he kept hearing tales of George Moore, that self-proclaimed peculiar man (‘I couldn’t be commonplace were I to try’). He could hardly have picked on a more slippery figure for a biography; a man whose three lively books of reminiscence were riddled with fantasy, who invented other people’s lives for them, who was happiest writing about what might, should or could have happened. How peculiar was he, in fact? Pretending to be a great sensualist, and always wanting to see women with their clothes off, are traits which hardly set him apart from the rest of his sex. There was nothing peculiar in a young Irish squire, on taking up his inheritance, making a bee-line for Paris and the world of artists’ models, nor was it all that peculiar to take a valet with him (his mother’s idea, apparently). Given the nature of la vie de bohème it was normal enough to keep a python in one’s apartment and feed it live guinea-pigs (though Moore, useless at domestic tasks, probably left this to his valet). How peculiar were the relations of this ‘aspiring lecher’, as Gray calls him, with the young women he claimed to be such ‘a dab’ at cultivating? Susan Mitchell, who wrote a book about him, famously said: ‘Some men kiss and do not tell, some kiss and tell, but George Moore told and did not kiss.’ It depends, as Gray delicately indicates, what you mean by ‘kiss’; and when the unreliable Oliver St John Gogarty says Moore was still a virgin at 80 it depends what you mean by virgin. Moore’s own contribution to the subject (or one of them) runs:

Women seemed to me so beautiful and desirable – men so ugly, almost revolting ... I was absorbed in the life of woman – the mystery of petticoats, so different from the staidness of trousers ... I loved women too much to give myself wholly to one ... Why should I undertake to keep a woman by me for the entire space of her life, watching her grow fat, grey, wrinkled and foolish?

Perhaps the life-long bachelor remembered the family joke which dogged him as a boy – that he would grow up to marry an ugly old woman.

Having failed as an artist, and perhaps having failed with the artists, models, Moore abandoned Paris for London. He published a deeply regretted collection of poems, copies of which he would later snatch from his friends’ shelves. His early novels were embargoed by W.H. Smith. Then enormous success came in 1894 with Esther Waters, a book still to be found among the paperback classics on the High Street. Since Tony Gray does not tell us a great deal about this novel, it seemed a good idea to lay aside, temporarily, his amused and amusing book and plunge into Moore’s extraordinary tale of the wicked, wicked world of wet-nursing, the reality behind those advertisements in the personal column of the Times: ‘A good breast of milk available; first-class references’. Not that Esther, a betrayed kitchenmaid from a gambling-mad big house, can afford to advertise her bounty: she has to rely on word-of-mouth recommendation. In her penniless extremity she contracts to supply her milk to the baby of a well-off mother (anxious perhaps to retain her figure) for 15 shillings a week, while leaving her own child with a baby-farmer who wants five shillings a week to feed it cold milk from a bottle. Here is the baby-farmer counselling Esther on the line to take with her employer:

Yer suits the child, that’s all she cares about. Ask ’er for an advance of five pounds; she’ll give it when she ’ears it is to get rid of yer child. They ’ates their nurses to be a-’ ankering after their own; they likes them to be forgotten like, they ask if the child is dead very often, and won’t engage them if it isn’t. So believe me she’ll give yer the money when yer tells ’er it is to give the child to someone who wants to adopt it. That’s what you’as to say.

And if Esther has any more babies, they can be taken off her hands on the same terms. Well aware there are more ways of getting rid of a baby than by adoption, she reclaims her child. Later she marries the father and becomes a barmaid in his public-house, where he runs an illegal betting business, spreading death and ruin.

Compared with Esther, the heroine of Cathy Come Home had an easy ride. Portraying as it does a society rotted from top to bottom by gambling fever, Moore’s novel reads at times like one of those axe-grinding tales that used to be written to advance the cause of thrift, temperance or early closing. Occasionally the characters lapse into the stilted speech of Mayhew’s street characters, but it is gripping stuff in the realist vein and served Moore well, in that the fierce demand forced Smith’s to lift their blockade on his works. It even earned him a postcard from Gladstone, congratulating him on the book’s high moral tone. A touch shamefacedly, perhaps, the author told Havelock Ellis that ‘he had not made any overt attempt to do good in writing Esther Waters, but was gratified to think that inadvertently the book might have alleviated more human suffering than any other book of its generation.’ This was a reference to the founding of a home for homeless children by a hospital nurse who had been greatly moved by the book. There is some irony in the thought that Moore, having kindled the world’s sympathy for a wronged maidservant, was capable, if Charles Morgan is right, of hurling his boots at a housemaid who displeased him; and, if William Butler Yeats is right, of quarrelling violently with a sacked cook and a policeman over whether an omelette was fit to eat.

