We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  George Augustus Moore (1852–1933), by Sir William Orpen George Augustus Moore (1852–1933), by Sir William Orpen
Moore, George Augustus (1852–1933), writer, was born on 24 February 1852 at Moore Hall, overlooking Lough Carra, co. Mayo, in the west of Ireland, the eldest son of and Mary Blake Moore (1830–1895). The Moores, originally English protestants, migrated to Ireland in the seventeenth century, then through marriage turned Roman Catholic, a faith which from childhood grew more distasteful to Moore until in middle life he publicly renounced it.

There probably never was a more unlikely candidate for literary fame than the younger George, who received little formal education aside from seven unhappy and unsatisfactory years at St Mary's College, a Roman Catholic school in Oscott, near Birmingham. The reedy lake in front of Moore Hall was the scene of many youthful excursions, and throughout his life it was never far from his mind, its beauty inspiring some of his finest descriptive writing. His father had a notable racing stable and here the impressionable youth spent many happy days, both before and after his miserable days at school, as a fascinated spectator of its bustling activities, which years later supplied the authentic background for Esther Waters (1894).

Informal education in Paris

In 1868 the Moores were living in London, where George became enamoured of painting and enrolled in art classes. His family saw no future for him as an artist and so a military career was ordained, a fate from which he was spared by the unexpected death of his father in 1870. As eldest son he inherited the bulk of the Irish estates and their revenues and, when he came of age in 1873, left for Paris to continue his art studies. In the studios, behind the would-be bohemian, there always lurked the Irish landlord, but in spite of this, as he frequently proclaimed, his true education was obtained at the Nouvelle Athènes, a café frequented by artists and writers, where he met and became friends with many who supplied him with his artistic criteria and whose works he promoted on his return to London.

These years in Paris were probably the most important in Moore's life, influencing much of his subsequent career. He soon realized that his artistic talent was at best mediocre and in desperation he turned to the literary scene. Art, however, remained a vital interest and throughout his life artists, rather than writers, were his closest associates, to whom he was known as GM. Moore was a man of words rather than action, so the story of his life is not so much what he did as what he wrote. Charles Morgan, his designated biographer (though never his actual one), suggested in his Epitaph on George Moore that ‘Twice George Moore recreated the English novel’ (Morgan, 2)—and be that as it may, Moore laboriously did re-create himself as an egocentric man of letters, which led to Oscar Wilde's frequently quoted witticism, ‘George Moore has conducted his whole education in public’ (F. Harris, Oscar Wilde, 1959, 278).

In a constant search for perfection Moore continuously passed on to new forms of self-expression rather than repeating a successful formula as did so many of his contemporaries, leading step by step from the ‘naturalism’ of the early novels to the tapestry-like quality of his final works. Few authors of modern times revised to the extent that Moore did, as he habitually recast material seeking a more perfect form, which frequently resulted in some later editions being completely rewritten, producing a bibliographic jungle. Perhaps this is the reason that the works of this once-brilliant Anglo-Irish star of the English literary firmament, whose writings have been translated into a dozen foreign languages, are now almost forgotten by the general public. On the other hand, perhaps this multiplicity of texts explains the extensive scholarly interest, which has resulted in hundreds of books and articles in English and other languages, suggesting that English literature in the twentieth century would have been quite different had he not lived.

Frequently Moore was the storm centre of literary controversies, making him the target of spiteful comments, and his unusual physical features, particularly his flaxen hair and sloping shoulders (which led Yeats to describe him as ‘carved from a turnip, looking out of astonished eyes’; W. B. Yeats, Dramatis Personae, 1935, 24), are perhaps better known today than his books. He was a subject for several generations of artists, from Manet in Paris to his late-life contemporaries in London and Dublin, as well as a favourite model for caricaturists, particularly Max Beerbohm, who found him one of his preferred subjects. His first attempts at writing were negligible and included unproduced dramas and two volumes of verse, Flowers of Passion (1878) and Pagan Poems (1881), the latter including poems revised from the earlier volume, the onset of his lifelong habit of pursuing perfection.

