The Death of the Moth, and other essays, by Virginia Woolf

George Moore

The only criticism worth having at present is that which is spoken, not written — spoken over wine-glasses and coffee-cups late at night, flashed out on the spur of the moment by people passing who have not time to finish their sentences, let alone consider the dues of editors or the feelings of friends. About living writers these talker’s (it is one of their most engaging peculiarities) are always in violent disagreement. Take George Moore, for example. George Moore is the best living novelist — and the worst; writes the most beautiful prose of his time — and the feeblest; has a passion for literature which none of those dismal pundits, his contemporaries, shares; but how whimsical his judgments are, how ill-balanced, childish and egotistical, into the bargain! So they hammer the horseshoe out; so the sparks fly; and the worth of the criticism lies not so much in the accuracy of each blow as in the heat it engenders, the sense it kindles that the matter of George Moore and his works is of the highest importance, which, without waiting another instant, we must settle for ourselves.

Perhaps it is not accident only, but a vague recollection of dipping and dallying in Esther Waters, Evelyn Innes, the Lake, which makes us take down in its new and stately form Hail and Farewell (Heinemann)— the two large volumes which George Moore has written openly and directly about himself. For all his novels are written, covertly and obliquely, about himself, so at least memory would persuade us, and it may help us to understand them if we steep ourselves in the pure waters which are elsewhere tinged with fictitious flavours. But are not all novels about the writer’s self, we might ask? It is only as he sees people that we can see them; his fortunes colour and his oddities shape his vision until what we see is not the thing itself, but the thing seen and the seer inextricably mixed. There are degrees, however. The great novelist feels, sees, believes with such intensity of conviction that he hurls his belief outside himself and it flies off and lives an independent life of its own, becomes Natasha, Pierre, Levin, and is no longer Tolstoy. When, however, Mr. Moore creates a Natasha she may be charming, foolish, lovely, but her beauty, her folly, her charm are not hers, but Mr. Moore’s. All her qualities refer to him. In other words, Mr. Moore is completely lacking in dramatic power. On the face of it, Esther Waters has all the appearance of a great novel; it has sincerity, shapeliness, style; it has surpassing seriousness and integrity; but because Mr. Moore has not the strength to project Esther from himself its virtues collapse and fall about it like a tent with a broken pole. There it lies, this novel without a heroine, and what remains of it is George Moore himself, a ruin of lovely language and some exquisite descriptions of the Sussex downs. For the novelist who has no dramatic power, no fire of conviction within, leans upon nature for support; she lifts him up and enhances his mood without destroying it.

