A Drama in Muslin
21.6 x 13.8 cm xvi, 329 pp. 1981
Always an ambitious novelist, George Moore realised early in the composition of his third novel, A Drama in Muslin, how his chosen subject – the sentimental education of five girls born into the gentry of the West of Ireland – could be extended to encompass a study of the prevailing social conditions of the Irish people, who were desperate for political change and growth.
Written in the mid 1880s, the novel reflects the unease of the times when the activities of the Land League began increasingly to jeopardise the security of the landlords and expose the artificiality and moral inadequacies of their way of life, centred on the annual Dublin seasons and receptions at the Castle. Fresh from their convent school, Alice and Olive Barton, with the aid of their mother (one of Moore’s most brilliant portraits), are set in quest of their identities and in pursuit of a husband, for as Mrs Barton asserts 'Marriage gives a girl liberty, gives her admiration, gives her success, a woman’s whole position depends upon it’. Alice, the more observant and intelligent of the two, quickly appreciates how completely their choices in life are conditioned by the social tensions of the age, which render words like ‘liberty’ and ‘success’ meaningless. Her growth in sensibility is everywhere matched by developing moral insights and discriminations about her class which compel her finally to renounce her background. Moore himself came of the Mayo gentry but his sympathies, like his father’s before him, were Nationalist and liberal.
As Professor Jeffares shows in his stimulating introduction, Moore’s own shocked awakening to the real nature of his financial position (which in fact compelled him to become a novelist) exactly mirrors Alice Barton’s: he knew, as she comes to know, the difficulty in their particular condition of balancing private and social obligations which is the essence of integrity, yet the necessity of doing so is felt on their very nerve ends. Moore analyses the plight of the landlords from within and, though a prophetic note of doom is sustained throughout, his personal involvement in their cause ensures that criticism is matched with sympathy; for all the moral anger that shapes the book, Moore never simplifies the issues he explores. In later life Moore considered A Drama in Muslin had one of the best subjects he had ever conceived; and as Professor Jeffares concludes, it remains ‘with its mixture of satire and sympathy, objectivity and panoramic range of vision one of its creator’s most intelligent insights into, human life’.
A. Norman Jeffares was Professor of English at the University of Stirling, an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College Dublin, and of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He was Vice-Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, a member of the Arts Council of Great Britain and Life-President of the International Association for the study of Anglo-Irish Literature. His literary interests include Commonwealth and American Literature; he edited Restoration Drama for the Folio Society, but he is best known in Ireland for his work on such authors as Swift, Congreve, Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, Lever, George Moore and W. B. Yeats.