A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 4 - Summer 2012

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ISSN 2045-1024


George Moore, A Mummerís Wife (1885), Brighton, Victorian Secrets, 2011, edited with an introduction and notes by Anthony Patterson, preface by Adrian Frazier. ISBN 9781906469238
reviewed by John McRae

Victorian Secrets is an excellent publishing initiative and is to be commended for reissuing such a vital, important and enjoyable novel. It is a pity that the first impressions any reader will have are embarrassingly negative: the cover art is ghastly (and I would say not particularly appropriate) and within the first few pages a rather careless, slapdash approach is revealed: Adrian Frazier cannot spell discreetly, and Anthony Patterson cannot spell Ford Madox Ford.

These things have to be put to one side (although the publisher will have to address them in future).

Anthony Patterson’s introduction gives a good insight into why this novel has remained obscure or “under-read” – I myself have been guilty as he charges of describing Moore’s early work as “prefiguring” later naturalist novels, without actually trying hard enough to restore it to its rightful place in modern readers’ consciousness. What Moore was doing here, in the earlier A Modern Lover (1883) and then in the glorious Mike Fletcher  (1889) and Confessions of a Young Man (1888) was to shake up the whole genre of the novel, its circulating library readership, its role and purpose in the cultural life of Europe.

To a certain extent the continued success of Esther Waters (1893), which has hardly ever, if ever, been out of print, has left much of Moore’s other work in the shadows.  But the recent movie popularisation of the story Albert Nobbs (available on Kindle for 99p) might bring a flicker of interest in the author’s vast range of other writings. It would be no more than they deserve.

George Moore is, as I have said elsewhere, unclassifiable, and very much more than a ‘one novel man’ ( A Mummer’s Wife might now seem to the modern reader to be full of familiar tropes – it is easy to forget how innovative and even shocking it might have been in the 1880s.  Simply told, it is the story of Kate Ede, who is trapped in a boring Midlands marriage, until a travelling actor, Dick Lennox, comes to lodge, they elope, and the consequences are, if the word might be permitted, natural.

It is the telling of the tale that makes it worthy of republication. Moore forges a style that is post-Flaubert, part Balzac and part Zola, and wholly engaging. He is more an Irish story-teller than a late-century moralist. But he deliberately courted controversy, and cannot have been as surprised as he protested he was when Mudie’s Circulating Library refused to carry the book. Transgressive sexual morality and the dread N-word so closely associated with the novels of Zola were, it seems self-evident now, bound to trigger such a response. But only eight years later Esther Waters benefited from similar controversy.

Richard Cave (in A Study of the Novels of George Moore, 1978) underlines how much A Mummer’s Wife is Kate’s tragedy, and the outcome might easily have been avoided:  she is more to blame than Dick for the death of her child.

Unlike Captain Donnithorne in Adam Bede, or Alec D’Urberville, Dick tries his best to bring joy into Kate’s life. It is her psychology that cannot expand its horizons – that is where the novel really breaks new ground. Kate is no ‘new woman’, and that perhaps leads to readers being less able to empathise with her than they might have done with Emma Bovary, with Hetty Sorrel, and would with Ibsen’s heroines, with Tess, and with Esther Waters.

Was the book worth the fuss? My answer would be that it is a pity such a wonderfully readable book, with engaging characters and a rather (now) predictable plot has fallen out of sight. Like so many of Moore’s novels and stories it is very enjoyable, socially very concerned, and fundamentally engaged in aspects of human conflict and human emotion – very much what Moore’s French masters would have approved of.

The theatrical scenes are particularly entertaining, reminding me unexpectedly of Colette’s delightful The Vagabond (1911).  “A romp; but what is a romp?” as Kate asks herself at a critical juncture – and taking to drink will prove the consequences of her inability to enjoy just such a romp.

The novel has its faults: the embodiment of the clash between imagination/ passion (Dick) and duty/Puritan values (Mrs Ede) has distinct echoes of Hard Times but rather less of a defined social context.  The ending still seems rushed, but the violence of the drama and the controlled pathos remain effective. Where the novel triumphs is in the psychological presentation of the characters, and the contrasts between them, many of them brought out splendidly through dialogue.

It was only Moore’s second completed novel, and he can be seen to be learning his way around the delicate balance between social concerns and psychological depiction of character. And in some ways that sums up the dilemma between writing in a Naturalist vein about the external circumstances of his characters’ lives and writing about their internal psychology – he was negotiating a tightrope between social realism and psychological realism.

Moore responded to the censorship of a novel he cared passionately about with the essay Literature at Nurse, in a necessary defence of his subject-matter and his approach. These arguments have naturally dated a little, but were fearsomely important in their day: Gissing, Hardy, and a host of other more or less naturalistic writers through to Arnold Bennett and beyond owe a debt to Moore, not just for his ground-breaking tale, but for his spirited polemic which it brought about.

There was a useful little hardback edition of Literature at Nurse (1976), but I read it then without direct reference to A Mummer’s Wife: it is excellent to have this essay on censorship and attitudes to fiction, naturalism and art available as an appendix alongside the novel that inspired it.

The editor has opted for the text of the 1884/5 first edition of the novel. It would have been a richer volume if some of the modifications and elaborations of later editions had been summarised, especially with regard to the expansion of the role of Mrs Forester. It is not really enough to say in the brief Note on the Text  that “subsequent editions tend to tone down or eliminate passages that reflect the influence of Naturalism.” I would argue that some of what is lost on the Naturalistic swings is more than compensated for on the psychological roundabouts.

As I said at the outset Victorian Secrets are to be commended for this initiative. I have long wanted to see Moore’s “aesthetic” novel Mike Fletcher back in print: it would be a superb accompaniment to A Mummer’s Wife, but preferably with the publisher cleaning up their act as regards some glaring mistakes in editing and proof-reading.