First novels

Due to landlord–tenant hostilities in Ireland, income from Moore's estates was greatly reduced, forcing him to return to London in 1879, where he turned to journalism and fiction to make a living. While still living in Paris, a vital factor in his decision to turn to literature had been his meeting with Émile Zola, whose ‘disciple’ he soon became, with the avowed intention of introducing the French writer's ‘naturalism’ to England. In Moore's first realistic novel, the three-volume A Modern Lover (1883)—subsequently rewritten as Lewis Seymour and some Women (1917)—he translated into an English setting the French art scene he had known so well. The book met with scant commercial success, partly due to the reluctance of the circulating libraries adequately to stock it. To circumvent such censorship, he persuaded Zola's English publisher, Henry Vizetelly, to issue his next book, A Mummer's Wife (1885), in an inexpensive one-volume format. It was the first truly ‘naturalistic’ novel with an English background, dealing as it did with alcoholism and the tawdry side of the theatrical world. Reviews were mixed, but it was generally agreed that a new and distinctive, if somewhat abrasive, voice had arrived on the London literary scene.

In these two early works Moore was the first English novelist to break away from the content, structure, techniques, and style of the Victorians. Other works followed, including A Drama in Muslin (1886) (rewritten as Muslin, 1915), a story of the Dublin marriage market and of Irish life in one of the rural ‘big houses’ during the land war in the late 1870s and early 1880s; A Mere Accident (1887), an examination of bachelorhood; and Parnell and his Island (1887), a collection of critical and pugnacious denunciations of his native land. Following these was the pseudo-autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Young Man (1888), in which the transplanted Anglo-Irishman set out to shock his readers. What it did in fact was to create a legend and establish Moore's reputation as a recognized authority on impressionism and symbolism, based on his first-hand knowledge of the contemporary French art and literary scene. Next came Spring Days (1888), a story of pale love in suburban villas; and Mike Fletcher (1889), his ‘Don Juan’ novel, which received hostile reviews and which its author quickly tried to forget and suppress.

During the same period Moore emerged as a crusading journalist, in the forefront of the fight to break the power of the ‘select’ circulating libraries, those self-appointed literary censors who imposed strait-laced moral standards on English literature by arbitrarily banning some customary three-volume novels from their discreet shelves. Moore's spirited attacks, ‘A New Censorship of Literature’ in Pall Mall Gazette (10 December 1884), and his influential pamphlet, Literature at Nurse, or, Circulating Morals (1885), were among the earliest blows against the powerful libraries and helped prepare the way for the more liberated spirit of the period and the final break with literary Victorianism.

The works of the 1890s

The 1890s were an extremely productive period for Moore and the decade was the high point of his career as a journalist, as he continued his crusade to introduce the new French art and literature to the English public in articles published in various periodicals, some of which were collected in Impressions and Opinions (1891) and Modern Painting (1893), two works which increased his reputation as a significant critic.

Moore's novel Vain Fortune (1891), serialized as being by Lady Rhone, is the story of a writer who can neither write nor give up writing. It met with critical disdain and failed to satisfy its author even after three revisions, though it made a deep impression on James Joyce, who described it in his youthful ‘The day of the rabblement’ as a ‘fine, original work’; it was later the inspiration for ‘The Dead’, the final story in Joyce's Dubliners (1914), according to Richard Ellmann, Joyce's biographer.

Moore's interest in the theatre led to controversial articles attacking the conventional melodramas being offered to the British public, contrasting them with the innovative drama being developed in Europe. He became one of the founders of the Independent Theatre, established in London to introduce the ‘new’ European drama of Ibsen, Strindberg, and others to the British play-going public. His own three-act play, The Strike at Arlingford, was presented for two performances and published in 1893. A one-act play, Journeys End in Lovers Meeting, by Moore and John Oliver Hobbes (Mrs Pearl Craigie), was used for a number of years by Ellen Terry as a curtain-raiser. Next, after partial serialization, Esther Waters (1894) was published, a story which broke new ground in its presentation of its subject matter by making a servant the sympathetic title-character. This book, with its non-judgemental depiction of ‘the fallen woman’, is considered by many to be Moore's greatest achievement, as well as a turning point in the English novel. It was his most successful book and has not been out of print since its first publication. At the 1994 Cheltenham festival it was awarded a spoof centennial ‘1894 Booker prize’.

Moore continued to restructure his material, publishing Celibates (1895), a collection of three stories, one a revision of A Mere Accident. For the next few years he was chiefly concerned with revising Esther Waters and in writing and rewriting the story of an opera singer, Evelyn Innes (1898), which, with its sequel, Sister Teresa (1901), marked a change in his artistic aims.

