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.



William McFee (1881-1966)

The Gooderich family has problems.  Mr. Gooderich is a mechanic at a factory in Wantage, near London.  Being lonely, he proposes to Mary Higgs, a simple seamstress who’s been led astray by Mr. Royce, Junior.  She, having little recourse, accepts.  Minnie is born six months later and after a quiet childhood, finds work as a retoucher in a local print shop.  But an American concern buys the business and Minnie moves to London in search of work.  She becomes involved with Mrs. Wilfley, an industrious lady who survives by advertising cure-all medicines in the London papers.  Anthony Gilfillan, another advertising designer and promoter, interests Minnie in his prospects and they soon become an item.  She likes being a mistress, and spends the next few years moving from one boy-friend to another.  Eventually she marries a sea captain and renews her association with Mrs. Wilfley, writing blurbs for patent medicines for the newspapers.

Bert Gooderich has no head for learning and is fed up with school.  He has a native talent for leading others, though, as is evidenced by his successful campaigns against local gangs of children, in the ongoing battles between adjoining neighborhoods.  His prowess is noted by a retired colonel who supplies Bert with an introductory letter to the local militia.  Enlisting in the army upon leaving school, he’s killed in the Boer war.

Hannibal is the youngest child, a dreamy, loosely connected waif who lives in “an illimitable ocean of unconscious Being in which he and all things else swim with half blind staring eyes”…  Returning from fishing with his best friend Hiram, he discovers his father drowned in the local creek.  Mr. Gooderich had been oppressed by his stagnant work prospects and, having overly indulged himself at a nearby pub, leaned against a failing bulwark which gave way, precipitating him into the water.

Mary and her remaining son move to London where she works as a cleaning lady for an uncle.  Hannibal gets into trouble, stealing iron from a blacksmith, but is rescued and provided with a job in a tobacco shop owned by said uncle.  The shop is operated by Amy, the daughter of uncle Brown, and Hannibal serves time there, reluctantly, finding solace in a nearby bookstore and meeting the old, fusty bookseller, Mr. Brober, who recommends books.  Han reads “An Iceland Fisherman” and “Toilers of the Sea”.  Later he meets a sailor who tells him of a job-opening in a steamship about to sail for the East Indies.  Han visits the ship and takes the job.  He’s successful, working hard in the black gang (coal heavers and oilers below deck), and seems to have found his place in life.  After several years of eventful voyaging, including shipwreck and fire below decks, he returns to England to marry a girl he had met on a previous voyage.  He’s not well, having picked up a serious disease in Japan.  Nell, his wife, doses him with a patent medicine (one which his sister Minnie had written the ad for);  he eventually dies, but not before the local doctor tells her that she’s been  (spoiler ahead) providing Han with poison in a bottle, which consists of mercury blended with acids of various sorts and contains lots of sugar to disguise the flavor.  Thus, McFee ties together the threads of consequence, connecting Mary’s illegitimacy, Minnie’s later profligacy, and Han’s inability to parse meaning from the ongoing events which make up his life, concluding with his own death as a result.

By Casuals, McFee indicates not only itinerant travelers on the ocean, but wanderers in the sea of human reality as well.  And as a term referring to the insect world, sometimes. McFee is master of prose, his scenic descriptions and presentations of action and behavior readily evoking images in the mind’s eye.  He wrote over thirty books in his lifetime.  And, having served at sea for over thirty years as Chief Engineer for various shipping firms, he famliar with the particulars of marine engines down to the last nut and bolt.  His references to some of the operations below decks left me (even though I worked as a mechanic in my youth) mystified.  But he has the gift of enthralling readers in spite of the latter diversions.  The main failing in this book, i thought, was in his plotting.  Technically, events followed each other in a logical manner, but the reader’s attention was often distracted by side issues and seemingly unrelated occurrences.  Hannibal was apparently the protagonist, but only after 350 pages had elapsed did he really come to life, with his maturing experiences as represented aboard ship.  Here are some citations i liked:  “Like many inarticulate souls, he was compelled to falsify his emotions by his expression of them”, and “One of the priceless advantages of possessing a small mind is the power to train it upon any problem in a flash”.  While shoveling coal, Han “saw the world in fugitive peeps”.  McFee is an interesting and occasionally scintillating author;  i’ve read some of his other books and will probably read more at some point.



