EUPHORION IN ELY PLACE
by Derek Mahon
Although not to the same extent as Wilde, Yeats, Joyce and the other famous faces immortalised on pub walls and household linen, George Moore (1852 - 1933) is one of those authors whose appearance has been often described, whose likeness often reproduced. To his contemporaries he was a singular figure, if not in the heroic mould. Dublin gossip compared him variously to an over-ripe gooseberry, an intoxicated baby and a boiled ghost. Yeats, whom Moore famously likened to an umbrella left behind after a picnic, said in retaliation that Moore was 'a man carved from a turnip, looking out of astonished eyes'; while the poet and critic Susan Mitchell described him as 'a man of middle height with an egg shaped face and head, light yellow hair in perpetual revolt against the brush: a somewhat thick, ungainly figure, but he moved with a grace which is not of Dublin drawing-rooms. He wore an opera hat. Nobody in Dublin wears an opera hat'. He had, she said, 'a face dear to the caricaturist'; and sure enough Max Beerholm, among others, had a go at him. Serious portraitists (Manet, Sickert, Tonks) did him too - also John Butler Yeats, who got most of the Revival crowd; and William Orpen, who included him in his Homage to Manet (Moore is on the left). He lives on in this pictorial afterlife, when most of his books have long been out of print, as an iconic figure of his period.
Moore was for much of his lifetime one of the most widely read authors in the English-speaking world. There was a time too, towards the end of the last century, when he was considered a shocking and scandalous writer - a reputation of which he was proud. His first novel, A Modern Lover (1883), about the artistic life in London and Paris, was banned as immoral by the British 'circulating libraries', a fate accorded to each of his subsequent books until the success of Esther Waters (1894), praised by the prime minister, Gladstone, obliged them to rethink their attitude. Moore shot to the top of the best-seller lists, where he remained for years. As an English novelist he is now largely forgotten: who now reads the melodramatic Evelyn Innes (1898), about an opera singer who becomes a nun, another best seller in its day! But he survives in another incarnation: as an Irish novelist (A Drama in Muslin, 1886, is still available) and as a memorist, specifically as a chronicler of the 'Irish Literary Revival', that extraordinary flowering talent which took place in Dublin during the early years of the present century.
He was born at the family home, Moore Hall on Lough Carra, between Claremorris and Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo. The Moores were Catholic gentry; an ancestor was president of the short-lived 'Republic of Connaught' in 1798. Moore's own father was the member of parliament for Mayo and an attentive landlord: when his horse Corona won the Chester Cup in 1845 he used the immense winnings to save his estate and tenants from the worst rigours of the famine. George was schooled in England where, after studying art in Paris, he made his name; but the Mayo landscape, particularly Lough Carra, remained strongly present to his imagination and acted as a rich source of inspiration throughout a long and prolific career. 'How well I remember that yellow sand', he would write in Memoirs of My Dead Life (1906), recalling a later visit, 'hard and level in some places as the floor of a ballroom. The water there is so shallow that our governess used to allow us to wander at will, to run on ahead in pursuit of a sandpiper. The silence was so intense that one thought of the fairy-books of long ago, of sleeping woods and haunted castles, faint as dreams'. Lough Carra features in The Lake (1906), about a priest who loses his vocation; and appears as the Sea of Galilee in The Book Kerith (1927), a 'fifth gospel' based on the supposition that Christ survived the events of the other four and lived on in a obscure monastery.
The house itself, built in 1795 by a previous George Moore who had made a fortune in the wine trade, comprised three storeys over a basement and boasted, says Burke's Guide to Irish Country Houses (ed. Mark Bence-Jones, 1978), 'an entrance front with two bays, a Venecian window above the entrance doorway and a single-storey Doric portico'. Unfortunately the house is now no more than a shell, having been torched, like many another, for political reasons in the 1920's; but it's an imposing shell. Set among pine-woods, some distance from the road, itself one of those 'haunted castles' of which Moore speaks, it contributed substantially to the idea of Esther Waters - a book, in its author's words, 'about servants and betting'.
'Woodview Lodge', Sussex, in whose kitchens and stables the novel takes place, is based on Moore Hall, another big house obsessed with racing; and its abandonment to 'ruin and weed', when the horses have ruined masters and servants both, prefigured the fate of its original. Esther Waters, ostensibly an English novel, is concerned wit that perennial Anglo-Irish topic, the mortality of big houses.
Moore lived for twenty-one years in London until, disgusted by the tone of English public life during the Boer War, and advised by his friend and cousin and playwright Edward Martyn that great things, artistically, were happening at home, he returned in 1901 to Ireland to make his contribution. A 'resolute voice' had spoken to him saying, 'Go to Ireland!' - or so he imagined - and in a short time he was installed at No. 4, Upper Ely Place, Dublin, where he remained for the next ten years. A plaque commemorates his time there and the address has since become legendary; for Moore was a vivid and entertaining presence and stories soon took shape, to be embroidered over the years by Gogarty and other remembrances. Gossip thrived: as he himself observed, the city's 'acoustic properties are perfect'. None of it touched on his private life however since Moore, despite a reputation for boastfulness exercised great discretion in this regard; so that few knew of the English painter friend, 'Stella', who lived in suburban seclusion at Tymon Lodge, Tallaght, during his stay. His social circumstances in Ely Place were amusing enough in themselves: war with the neighbours, threats of litigation.
