The Norwood Society

George Moore

I wonder if anyone now reads the novels of George Moore (1852-1933), a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw who was dubbed 'the Irish Balzac' and once ranked as a novelist alongside Thomas Hardy and Henry James? He was born in County Mayo where his father kept racing stables and these provided the background to his best-known novel Esther Waters (1894), although that has an English setting. Some readers may remember a television adaptation many years ago.

A few years ago a casual visit to the literary 'treasure trove' in Haynes Lane off Westow Street led me to discover a fine copy of Moore's slightly later novel Evelyn Innes (1898) for £2. Bound in dark green cloth and with the title page printed in red and black with a dedication to his contemporaries Arthur Symons and WB Yeats, my copy appears to be a first edition, but is apparently the unacknowledged second printing of that year, Moore's English publisher having insisted on excisions from one of the chapters.

Moore studied painting in Paris as a young man and got to know the Impressionists (Manet painted his portrait) and then their champion, the novelist Emile Zola, whose 'naturalistic' style he learned and adopted in his own novels. He became a member of the Soirées de Médan, the group of writers (Guy de Maupassant was one of them) who gathered at Zola's house in the little town of Médan on the Seine to the west of Paris, which today houses the Zola Museum and contains his famous Upper Norwood photographs.

Settling in London like so many of his Irish contemporaries, Moore set about shocking Victorian England with his 'French' frankness about sexual matters. His first novel, A Modern Lover (1883), was banned by the circulating libraries such as Mudie's, WH Smith's and Boot's and this was enough to confirm him in outspoken opposition to prudery and censorship of all kinds. Evelyn Innes is a mature work and one that was long in the making. On 30 January 1894 Moore took his friend Pearl Craigie, a wealthy American heiress, to 'Dowlands', the home of Arnold Dolmetsch at 172 Rosendale Road in Dulwich, for a concert of fifteenth-century English music played on original instruments. He was charmed by the music and the atmosphere of the Dolmetsch home and by the beauty of Dolmetsch's daughter Hélène. Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940) was French-born, but of Swiss ancestry. He was appointed as a part-time violin teacher at Dulwich College through the influence of Sir George Grove, the first Secretary of the Crystal Palace Company and the originator of the famous Dictionary of Music that bears his name. Dolmetsch began to collect and then make viols, lutes and a range of early keyboard instruments. The story of Arnold Dolmetsch, musician, scholar, maker of instruments and promoter of the cause of early music, is a remarkable one, but our interest must be confined to the fictional use George Moore made of him in Evelyn Innes.

The character of Evelyn's father is obviously based on Arnold Dolmetsch and the early scenes in the book describing the devoutly Catholic and musical household are of particular charm. When the book begins, Mr Innes, the widower of a famous opera singer who had lost her voice, and his twenty-year old daughter are living in Dulwich. Mr Innes is the organist at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Southwark and Evelyn plays the viola da gamba and sings Renaissance songs at her father's concerts. Then there enters the figure of a wealthy baronet, Sir Owen Asher of Berkeley Square, a music lover, but a sensualist who has had many mistresses. Charmed by Evelyn's beauty and her singing talent, he seduces her and whisks her off to Paris where she is trained as an opera singer and in a matter of a few years becomes an international diva. Established as Sir Owen's mistress, she has a house in Park Lane, but marriage is not on the baronet's mind. Evelyn is also attracted to a man who is almost Sir Owen's opposite, the Irish composer Ulick Dean, a man of great spiritual sensibility and full of the 'Celtic Twilight'. A tryst at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is charmingly described and their relationship is consummated during an interval of a performance of Tristan and Isolde in which Evelyn is taking the female title role. Ulick Dean is a clearly recognisable portrait of Moore's friend, the poet WB Yeats. Dean even shares Yeats's interest in William Blake and in the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, briefly an Upper Norwood resident. Yeats had a love affair with an actress, Olivia Shakespeare, and they visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery together. He had also been a visitor to the Dolmetsch household in Rosendale Road.

Moore drew the character of Evelyn from Hélène Dolmetsch initially, but the sensual woman she becomes is modelled more on Pearl Craigie and perhaps on Virginia Crawford, whose adulterous affair with the Liberal politician Sir Charles Dilke had ruined the latter's career. Virginia Crawford had been received into the Roman Catholic Church and would retreat into St. Mary's Abbey at Mill Hill when 'pressed by the world'. Likewise, Evelyn, who has not entirely lost contact with the Catholic faith of her girlhood, begins to use some of her now substantial wealth to assist an impoverished order of nuns in Wimbledon. She retreats to their convent there from time to time when overburdened by the attentions of Sir Owen Asher and Ulick Dean. In the convent she is befriended by the nuns and reads devotional literature, particularly the works of the sixteenth- century Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila and of the seventeenth-century French mystic Madame Guyon. Eventually, although the story is continued in a sequel, Sister Teresa published in 1901, Evelyn renounces her singing career and her lovers and enters the convent as a postulant and later takes full vows as Sister Teresa. Life in the convent is described with great delicacy by Moore (himself a lapsed Catholic). Sister Teresa is much admired for her singing voice, although now she sings the offices of the church and not Verdi and Wagner. One of the nuns, Sister Mary John, is clearly attracted sexually to Teresa and she is moved to the mother- house in France. Teresa admires particularly the Prioress, a woman who was married, but who entered the convent after she was widowed in her twenties.

The sequel ends on an enigmatic note. Teresa appears to lose her faith, but she remains in the convent teaching the piano (she has lost her singing voice permanently following a bad cold) and seems to find consolation in a kind of nature mysticism:

'Why was it that the mere sight of a flower evoked a vanished sweetness that no ritual could awaken in her? And in another moment of revelation she knew that to seek the Real Presence on the altar alone is a denial of the Divine Being elsewhere, and she felt the door would be closed to her until in every mood and in every place she could recognise the sacrament as an eternal act in nature.'

Having taken Evelyn Innes away to read on holiday, I could not wait to find a copy of Sister Teresa. An internet search on my return unearthed one almost at once, a first edition in the same binding as my copy of Evelyn Innes. I also noted that a second hand bookseller in Islington was offering a fine copy of that novel (although no better than mine, I think) for £80. I had to pay rather more than £2 for my copy of Sister Teresa, but certainly not nearly as much as £80! David Garnett, whose copy of Evelyn Innes was being offered by the Islington bookseller, thought that George Moore's place in literature had been usurped by Thomas Hardy. Moore is sadly neglected today and more than deserves a revival. An Andrew Davies version of these two novels for television would be a sensation. After reading the two books I went to Rosendale Road, but could not find number 172 where the Dolmetsch family had lived and where George Moore was first inspired to write Evelyn Innes. There is a gap where the house should have been, just to the south of Thurlow Park Road, but it is possible that the houses have been re-numbered since those days.

Richard Lines, 2008

The Norwood Review Edition #174.