But the defects of a novelist may well be the glories of his brother the autobiographer, and we find, to our delight, that the very qualities which weaken Mr. Moore’s novels are the making of his memoirs. This complex character, at once diffident and self-assertive, this sportsman who goes out shooting in ladies’ high-heeled boots, this amateur jockey who loves literature beyond the apple of his eye, this amorist who is so innocent, this sensualist who is so ascetic, this complex and uneasy character, in short, with its lack of starch and pomp and humbug, its pliability and malice and shrewdness and incompetence, is made of too many incompatible elements to concentrate into the diamond of a great artist, and is better occupied in exploring its own vagaries than in explaining those of other people. For one thing, Mr. Moore is without that robust belief in himself which leads men to prophesy and create. Nobody was ever more diffident. As a little boy they told him that only an ugly old woman would marry him, and he has never got over it. “For it is difficult for me to believe any good of myself. Within the oftentimes bombastic and truculent appearance that I present to the world trembles a heart shy as a wren in the hedgerow or a mouse along the wainscoting.” The least noise startles him, and the ordinary proceedings of mankind fill him with wonder and alarm. Their streets have so many names; their coats have so many buttons; the ordinary business of life is altogether beyond him. But with the timidity of the mouse he has also its gigantic boldness. This meek grey innocent creature runs right over the lion’s paws. There is nothing that Mr. Moore will not say; by his own confession he ought to be excluded from every drawing-room in South Kensington. If his friends forgive him it is only because to Mr. Moore all things are forgiven. Once when he was a child, “inspired by an uncontrollable desire to break the monotony of infancy,” he threw all his clothes into a hawthorn tree and “ran naked in front of my nurse or governess screaming with delight at the embarrassment I was causing her.” The habit has remained with him. He loves to take off his clothes and run screaming with delight at the fuss and blush and embarrassment which he is causing that dear old governess, the British Public. But the antics of Mr. Moore, though impish and impudent, are, after all, so amusing and so graceful that the governess, it is said, sometimes hides behind a tree to watch. That scream of his, that garrulous chuckle as of small birds chattering in a nest, is a merry sound; and then how melodiously he draws out his long notes when dusk descends and the stars rise! Always you will find him haunting the evening, when the downs are fading into waves of silver and the grey Irish fields are melting into the grey Irish hills. The storm never breaks over his head, the thunder never roars in his cars, the rain never drenches him. No; the worst that befalls him is that Teresa has not filled the Moderator lamp sufficiently full, so that the company which is dining in the garden under the apple tree must adjourn to the dining-room, where Mr. Osborne, Mr. Hughes, Mr. Longworth, Mr. Seumas O’Sullivan, Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Yeats are awaiting them.

And then in the dining-room, Mr. Moore sitting down and offering a cigar to his friends, takes up again the thread of that interminable discourse, which, if it lapses into the gulfs of reverie for a moment, begins anew wherever he finds a bench or chair to sit on or can link his arm in a friend’s, or can find even some discreet sympathetic animal who will only occasionally lift a paw in silence. He talks incessantly about books and politics; of the vision that came to him in the Chelsea road; how Mr. Colville bred Belgian hares on the Sussex downs; about the death of his cat; the Roman Catholic religion; how dogma is the death of literature; how the names of poets determine their poetry; how Mr. Yeats is like a crow, and he himself has been forced to sit on the window sill in his pyjamas. One thing follows another; out of the, present flowers the past; it is as easy, inconsequent, melodious as the smoke of those fragrant cigars. But as one listens more attentively one perceives that while each topic floats up as easily as cigar smoke into the air, the blue wreaths have a strange fixity; they do not disperse, they unite; they build up the airy chambers of a lifetime, and as we listen in the Temple Gardens, in Ebury Street, in Paris, in Dublin to Mr. Moore talking, we explore from start to finish, from those earliest days in Ireland to these latest in London, the habitation of his soul.

But let us apply Mr. Moore’s own test to Mr. Moore’s own work. What interests him, he says, is not the three or four beautiful poems that a man may have written, but the mind that he brings into the world; and “by a mind I mean a new way of feeling and seeing.” When the fierce tide of talk once more washes the battlements of Mr. Moore’s achievement let us throw into mid-stream these remarks; not one of his novels is a masterpiece; they are silken tents which have no poles; but he has brought a new mind into the world; he has given us a new way of feeling and seeing; he has devised — very painfully, for he is above all things painstaking, eking out a delicate gift laboriously — a means of liquidating the capricious and volatile essence of himself and decanting it in these memoirs; and that, whatever the degree, is triumph, achievement, immortality. If, further, we try to establish the degree we shall go on to say that no one so inveterately literary is among the great writers; literature has wound itself about him like a veil, forbidding him the free use of his limbs; the phrase comes to him before the emotion; but we must add that he is nevertheless a born writer, a man who detests meals, servants, ease, respectability or anything that gets between him and his art; who has kept his freedom when most of his contemporaries have long ago lost theirs; who is ashamed of nothing but of being ashamed; who says whatever he has it in his mind to say, and has taught himself an accent, a cadence, indeed a language, for saying it in which, though they are not English, but Irish, will give him his place among the lesser immortals of our tongue.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01