Wary, one suspects, of being seen by the world as a moral crusader, or even an inadvertent do-gooder, Moore set about becoming a knockabout public figure. He was among those invited to give instant opinions to the Daily Mail, founded in 1896, and would have been an ideal contributor of ‘Why, Oh Why’ pieces to that paper today. Irish wits and sages were expected to come up with extravagant pronouncements and Moore was not to be left behind by Shaw. Gray gives a pretty selection of them over the years, excusing them on occasion on the grounds of naivety and immaturity. Some examples: it would be worth beheading every Japanese if that would preserve one Hokusai; only one child in a hundred should be taught to read and only one in ten thousand to play the piano; it is a far worse crime to bring someone into the world than to remove someone from it (which could explain any backwardness with women). His scorn for Roman Catholicism drove him to say that no Catholic country had produced any literature since the Reformation; and at dinner tables he took to making ill-timed jokes about priests who turned God into a biscuit.

He was forever reinventing himself in his writing, following models from Balzac to Pater; Wilde complained that he conducted his education in public. Not until he wrote his autobiographical trilogy – Ave, Salve and Vale – did he find a free and easy style of his own. His marathon apprenticeship to letters was scarcely advanced by his return to Ireland at the turn of the century to lend a hand with the Irish Renaissance. This turned out to be not a good idea. Gray gives us a haunting picture of the Celtic illuminati trying to do things in the hardest possible way. In a rash moment Moore and Yeats resolved to write, in collaboration, a play to be called Diarmuid and Grania, about two characters in Irish myth. Should it be written in Galway dialect, or in Biblical language? Certainly not in the style of Esther Waters, ruled Yeats. Lady Gregory tried to be helpful. When Moore decided he would rather write the play in French, Yeats thought this an excellent idea. As Gray explains,

Lady Gregory could translate Moore’s French text into English; Taidgh O’Donoghue, a local Irish language expert, would then translate Lady Gregory’s English text into Irish; Lady Gregory, who knew Irish, would translate O’Donoghue’s Irish back into English; and, finally, Yeats would put his own ‘style’ on it. Lady Gregory, Yeats assured Moore, supported this plan and had promised to translate Moore’s French version with due deference to his style.

Once this April foolery had been agreed Moore took off for Paris and, in a hotel sitting-room, wrote a sample scene; only to be forced to conclude that, while one can think in a foreign language, one cannot think profoundly. Somehow the play was written, and produced with music by Elgar, but it never became a regular part of the Abbey Theatre repertoire.

Gray is surprised, though not much surprises him, that Moore was able to ignore completely such a needless distraction as the First World War. It was left to Shaw to suggest, at the outset, that the soldiers on both sides would do well to shoot their officers and go home, though he later became a bit of a jingo and toured the trenches as the guest of Haig. Moore waited until 1916, the year of gigantic casualty lists, when millions were trying to hold onto their faith, to publish The Brook Kerith. This ‘Syrian tale’ tells how Jesus Christ survives crucifixion and entombment to settle in an Essene monastery, where Paul eventually tracks him down and finds that he has been selling Christianity on a false prospectus. (Compare and contrast the recent Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, in which Christ was never crucified but married and settled down in the South of France.) Gray takes a relaxed view of The Brook Kerith, insisting that the reviewers of the day all missed the point. The story is something of a jest and ‘the important point is that it is written in vernacular,’ with the disciples and their womenfolk making sly and pawky jokes in Sussex accents or Yiddish. If one reads it in dialect ‘it all becomes quaintly and quietly hilarious, though you can easily see how this aspect of it could have been missed in England in 1916.’ You can indeed. Those who were unamused could always turn to Sir Oliver Lodge’s Raymond, published later that year, with its medium-transmitted news that newly-dead subalterns from the Western Front were solaced on first arrival on the Other Side with whisky and sodas.

George Moore was neither the worst nor the best of Ireland’s absentee landlords. He was not pleased when the demands of his serfs for lower rents threatened his social activities. Shortly before the First World War he sold off much of his land to his tenants, pocketing £30,000 from the curiously named Congested Districts Board; and after the Irish civil war he received £7000 compensation for the loss of Moore Hall, burned down by Irregulars. It was at Moore Hall, as a boy, that he absorbed the racing background which lent such authenticity to Esther Waters, and he kept it on as a home for his mother. When she lay there dying he took the opportunity, he says, to ruminate on how best he could himself escape ‘the disgrace of a Christian burial’. A 50-feet pyre, perhaps, on a neighbouring lake isle? There was time to ponder such things because he had to wait for his mother ‘to decompose sufficiently so that they could bury her with impunity according to her last wishes – she had always been terrified of being buried alive’; a filial observance most of us are fortunate to be spared. When Moore died in 1933 he was cremated not on a high pyre, but at Golders Green, with Ramsay MacDonald in attendance, in a ceremony verging perilously on the Christian.