George Moore (1852-1933)
Born in a well-to-do Irish family, George early displayed the characteristics which were to govern his later behavior. Sent away to school, he refused to study in spite of heartfelt persuasion on the part of his teachers; changing schools made no difference: George did what he wanted and nothing else. For the most part this involved reading novels and exercising his mania for horses to the limit of his father’s tolerance. He was expelled from his last institution at the age of sixteen and subsequently persuaded his parents to permit him to study art in London. His father died when he was eighteen, leaving him sufficiently well endowed to follow his interests. He immediately moved to Paris, even though he had no knowledge of the French language. He made friends and established himself as a habitue of Parisian cafe society, wining and dining with like-minded, artistic souls while attending a series of art studios in pursuit of his ambition to achieve the recognition he felt was due to his painting talent.
In fairly short order, however, he came to understand that his abilities in art were insufficient to provide him with the applause he craved so he began writing poetry and short stories. He also started to devour philosophical and literary works by Dickens, Kant, Spinoza, and others. As he learned more, he expanded his associations to include a certain M. Duval, who enlisted his assistance in writing plays. Duval had collaborated in over sixty produced dramatic works, and tried to interest George in following the same path. The latter wrote a three-act play and tried unsuccessfully to have it staged in London, but he was more interested in poetry and the works of nascent Impressionistic artists such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Gautier and Mallarme.
He became enamored of the works of Hugo and Zola, but he, in due course, characterized the books of the latter as “only the simple crude statements of a man of powerful mind, but singularly narrow vision”. Pascal, he thought “infinitely childish”. Balzac was a giant, covering the gamut of human experience with his all-encompassing conceptions. George maintained that Balzac was superior to Shakspeare in his universal understanding of the human condition.
His opinions on English writers were just as outspoken: Meredith wrote “crackjaw sentences, empty and unpleasant in the mouth as sterile nuts”; W.D. Howells was vulgar and domestic; Henry James was unreadable (Diane of the Crossways – “when she speaks the utterances are grotesque”); Stevenson “never wrote a book”(meaning a masterpiece, i guess); but Walter Pater’s “Marius the Epicurean” was “profound and musical”. Apparently his favorite author was Joris-Karl Huysmans, a French exponent of Naturalism, and a member of the decadent movement.
Trouble in Ireland required George’s presence, so he left France and spent some time dealing with the unsettled miners and farmers on his Irish estates. Back in Paris he realized that he had in some respects outgrown his life in the haute monde swirl, so he sold his apartment along with his pet python and canaries and moved to London. He had forgotten the English language and had to study a lot to regain his command of it, but once he did he began successfully selling articles and essays to the newspapers.
It’s difficult to overstress George’s reactionary convictions. He seemed to believe that art derived from the dark side of human nature as a sort of antiphonal reaction to evil; that truth could only be evidenced in relation to its sinister opposite. Libraries should be abolished, he said, claiming they encouraged censorship. He continued living in London, writing and publishing poetry and short works and eventually produced a number of novels, of which “Esther Waters” is the best known. It was patterned after the life of the maid-of-all-work in his boarding house, who lived a life of unremitting toil, laboring sixteen hours a day for skeleton wages.
George moved back to Ireland in his later years, continuing his associations with artists and art. One of his plays was produced, “The Bending of the Bough”, to moderate acclaim. and he collaborated in other productions. Several volumes of poetry were published. He knew Yeats and quarreled with him, resulting in a move back to London, where he lived the rest of his life.
Describing Moore as an effete intellectual would be short of an accurate representation. My impression is that he was the possessor of a certain amount of talent, but imagined himself as greater than he was. To quote a familiar expression, he was a classic example of one who was “a genius in his own mind”. I’ve read Esther Waters and while it was okay, i didn’t think it was any where near the standard of those writers he denigrated. I wouldn’t exactly declare his work as a waste of space, as he remains an example of a certain sort of figure in literary history, but i’m not too interested in reading any more of his work.
I should note that this book was written when George was in his thirties. The later particulars of his life come from Wikipedia.