He developed an enthusiasm for the Irish language, then in the first flush of revival: 'I want to give a party', he wrote to his brother Maurice. 'The garden of my house belongs to me and it will hold five or six hundred people easily; there are apple trees; and nothing will be easier than to build a stage... On this stage I want to have a Gaelic-speaking audience. I think this would be a very good thing, and I think it would annoy Dublin society very much, which will add considerably to my pleasure'. This took place in the Spring of 1902; the play was Douglas Hyde's An Tincéar and an tSigbeóg (The Tinker and the Fairy). Unionist neighbours heckled from upper windows; but the rain held off, and Moore considered the occasion a great success. He himself collaborated with Yeats on a play, Diarmuid and Grania (1901), which he hoped to have translated into Irish by Tadgh O'Donoghue; but Yeats and O'Donoghue backed out. A more successful project was The Untilled Field (1903), a volume of short stories some of which appeared in Irish translation as An T-ur-Gort Sgéalta (1904), and Moore was thrilled to see his name in Irish - Seorsa O Mordha - on the title page. These fine stories, of which 'Home Sickness' (about a returned emigrant sick of his sick home and homesick for New York) is perhaps the best known, are generally credited with having done for Ireland what Turgenev's Tales of Sportsman did for Russia: that is to say, Moore invented the modern Irish short story.
The great trilogy Hail and Farewell (the title is from Catullus), on which Moore's lasting importance largely depends, appeared between 1911 and 1914 - by which time he was back in London, leaving behind him many picturesque rumours and some understandable resentment; for the three volumes, which chronicled his Dublin years, were notably satirical of his friends and colleagues during that time. Yeats, George Russell (AE) and Edward Martyn, together with many lesser lights, all had reason to feel hard done by; yet, despite its reputation for scurrility, it is actually quite elegantly written and more soft-hearted than appears at first glance. Taken as a whole, indeed, it's positively moving; for the author, setting out to record and satirise a whole cultural movement, wrote, in the process, his own spiritual autobiography. Richard Cave, editor of the one-volume Colin Smythe (1985), the one currently in print, puts it like this: 'A first reading leaves an impression of zest and spontaneity; only on reflection are the richness of texture and subtle patterning revealed'. Cave writes too of the 'mock-heroic tone' and 'comic blasphemies', with which Moore dramatised his Dublin period (unlike Yeats, he was never afraid to appear slightly ridiculous); and notes that this 'penetrating and affectionate study of Ireland' benefits from an original and effective technique derived from Irish life itself: the art of conversation as then practised. The book is talk - high talk. While in Dublin, Moore adopted a new method of composition, dictating to a secretary; and this too contributed to the easy, conversational style which is so engaging. Hail and Farewell has one curious drawback, however, one not shared with his other books: it's all about men; women are few and far between. No doubt this reflects the nature of Irish society at the time; but it comes oddly from such a friend and admirer of women as George Moore.
Despite Stella's presence (though she does leave in order to get married), he seems to have associated Ireland with celibacy.
Edward Martyn, an entirely comical figure as Moore presents him, was a bachelor like Moore - also, unlike Moore, a recluse and a misogynist - and his personality pervades the book.
Perhaps this is what Susan Mitchell found so irritating about it (also the fun Moore made of her friend AE); for Moore was known, certainly since Esther Waters, as a champion women - with whom, however, his relations were often unusual and ever perverse. He seems to never have been a lover in any real sense; he was, rather, a voyeur and fantasist. Daphne Fielding, in Emerald and Nancy (1968), describes his amitié amoureuse with Lady Cunard, its curious quality of innocent yearning, and records that her daughter, as a young woman, complied with the old rascal's request to pose for him in the nude.
A typical fantasy, presented in fact, is the extraordinary story 'Euphorian in Texas' (Euphorian: a happy man). An American journalist, Viola Rodgers, had come to Dublin in 1917 to write about Ireland for Cosmopolitan magazine. She met Moore; they corresponded thereafter; and on this basis he conjured a young woman from Texas ('Honor'), who visits him to tell him she is his greatest fan and want to have his child. They go through the necessary procedure and she returns to America, where a boy is born: 'And now I'll doze an hour in this comfortable armchair and dream that I am on my way to Texas to seek out Honor and her boy'. He always fancied American women for their independence and outspokenness; but he really preferred his comfortable armchair, and this is one reason why his later, London books of reminiscence - Conversations in Ebury St. (1924), A Communication to My Friends (1933) - are so complacent and soporific. Yeats compared the soft, rambling excogitation of Moore's late style to 'toothpaste squeezed from a tube', and few can be bothered with it today; but the poet John Montague suggests that Moore will return to favour ' when the period he sprung from, too recent for revival, comes round into fashion again'. This seems possible. The standard account hitherto has been Joseph Hone's Life of George Moore (1936); but a new biography by an American scholar, Adrian Frazier, is due later this year and will probably introduce just such a revival of interest.
Through Lough Carra's 'yellow-green limestone water', its 'talking' ducks and 'Japanese' reeds, the boat trip (use an outboard motor) from Moore Hall to Castle Island, where Moore's ashes are buried, takes fifteen minutes. On the day of the funeral, says Kathleen McKeown, the retired schoolteacher whose father owned the boat, the local priest preached against the notoriously anti-clerical author. There would be thunder-storms on the lake, he warned; but the rain held off. The deceased had wanted his ashes put in a Greek vase with fauns and nymphs on it; and witty Susan Mitchell, with exasperated affection, suggested it would be more appropriate, instead of fauns and nymphs, to have recognisable figures from the literary revival, with Moore himself as the god Pan 'playing on his pipes the movement of their dance'. In the event AE penned an ambiguous but graceful epitaph, inscribed on the granite plinth. 'He forsook family and friends for his art; but because he was faithful to his art his family and friends reclaimed his ashes for Ireland'.