Due to the practical experience he had gained from his association with the Independent Theatre, Moore was enlisted in 1899 by William Butler Yeats to assist in the launching of the Irish Literary Theatre, for which he served as a stage director and playwright, turning Edward Martyn's The Tale of a Town into his The Bending of the Bough (1900) and collaborating with Yeats on Diarmuid and Grania. In 1901, disgusted with British atrocities in the South African War (confided to him by his brother, Maurice, then serving in South Africa), plus his interest in the emerging Irish literary renaissance, he moved to Dublin. Once there he aspired to create a literature for his native land, writing a series of stories to be translated into Irish, six of which were published as An T-Úr-Gort (1902). English versions of these and other stories were included in The Untilled Field (1903), a book considered by some to be the progenitor of the modern Irish short story. This was followed by The Lake (1905), a study of an Irish priest gaining consciousness of himself and abandoning his calling, and Memoirs of my Dead Life (1906), a semi-autobiographical book of reveries which marked a new direction in Moore's writing, leading to the polished ‘oral narrative’ style of his later years.

Hail and Farewell and last writings

Discovering that he was not the ‘messiah’ of a new Irish literature he had hoped to be, Moore returned to London in 1911, settling in Ebury Street and living as a ‘man of letters’. The publication of Ave (1911), Salve (1912), and Vale (1914), the three sections of his autobiographical Hail and Farewell (which includes his account of the Irish Literary Theatre), infuriated Yeats, Lady Gregory, and other of his former associates in the project, all of whom failed to be amused at the satire and frequently malicious humour of his account or to observe that he made as much fun of himself as of the others. Ironically Yeats paid him the compliment of imitating the style of the trilogy in his own account of the venture.

In 1914 Moore travelled to the Holy Land to see at first hand the setting for his next book, The Brook Kerith (1916), the story of an unrisen Christ and his dramatic meeting with Paul twenty years after the crucifixion. On its publication an attempt was made to have the book banned as blasphemous, and this, coupled with an unsuccessful libel suit when the rewritten A Modern Lover of 1883 was republished in 1917 as Lewis Seymour and some Women, caused Moore to issue his books in expensive limited editions under the sign of the fictitious Society of Irish Folklore. The first was A Story-Teller's Holiday (1918), part autobiography but primarily a retelling of Irish folk-tales and the creation of others.

Moore's previous critical periodical writings served as the basis for sections in Avowals (1919) and Conversations in Ebury Street (1924). He again turned to the past as he retold the love story of Héloïse and Abélard (1921) and, in his final fiction, Aphrodite in Aulis (1930), an imaginative tale of ancient Greece. In Single Strictness (1922; partially reprinted as Celibate Lives, 1927) was a collection of stories, both new and revised. The celibacy theme was not autobiographical, for although Moore never married, he detailed numerous amours in many of his writings. These were once thought to be fictitious, but a number are verified in his letters.

In spite of Moore's long interest in the theatre, he never achieved his ambition to write a truly successful play, and all were collaborations, not always revealed. Shortly after his return to London a dramatization of Esther Waters (1911) and Elizabeth Cooper (1913), a comedy, were produced by the Stage Society for limited runs. The latter was revised as The Coming of Gabrielle and presented for three matinee performances in 1923. Two other plays were produced. The Making of an Immortal, an imaginative account of the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, had two performances in 1927. The second, The Passing of the Essenes (a revision of The Apostle; 1911 and 1923), his final attempt to dramatize The Brook Kerith, had a limited run in 1930.

At the time of his death Moore was writing A Communication to my Friends (1933), which was posthumously published. It was composed of recollections of his early life, which he described as being ‘the story of how literature hailed me’. He died on 21 January 1933 at his home at 121 Ebury Street, Belgravia, London; his body was cremated following services at Golders Green attended by members of his family, a few of his closest friends (mostly artists), and the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, with whom he was to have dined shortly before his death. On 27 May his ashes were buried on Castle Island in Lough Carra, co. Mayo, where he had played as a boy. Over his crypt was erected a wooden marker inscribed ‘He deserted his family and friends for his art’; however, ‘deserted’ was softened to ‘forsook’ when carved on a permanent stone monument.

Perfection was Moore's constant goal and his place in literature should eventually be secure, if for no other reason than his pioneer efforts in freeing English prose from Victorian inhibitions and the example he set of absolute devotion to his art.