SARAH FIELDING (1710-1758)

After their father died, Daniel, David’s well-beloved brother, forged a new will and left David with 500 lbs, while he appropriated the rest:  11,000.  Their mother was pensioned off with 60 a year.  Daniel made life unpleasant by convincing the servants that it was all David’s fault.  So he walked away, intending to visit his uncle.  Two of Daniel’s servants, John and Peggy, had witnessed the false will, but the uncle got them to confess and thereby retrieved 10,000 lbs. for David.  The latter decides to search for a true friend and perambulates about London having various adventures that discourage him in his inquiries.

He rooms for a while with a jeweler, Mr. Johnson, and soon falls for his youngest daughter but she is greedy and plots with an old ugly Jewish person to rob David.  The latter overhears the plot and, disgusted, leaves.  The pair contract spotted fever and die.  Changing boarding houses every week or so, David encounters the good, the bad and the ugly and is repelled by selfishness, egoistic behavior, stupidity, greed and delusional expectations on the parts of the inhabitants he meets.

Mr. Orgueil (“pride”, in French) offers a respite from wandering for a while, but David becomes depressed with his self-involvement and egoism and leaves, but not until he has an opportunity to visit the playhouse, where he is repelled by the behavior of the audience.  It’s common practice for the fourth and fifth acts of any drama to be interrupted by howls and screams and antic behaviors.  These are econo/political actions intended to obliterate the work of a given playwright, or to curry favor with one critic or another.

Mr. Spatter introduces David into the world of whist and “Conversaziones”.  Gaming is big business in the high society of the time, occasioning the loss or gain of large amounts of money.  High teas are opportunities for socialites to indulge in”ignorant cackle”.  Mr. Varnish shows David that Spatter is a vengeful person and invites him to move into his house.

While living with Varnish, he meets Cynthia, the product of a hypocritical family;  when the father dies, she’s left penniless so she takes a position with a rich heiress and they tour Europe.  Cynthia becomes a virtual slave, working her fingers to the bone and not getting paid for it.  She escapes and David helps her find refuge with a cousin in the country outside of London.  He leaves Varnish’s house due to the latter’s lack of compassion for the human condition and decides to investigate the lower classes, since the upper ones seem so cold blooded and cruel.

He meets Camilla and Valentine, starving in an attic, and the three, having much in common, move into an apartment together.  Their story involves a scheming step-mother, Livia,  and her evil plots to turn the father against the children and thus acquire all his money.  They suffer greatly until rescued by David.

Meanwhile Cynthia’s cousin dies and she’s left with 30 lbs.  She takes coach to London together with three fellow travelers:  a social butterfly, a cleric, and an atheist.  The coach rolls over and the atheist breaks a leg.  The cleric offers her marriage and she becomes disgusted and decides never to talk to men for the rest of her life.  But once in London, she happens to meet David again and moves in with him and Camilla and Valentine.

The four fellow-roomies meet other distressed persons, Isabelle and Dumont among others, and hear their sad stories, having mostly to do with greedy parents and lost children, featuring varying amounts and types of hypocrisy that end in death or bereavement and/or  poverty.  But ultimately, David falls in love with Camilla and Valentine falls for Cynthia and they all get married.  This is the end of the book as originally written but there’s another addendum added at a later date which is entitled “Volume the Last”.

This final section details the actions of a false friend who helps a lawyer steal all David’s money.  There’s an explosion that burns down the house inhabited by David and Camilla.  The other two have emigrated to Jamaica, where their hopes of successful farming come to naught:  Valentine dies of yellow fever and Cynthia returns in time to alleviate the poverty that David and his wife have fallen into as a result of the trickery of lawyers and local land owners.  (spoiler ahead)  David and Camilla’s children have died one by one and soon Camilla passes as well, leaving only David and Cynthia to comfort each other.  But soon David dies also, and book ends.

This could almost be termed as a picaresque novel.  It bears some similarities to Sarah’s brother’s style, especially to “Tom Jones”.  The progress of events is serial in nature, but mainly communicated through the experiences of narrators in the plot rather than through the train of circumstances that Tom himself undergoes.  It gets confusing at times, with characters appearing, disappearing, and surfacing again.  And although the presentation of universal hypocrisy in the society of the time is effective, it does get tedious after a while…  But apparently it was a very popular book at the time.  Sarah went on to write a couple more novels and a children’s book, “The Governess” which was widely accepted.  It was an interesting read in that Henry’s faint image could occasionally be discerned peeping through the interlaced textual presentation, as if approving the progression of the narrative.  Henry was a well known judge and presumably he and his sister discussed London society and it’s relation to morality and the law upon occasion…  at least that’s the feeling i got…


Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

This book is a sort of melange of anecdote, adventure, and philosophy,  and a paean to the beauty of water.  Conrad alludes to the difficulties associated with sailing in tall ships all over the world, from Australia to America and beyond.  The dangers of landfall and departure are referred to as real and nerve-wracking, what with variable winds and tides and the perilous peregrination between reefs, sandbanks and shoals.  On one of his first voyages, he managed a tricky departure from Bangkok which elicited a wry comment from the chief mate:  “You always do seem to get out of a mess somehow”.

