Off The Shelf: In love with bad rent acts: Philip Edwards on George Moore's A Drama in Muslin

Click to follow
A Drama in Muslin stands with Somerville and Ross's The Real Charlotte as the finest of late 19th-century Irish novels. George Moore, the son of Anglo-Irish landlords who became Catholics, gave up his life in Paris and his aspirations as a painter, and turned to novel-writing as a source of income when the rents from his estates were drying up. Although he is best known for Esther Waters (1894), his earlier works are full of interest, and A Drama in Muslin is the best of them, a brilliant acerbic study of upper-class society in Ireland at the time of the Land War in the early 1880s.

The novel describes the fortunes of five girls from an elite convent boarding-school in England who enter the Irish marriage-mart. The scene alternates between Galway, racked by agrarian outrages and rent-strikes, and Dublin. The scheming, determined, ruthless Mrs Barton tries to manipulate her beautiful daughter, Olive, into an aristocratic marriage, and ignores her plain daughter, Alice. Alice's effort to create an independent life for herself and avoid the terrifying blankness of dependent spinsterhood is the centre of the novel.

It is a contemptuous picture of the vacuous lives of the upper class, framed by a sombre view of poverty and meanness among peasants and slum-dwellers. The wealth and finery of high society are precariously poised on the rents of tenants who - for a moment - rise above their enforced brutishness to combine against their landlords. One of the novel's finest scenes is a fugue in which Mrs Barton destroys Olive's love-match with a poor officer, while outside Mr Barton is trying to cope with a rent rebellion.

This being, as its sub-title insists, 'a realistic novel', Lord Dungory's French epigrams about l'amour and the guitar music of the dilettante Mr Barton are accompanied by the noise of spittle hitting the floor at mass, and the smell of underarm sweat at dances. No doubt the novel is over-written; Moore's obsessive concern with women's clothing, and the harangues he gives to the lesbian hunchback, Lady Cecilia, certainly needed modification.

But when he revised the book, and republished it under the title of Muslin (1915), he emptied the work of its real power as a vituperative and sombre satire on a decaying society. The ending was sadly weakened. In the original, Alice, in the teeth of her mother's opposition, marries the doctor who is leaving for England. On the day of their very quiet wedding it is pouring with rain, and as they drive to their train they witness an eviction, which Moore decribes in the grimmest detail. 'We cannot leave Ireland with such a shocking picture engraved on our minds for ever,' says Dr Reed, and he pays the rent for the wretched family.

In the revision, the harrowing details of the eviction are cut. But the original speaks eloquently on the profound misery of 'the unfortunate people they had rescued from death'.