Edwin Gilcher

Sources  

E. Gilcher, A bibliography of George Moore (1970) · E. Gilcher, A supplement to ‘A bibliography of George Moore’ (1988) · J. Hone, The life of George Moore (1936) · J. Hone, The Moores of Moore Hall (1938) · C. Morgan, Epitaph on George Moore (1936) · R. Langenfeld, George Moore: an annotated secondary bibliography of writings about him (1987) · private information (2004) [H. E. Gerber] · George Moore in transition: letters to T. Fisher Unwin and Lena Milman, 1894–1910, ed. H. E. Gerber (1968) · George Moore on Parnassus: letters (1900–1933) to secretaries, publishers, printers, agents, literati, friends and aquaintances, ed. H. E. Gerber (1988) · H. E. Gerber, ‘George Moore’, Anglo-Irish literature: a review of research, ed. R. J. Finneran (1976), 138–66 · R. S. Becker, ‘The letters of George Moore, 1863–1901’, PhD diss, U. Reading, 1980 · ‘George Moore: collected letters’, ed. R. S. Becker, vol. 1 · private information (2004) [F. Fayant; A. Frazier; K. Gow; P. Deane] · A. Frazier, George Moore, 1852–1933 (2000)

Archives  

Arizona State University · Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris · BL · Boston College, Massachusetts · Boston PL, letters · Boston University · Col. U., letters, mainly to agents, and literary MSS · CUL · Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia · Folger · Harvard U. · Hunt. L., letters and literary MSS · Indiana Library · Institut de France · Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore · Letterkunding Museum · LUL, letters · New York University · NL Ire., letters, mainly to his mother · NRA, corresp. and literary papers · Ohio University · Pennsylvania State University · Princeton University, New Jersey · Ransom HRC, corresp. and papers · TCD, revised proofs for The brook Kerith · U. Cal., Los Angeles · U. Glas. · U. Leeds · University of Florida · University of Kansas, Lawrence · Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, corresp. · Yale U. |  BL, letters to William Archer, Add. MS 45293 · BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56757 · Duke U., Perkins L., letters to Sir Edmund Gosse · Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp. with Thomas Smith and Horace Liveright; literary MSS and papers · NL Ire., letters to R. L. Best · NL Ire., letters to Mark Fisher · NL Ire., letters to Edmund Gosse [copies] · NL Ire., letters to Marquise Clara Lanza · NL Ire., letters to duchess of Marlborough · NL Ire., letters to Max Meyerfield · NL Ire., letters to Maurice Moore · NL Ire., letters to Baroness Ripp · NL Ire., letters to Mr Wigram · NYPL, corresp. with John Balderston · NYPL, Berg collection · TCD, corresp. with Thomas Bodkin · U. Glas. L., letters to D. S. MacColl · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Sir Edmund Gosse · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Philip Gosse · University of Rochester, New York, Rush Rhees Library, corresp. with Leon Lion · University of Washington, Seattle, Joseph Hone MSS


Likenesses  

E. Manet, oils, c.1879, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York · J. E. Blanche, oils, 1887, Musée Rouen, France · W. R. Sickert, oils, 1890–91, Tate collection · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1896, NG Ire. · AE [G. Russell], pastel drawing, 1900, Ransom HRC · H. Tonks, pencil drawing, 1901, NPG · J. B. Yeats, pencil, 1904, NYPL, Berg collection · J. B. Yeats, oils, 1905, NG Ire. · A. L. Coburn, photogravure, 1908, NPG; repro. in A. L. Coburn, Men of mark (1913) · W. Orpen, group portrait, oils, 1909 (Homage to Manet), Man. City Gall. · W. Orpen, group portrait, oils, 1911–12, Nicols Bar, Café Royal, London; copy, Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris · F. L. Harris, oils, 1920, FM Cam. · H. Tonks, pastels, c.1920, NPG · H. Tonks, group portrait, oils, 1928–9 (Saturday night in the Vale), Tate collection · F. Dodd, pencil drawing, 1932, NPG · E. Kapp, drawing, 1933, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham · M. Beerbohm, caricature, Museum of Modern Art, Dublin · M. Beerbohm, caricature, Savile Club, London · M. Beerbohm, caricature, Harvard TC · M. Beerbohm, caricature, U. Cal., Los Angeles · M. Beerbohm, caricature, U. Texas · M. Beerbohm, crayon and pencil, London Library · M. Beerbohm, ink and wash, AM Oxf. · M. Beerbohm, pen and wash caricature, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin · M. Beerbohm, pencil, Ransom HRC · S. C. Harrison, oils, Ransom HRC · E. Manet, pastel drawing, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York · W. Orpen, pencil, NPG [see illus.] · Sic [Sickert], chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (21 Jan 1897) · R. P. Staples, pencil, Ulster Museum · P. W. Steer, oil on panel, Ransom HRC · plaster death masks, NG Ire., NPG

Wealth at death  

£68,816 2s. 8d.: resworn probate, 2 March 1933, CGPLA Eng. & Wales