I asked myself what manner of man I was. I was astonished to see how dependent my deeds had always been upon my ideas. I had never been able to do anything that I thought wrong, and my conscience had inspired my books.” That is George Moore upon himself. When he eventually left Ireland for good, he had not been forced out, but he had been ignored and made into a figure of fun, because of his delight in giving offence, his exposure of false Irish romanticism toward women, and his mockery of the clergy. Yeats was to write about him that he didn’t read books and couldn’t write; he had pretensions to manners but had no manners. Lady Gregory intimated that he lacked breeding on his mother’s side of the family – they being of Catholic peasant stock. He was without decorum. The stories began to circulate of his inappropriate conversation in mixed company, advocating (for instance) oriental values of polygamy, and denouncing monogamy. He would brag of how, in Hyde Park, he had kicked the backside of a lady who’d vexed him. He simply did not fit the heroic, masculine, Catholic Ireland, the shape of which was already emerging.
In ‘The Confessions of a Young Man,’ he wrote, “I am feminine, perverse” – having overheard his fellow-guests ridicule him at a shooting lodge for wearing ladies’ boots and being perpetually in love -- they gave him the nickname Mr. Perpetual. “To be ridiculous has always been ma petite luxe, but can anyone be said to be ridiculous, if he knows that he is ridiculous? Not very well; it is the pompous that are truly ridiculous.”
Fellow-writers give descriptions of him. There was something comic about him, the long neck, the sloping shoulders, the pale yellow hair, forehead high and bulging, blue-grey eyes a little too prominent. His complexion gave him almost the look of a baby.
“The reader knows how impossible it is for me to believe that anyone likes me. I was trying to find a sufficient reason why AE should seek me out in my garden every afternoon, saying, and saying vainly, he was attracted by something in me he had been seeking a long while and thought he had found at last... When he left me, a certain mental sweetness seemed to have gone out of the air, and, thinking of him, I began to wonder if he were aware of his own sweetness.”
He had been told when was a young man that he was so ugly that no woman would ever love him. The stories abound – “some men kiss and never tell; George Moore tells but never kisses.” And yet women were drawn towards him. It was quite rare at the time in literature for a woman to ask her lover to make love to her. But Stella is recorded by Moore as telling him, as they left the house and were saying goodbye, “you don’t make love to me often enough.” Moore is full of apologies. They returned to the house... “I went back to Dublin a little dazed, a little shaken.”
So what did George do when making love? Did he have some knowledge of oriental sexual techniques such as the Tantric method? It might account for his dazed and shaken demeanour on his return to Dublin.
Some illustrations of his observation of Irish society in relation to women and clerics.
He found that the rigidity of Gaelic League committee-men contradicted the very purpose of the League by preventing women from taking part in Irish-language plays, all because a priest had denounced unchaperoned females going on tour with male actors. In his anger at this absurdity, an idea enters Moore’s mind – that the new safety-bicycle was already making chaperones irrelevant and was freeing women from the clutches of their mothers who in turn were in the clutches of the priests. He sallies forth into the street to find Edward Martyn with two priests discussing the wonderful work Lady Aberdeen is doing to get rid of consumption by her campaign against spitting. He interrupts with the sensible remark that insufficient food is the cause of much consumption, but then audacious fantasy takes over, he pronounces his own great cure: “For the last hundred years no Irish archbishop has died from consumption, not a bishop, nor a parish priest. Therefore I sincerely advocate that all Ireland should take orders.”
Out of this comes the idea for two stories in ‘The Untilled Field.’ One is of a priest writing a letter to the bishop explaining why priests ought to marry. In the other story a priest gets a lady to lecture local women about hens and eggs. One of the women smiles at the lady’s mistakes, telling the priest, “You couldn’t be rearing chickens earlier than March ! – but if you could be rearing them in January, then I have no fault to find with anything she says, your reverence.” The priest tells her, “That will do. I don’t mind your having a bit of amusement, but you’re here to learn.’
Little nuggets are constantly being slipped in; for instance, George Moore, the knowall, cannot resist taking a neat little swipe at Lady Gregory and Yeats for not really observing the minutiae of peasant speech. He comes out with a classic observation when referring to his parlour maid, who says ‘will you be dressing for dinner tonight?’ as opposed to ‘will you dress for dinner?’ “It is our parlour maids who carry on these subtleties of tense, thereby distinguishing between a simple and a continuous future action... the efforts of the uneducated to teach the educated.”
The next two examples are quite painful to read, and were no doubt painful for Moore to write. They are about men’s cavalier treatment of women, men with whom he was close.
First: his cousin Dan, in County Mayo, had a servant, Bridget, who was also his mistress – indeed, they behaved in private like husband and wife. Moore once observed that “she wore a little more apron string than she used to wear” – a hint that she might have been pregnant. Dan died in her arms. But what was to happen to her afterwards? She is left still slaving away in the house. Some of Dan’s relatives decide to get rid of her by giving her a small sum and sending her off to America; she dies there alone and in poverty. Moore knows perfectly well that telling this story will estrange him from Dan’s relatives. “If I did not do so, I should not think of Dan at all. What we all dread most is to be forgotten...” But he made his decision: “Dan shall become a piece of literature in my hands... It is no part of my morality to urge that nobody’s feelings should be regarded if the object be literature. But I would ask why one set of feelings should be placed above another.”