Conrad considered sailing in wind-propelled craft an art, not a skill.  The latter term was reserved for steam ships, which required no knowledge or awareness of water or wind, just the ability to shove a motor-driven barge in a given direction.  Manning and controlling a full sweep of ship-borne canvas in storm and calm, estimating tidal forces and achieving the optimum balance between speed and safety required many years of experience and study.

Sometimes ships have, seemingly, minds of their own.  Once, when Conrad first commanded a ship, he attempted a fancy and daring approach to a mooring that was just  to leeward of a Dutch brig anchored near shore.  Because his vessel didn’t immediately answer to the helm, one of the ship’s spars accidentally poked a hole through the spanker (an aft sail ) of the intervening boat.  Embarrassing.

Even loading a cargo could result in hazardous circumstances.  When he was supervising  the lading of one of his ships, he erroneously judged the center of gravity of the cargo, which caused violent yawing and pitching all the way to Samarang.  The action was so bad that several 3″ manila lines parted just as a result of the jerking and swaying.  The crew was irate and most of them spent lots of time being sea-sick.  When they reached their destination Conrad was hit in the head by a wobbling spar and spent 3 months in hospital.

Another experience involved Conrad serving as first mate aboard a ship sailing home to England under a series of gales that prevented them from taking sextant readings for a full week.  Traveling under dead reckoning and nearing what they thought might be their destination, the captain asked Conrad what he thought their position might be, mainly in order to have someone else to blame if things went south.  At that moment their only remaining sail blew out of its bolt ropes (sails were attached to ropes on the outside to give them shape and strength) at the same time that the weather finally lifted to reveal them just offshore of the Isle of Wight.

Conrad had an epiphany once about the uncaring nature of the oceans and fragility of human life.  They were sailing in the North Atlantic when a lookout spotted a tree just over the horizon where no tree should have been.  Investigating, they discovered a foundering Danish brig, dismasted and sinking rapidly.  Upon rescuing the nine remaining crew, who were exhausted from manning the pumps for days on end, they all watched from the deck of their own ship as the derelict gave a gurgle and slowly sank out of sight.  Conrad suddenly realized that the sea was like a mirror that reflected human activities, hopes, fears, dreams, and realities, without prejudice, sense, understanding, or significance.  It was the beginning of his later conviction that the universe and life were the same and indivisible, that they were all drifting in an eternal void toward an unknown goal and not in any real sense, independent entities.  He said:  “Already I looked with other eyes upon the sea.  I knew it capable of betraying the generous ardour of youth as implacably as, indifferent to evil and good, it would have betrayed the basest greed or the noblest heroism.  My conception of its magnanimous greatness was gone.  And i looked upon the true sea – the sea that plays with men till their hearts are broken, and wears stout ships to death.  Nothing can touch the brooding bitterness of its soul.  Open to all and faithful to none, it exercises its fascination for the undoing of the best.  To love it is not well.  It knows no bond of plighted troth, no fidelity to misfortune, to long companionship, to long devotion.”  Conrad used personification a lot to describe the ocean in its many different moods.  It wasn’t clear by the end that he ever really was able to regard it in a totally objective manner.

The book ends with an anecdotal story about smuggling and the consequent evasion of customs ships.  It’s not clear whether Conrad was a smuggler (although nowhere does he say that he wasn’t), but the conclusion of his story involves crashing their little ship into a Mediterranean rock on purpose to confuse the pursuing authorities by causing it to suddenly vanish.  After rowing ashore, Conrad says farewell to his smuggling associates and apparently abandons crime.  The main character in the story, and Conrad’s friend, resembles Peyrol, the protagonist in Conrad’s “The Rover”, a story with a similar plot about a retired seaman and a desperate gamble to escape the revenuers.

In some ways i found this the most interesting book of Conrad’s i’ve read.  It’s uneven:  he sort of wanders around the planet, describing in a desultory way the varying places he’s had adventures in and devoting a lot of print to descriptions of the ocean in its geographical and climatic variations.  But he comes closer to portraying his own states of mind than in any of his other works that i’m familiar with.  I’ve read in other places that he was quite morose in his later years and i assume that was a result of his thinking about man and his relation with the universe.