Monday, March 20, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“A MUMMER’S WIFE” by George Moore (first published in 1884)

More than once on this blog I have dealt with the Irish-turned-English author George Moore (1852-1933). So far, I have discussed those of his books that are most often reprinted, and regarded as his best work, the novels EstherWaters (1894) and The Lake (1902); and the three-volume autobiography Hailand Farewell (1911-1914). These were all written when George Moore was well-established as a literary figure.
But it is sometimes interesting to consider what an author was like nearer the beginning of his career. Written when he was in his early 30s, A Mummer’s Wife was only Moore’s second novel, coming after the mediocre A Modern Lover. Up to that time, Moore had mainly written (now forgotten) poetry or had tried to make himself a painter. There are moments of vigour in A Mummer’s Wife, and some of the action is vivid. But it is also a rocky ride of melodrama harnessed to social comment and some heavy-duty moralising.
The action of the novel takes place over four years.
In the Staffordshire potteries town of Hanley, 27-year-old Kate Ede is married to asthmatic Ralph Ede the linen-draper. Her mother-in-law, Mrs Ede, is a severe Wesleyan and strongly disapproves of all things theatrical. Ralph requires Kate’s constant nursing.
Kate finds the town where she lives oppressive and nasty, and George Moore piles on the figurative language to express her disgust, as in “The crescent-shaped suburb slept like a scaly reptile just crawled from out of its bed of slime.” (Chapter 10) Or as in “There were long lines of coal-wagons… These were covered with black tarpaulin, and the impression produced was that of a funeral procession marching through a desert whose colour was red.” (Chapter 11)
Kate, a furtive reader of romantic novels, dreams of escape and secretly admires their shop-assistant Miss Hender, who frequently goes off to the theatre.
Straitened circumstances means the Edes have to take in lodgers. They take in the corpulent travelling actor Dick Lennox. His bedroom is just across from Kate’s and Ralph’s. It is relatively easy for Kate to allow herself to be attracted to him, even though her church-bred conscience occasionally troubles her.  She finds excuses to meet the fat actor while pretending to make business calls…. And eventually she runs away with him.
It takes Kate some time to get used to the bohemian amorality of the acting company of which Dick Lennox is part. It is clear that the company’s leading lady, Miss Leslie, was once Dick Lennox’s mistress, and there is much backbiting and easy morality in the chorus. Kate is soon aware that Dick has a roving eye. Eventually, however, she is accepted grudgingly as a member of the company and begins to make a modest name for herself singing and dancing. She is cast in supporting roles in the light operettas that the company performs as it tours the provinces. George Moore remarks “Kate had not become an actress; she was merely a middle-class woman veneered with Bohemianism.” (Chapter 17)
Then, about the time that her divorce from Ralph Ede is granted, she discovers that she is what the novel tactfully calls “enceinte”. At about this same time she has formed a platonic attachment to the company’s sentimental musical director Montgomery, with whom she has many long conversations when Dick is too busy to engage with her.
Up to this point, the touring theatrical company is reasonably prosperous. Dick and Kate are married. But Kate’s baby dies within hours of his birth and, coincidentally, the company’s fortunes begin to decline in economic hard times until the management (in London) decides to break it up and the chorus is paid off. For a short time Dick, Kate, Montgomery and a few other actors call themselves the “Constellation Company” and tour tiny industrial settlements, attracting tiny audiences. But even this comes to an end and Kate and Dick head for cheap lodgings in London.
Now Kate begins to drink seriously. She feels some remorse for her infant child’s death. More poignantly, she regrets the settled domestic life she abandoned and she becomes obsessed with her husband’s fidelity. Her husband becomes involved with a wealthy dilettante Mrs Forest (in which character George Moore ridicules fashionable Oriental mysticism) who has said she is willing to bankroll a production of an opera Montgomery has written.
 Kate sinks lower and lower into gin-swilling. She makes some fearful, violent scenes. At one stage, she is committed briefly for possible insanity. Dick arranges a formal separation from her. Kate dries out and tries to reconcile with Dick, but she discovers that he is already cohabiting with another woman. It is at this point that Kate happens to meet Ralph Ede, who has married their shop-assistant Miss Hender. So Kate feels sharply the fact that she no longer has either the excitement of the theatre or the satisfactions of settled domesticity.
In one last massive binge, and sometimes funding her drinking habit by prostituting herself, she proceeds to drink herself to death.
The novel whose plot I have just synopsised has been reprinted many times but is not as well known as Moore’s other works. When I read it, I had to retrieve it from the stacks of a university library. The very early edition I read had an inserted slip of paper declaring: “This book has been placed on the Index Expurgatorius of the ‘Select’ Circulating Libraries of Messrs. Mudie and W. H. Smith and Son”.