I illustrate this with my next example: AE’s relationship with his wife.
Moore himself had this conflict; but in the end his art came before anything else, even his mistress Stella: “It is better that we understand each other. The plain truth is that I must cease to be your lover unless my life is to be sacrificed.”
Catholicism was an albatross around his neck. His experience at Oscott, the English Catholic boarding school, provoked him to write, “Men do enjoy cruelty, especially priests.” His first open challenge to Catholicism was at Oscott. “A vile hole, a den of priests. I remember one who kept me the whole summer afternoon learning and relearning lines that I knew quite well. Every time I went up to the desk to say my lines his arm used to droop about my shoulders with some endearing phrase. When we were alone, his hand nearly slipped into my trouser pocket. I went to confession and mentioned the circumstances. I was curious to test the secrecy of the confessional. I know that Catholics believe that a priest will never reveal a secret revealed in the confessional. The result of my confession was that a few days afterward we heard he was leaving.” The confession had not been kept secret. This incident justified his hatred of the church and the double standards of its priests.
He also hated the prurience of clerical control of women. For example, in ‘The Untilled Field,’ a rural priest behaves like a secret policeman when attempting to deal with an independent-minded young woman. “The priest sat thinking of the stories he had heard. He had heard that Kate had come back from her last situation in a cab, wrapped up in blankets, saying she was ill. On inquiry it was found that she had only been three or four days in her situation; three weeks had to be accounted for. He had questioned her himself regarding this interval, but had not been able to get any clear or definitive answer from her.”
When his mother’s youngest brother gave away his estate to the church to save his soul, George visited the place to call on the new owners, a missionary order. A plump young priest entertained him and his brother with accounts of the difficulty of the order’s work in Africa, in particular the unwillingness of polygamous men to give up their wives. George asked if any provision had been made for the abandoned wives. The missionaries hadn’t thought of that. “The children,” says Moore, “offer you a fairer field?” “Yes, we try to get hold of the children.”
In spite of his abhorrence of the Catholic Church, Moore still had sympathy with, and insight into, the struggle of the man within the priest. He had met Father Tom, a Jesuit, editor of the New Ireland Review, who had asked him to write some stories for the journal. George had thought that here was a soulmate and a man who understood. He argued that what Ireland needed was enjoyment – why not let the people dance? Father Tom said it was already happening – young girls came with their mothers and went home with them after the dance. “I was much inclined to tell him that to dance under the eye of the priest and be taken home by one’s mother must seem a somewhat trite amusement to a healthy country girl, unless indeed the Irish people experience little passion in their courtships or their marriages. I knew full well that my contributions to the New Ireland Review, were the link that bound me to my friend. But as a priest he would have to place his soul above his intelligence. Father Tom and I had lain side by side in harbour for a while, but the magnetism of the ocean drew me and I continued to write, feeling all the way that my stories were drawing me away from Catholic Ireland.”
The last straw was when a book reviewer referred to him in the press as a Catholic writer. In desperation at this, he decided to throw down the gauntlet with a public statement, a letter to the Irish Times, renouncing Catholicism. He had hoped to electrify the country with this letter; but it was too close to the bone, and the intelligentsia made haste to dismiss it as an absurdity. But how absurd is it? “When will my unfortunate country turn its eyes from Rome, the cause of all her woe? Rome has betrayed Ireland through the centuries. In the first years of the 20th century, Maynooth and the Catholic Archbishop deserted the Irish Parliamentary party, one in the hope of getting a Catholic university, the other in order to get a cardinal’s hat. No choice was left to me if I wished to remain an Irishman, but to say goodbye to Rome.”
On May 15th 2011, Justine McCarthy wrote in the Sunday Times, “The old arrogance is creeping back. Since Pope Benedict’s letter to the Irish faithful last year, perversely blaming the Celtic Tiger for clerical child-abuse, the hierarchy has regained its strut.”
George fires his final salvo against the masculine theocracy of Ireland, when he writes, towards the end of ‘Vale,’ that he has now become impotent. “Nature has cast chastity upon me. As soon as my change of life becomes known the women of Ireland will come to me crying, ‘at the bidding of our magicians we have borne children long enough, may we escape from the burden of child-bearing without sin?’ They will ask me and I will answer them, ‘Ireland has lain too long under the spell of the magicians without will, without intellect, useless and shameful, the despised of nations.’ I have come into the most impersonal country in the world to teach personality – personal love and personal religion, personal art, personality for all.”
Would George Moore fit into our society today? Would he have been included in the gatherings of the great and the good who were invited to meet Queen Elizabeth II? I bet the old story would have been resurrected – “No. We can’t have him. He might kick her up the backside.”