Clearly there was much in the narrative to offend the sensibilities of Victorians and their circulating libraries – the wife’s adulterous affair with the actor; the backstage nudity that George Moore describes; the child born out of wedlock; the divorce; the “boozing” (so called in the novel) and the prostitution. In Chapter 29, in a passage beginning “Prostitution had for the moment monopolised the town”, George Moore gives a detailed and comprehensive description of all the types of women selling themselves in the seamier London streets. There is also the fact that the sinful Dick is in no way punished for his sins at the novel’s end. Indeed, on the very last page of the novel, Dick signs off with a note of complete indifference. On her deathbed, Kate is delirious and raves in a mixture of the Wesleyan hymns of her youth and the show tunes she had more recently learned, expressive of her “double life”. But when she eventually dies, Dick merely turns to Mrs Forest, who has dropped in to visit the dying woman, and asks casually “Have you finished the second act, dear?
Worse than this (as far as Victorian sensibilities are concerned), there is Kate’s reaction to her baby’s death. Moore suggests that her wailing and grief are strictly for public display, as if she is playing a role that is expected of her, when her feelings are zero:
There was a want of naturalness in this sorrow. It was too vehement and it came too much in jerks to be considered a spontaneous expression of true grief. It was not sustained, there were times when she forgot herself and relapsed into indifference. And yet she was perfectly sincere. Knowing what a mother should feel, she strove to force these feelings upon herself, but the truest sentiment in her heart was a hatred of herself for having got drunk and neglected her child… We have, therefore, arrived at the period of decadence in Kate’s character. Her want of motherly instincts and her forced hysterical grief… As the funeral approached the cemetery, her sobbing was so boisterous that one of the mutes looked round….” (Chapter 24)
And yet, despite all these offences against Victorians and their lending libraries, Moore himself is essentially Victorian in his attitudes in this novel. Indeed, his attitude towards theatrical people is really as reproving as that of the puritanical Mrs Ede. I can imagine the whole novel playing as a Victorian melodrama under some such title as RUINED! The Downfall of a Plain Woman. The overall structure is what Leslie Halliwell in his fat film guide so often calls “the road to ruin.”
From first to last, the influence of French naturalism upon young George Moore is clear. A Mummer’s Wife begins as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (or Guy de Maupassant’s Une Vie, which was published the year before A Mummer’s Wife) with a bored woman dreaming of escape from a limiting life. It ends up as Emile Zola’s condemnation of booze and alcoholism L’Assommoir, which was published in 1877, seven years before A Mummer’s Wife. George Moore was a lifelong admirer of Zola, and records a visit he made to Zola in the Confessions of a Young Man, which he wrote a few years after A Mummer’s Wife appeared.
In A Mummer’s Wife there is both ripe melodrama and much piling-on of documentary detail, just as there is in Zola. When Kate and Dick make a visit to a Staffordshire pottery, we get a full description of how the place works. When a Dr Hooper ministers to Kate in her last pathetic days, we are given the pathology of alcoholism and all its symptoms (at which point Moore really is copying L’Assommoir). The effect is much as it often is in Zola – the effect of having been “mugged up” and producing a detachable essay.
There are, however, scenes where Moore’s scrupulous pursuit of physical detail pays dividends. The best single scene in the novel – or at least the one that stays longest in my mind – is in Chapter 12, where the theatrical touring company make a brief stop at a railway station on their route; and manage to scoff a meal laid out by the station’s caterers, without paying for it before their train departs. The narrative of anxious waiters running up and down, trying to find who is responsible for paying for the meal, would not work as well if we had not first been given a full account of the station itself and its practices in catering for visitors who are passing through only briefly. Likewise the scene in which simple Lancashire folk are so impressed by the tatty “Constellation Company” that they give the mummers a bed for the night – this works because we are first given a set-up to what sort of people the Lancashire audience is.
            In spite of these merits, A Mummer’s Wife has the same essential flaw as de Maupassant’s Une Vie. Its central character is a puppet. Moore himself appears to despise Kate as a brainless woman, easily duped by tinselly illusions, which are rapidly shown to be only illusions. The literary “pretext” of using her ignorance of the theatre to introduce us to the theatrical life makes her appear doubly naïve. Moore’s fundamental contempt for Kate is made explicit:
            She was the woman that nature turns out of her workshop by the million, all of whom are capable of fulfilling the duties of life, provided the conditions in which they are placed, that have produced them, remain unaltered. They are like plants that grow well so long as they are not transplanted from the original soil. They are like cheap Tottenham Court Road furniture, equal to an ordinary amount of wear and tear so long as the original atmosphere in which they were glued together is preserved. Change this, and they go to pieces. This was precisely what had happened in the case of Kate Ede.” (Chapter 27).
I closed A Mummer’s Wife feeling that George Moore had much talent that had not yet matured. Where he stands morally is at best ambiguous, but the “road to ruin” structure harnesses him to received opinions. He can be vivid when writing of sordor or the scallywaggery of travelling actors, but he can also pile on the moralising. He has read his French masters, but he has not the freedom to speak as frankly as they do. This is a very imperfect novel showing promise. A young man’s novel forsooth.

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