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George Moore: The Man Behind Alfred Nobbs

A drawing of George Moore in Paris by Édouard Manet.

In 2011, Glen Close and Janet McTeer were nominated for the Academy Award in the categories of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for their work in the film ‘Albert Nobbs.’ The movie, also nominated for a Best Makeup Oscar, was based on a novella by George Moore, the brilliant but divisive Mayo-born author who wrote the original short story.

The film hit cinemas precisely 99 years after the prolific writer abandoned Ireland in pursuit of unrequited love in London with one of the richest women in the world, who may well have been the mother of his only child.

Born into a distinguished Catholic family in 1852, George Moore was always unconventional. He was an early critic of the dictatorial behaviour of the Catholic Church in Ireland, ultimately converting to Protestantism. He was also one of the first writers to seriously address equal rights for women, and his works such as ‘Albert Nobbs’ consistently show his sympathy for women, aristocratic and working class alike, who were unable to blossom in a man’s world.

However, the foremost woman in his life was perfectly adept at holding her own in the early 20th century. Lady Maud Cunard, known as Emerald, was the diminutive and enchanting American-born blonde-haired wife of the Canadian shipping tycoon, Sir Bache Cunard.

Lady Maud Cunard, aka Emerald, Munsey’s Magazine, vol. 13, April-September, 1895.

Born in San Francisco and raised in New York, she was introduced to the world as the daughter of James Burke, an Irish-American who claimed descent from the rebel Robert Emmet, and his half-French wife. However, it is said that her real father was William Shoney O’Brien (1825–1878), the Abbeyleix-born millionaire who made his fortune (alongside fellow Irishmen James Graham Fair, James C. Flood, and John William Mackay) with the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company, better known as the Bonanza firm, selling mining stocks and operated silver mines on the Comstock Lode

Emerald was a single woman when she and Moore embarked upon their tempestuous romance in 1894. The affair was to rumble on for the next fourteen years, despite her marriage. When Lady Maud gave birth to a daughter Nancy in 1896, it was widely believed the 43-year-old Irish writer was the father.

But heartache ultimately lay in wait and while Lady Maud remained Moore’s lifelong muse – characters matching her description frequently appear in his novels – she abandoned him for another man.

George Augustus Moore was born at Moore Hall, a splendid mansion on the shores of Lough Carra, 13km south of Castlebar. The house was built in 1792 by an ancestor who, based in the Spanish port of Alicante, became one of Ireland’s most successful ‘Wild Geese’, prospering from the brandy and wine trade.

Pub quiz boffins should note that the first President of an Irish Republic was actually George’s great-uncle John Moore who came to prominence as President of the short-lived Connaught Republic during the 1798 Rebellion. When the rebels were defeated, ‘Citizen Moore’ was sentenced to transportation to Australia. However, the 36-year-old died of a mysterious ‘lingering and obstinate disorder’ in a pub in Waterford while en route to the convict holding centre near Passage East. [1]

The ill-fated President’s nephew George Henry Moore (1810-1870) succeeded to Moore Hall shortly after his return from a tour of Russia and the Middle East. He was an excellent billiards player and an enthusiastic huntsman, nicknamed Wolfdog locally on account of his daring. He rode in the 1845 Grand National in which his younger brother Augustus was tragically killed.

As well as co-founding the Catholic Defence Association and representing Co. Mayo in the Westminster Parliament for 12 years, G. H. Moore was a member of the Fenian Brotherhood. It is often stated that none of the Moore’s tenants were died or evicted during the Great Famine. This is not entirely true and there were indeed deaths on their 12,000 acre estate. But the family did do their best for their tenants and one of G. H. Moore’s greatest coups was to charter a New Orleans merchant ship called the Martha Washington to bring 10,000 sacks of American corn into Westport in 1847.

George Augustus Moore, the writer, was the eldest of G. H. Moore’s five children. His early years were spent at Moore Hall but when he was nine years old, he was despatched to a Catholic boarding school near Birmingham where his lifelong role as an outsider was almost certainly cast. He was the youngest of 150 boys.

In 1867, the day-dreaming Irish boy was expelled for what he termed ‘idleness and general worthlessness’. An awkward relationship with his father ensued but ended with the latter’s premature death from a stroke in 1870, when 18-year-old George succeeded to the family estates.

He recruited his mother’s brother Joe Blake to run the property while he focused his attention on art. [2] In 1873, he made his way to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian, a cutting edge art school, where the fun-loving Mayo man became friendly with the leading lights of French Impressionism such as Manet and Degas, as well as the novelist Émile Zola who was to have a profound influence on Moore’s writings.

His first written works were poems, self-published in the late 1870s to mixed reviews. However, his encounters with Zola converted him to the importance of realism – then an innovative concept – and Moore was to become one of the pioneers of this modern style of writing in Britain and Ireland.

His debut novel, ‘A Modern Lover’, published in 1883 was banned by British libraries shocked by his racy depictions of his hero’s passionate pursuits.

Two years later, the same censorship befell his second realist novel, ‘A Mummers Wife’, about a sexually promiscuous alcoholic woman. W. H. Smith was amongst those who refused to stock the book.

However, even in the Victorian Age, few things gave an author a better shot at producing a best-seller than having one’s book banned. By the close of its first year, ‘A Mummers Wife’ had been reprinted fourteen times as the Victorians revealed a wide appetite for stimulating realism.

Anyone hoping the provocative Irishman would go easy with his next novel were to be disappointed. Published in 1886, ‘A Drama in Muslin’ was not only a scathingly satire on the marriage conventions of the Anglo-Irish gentry but also drew attention to the possibility of lesbian relationships between their unmarried daughters. [3]

When Moore’s elderly publisher Henry Vizetelly simultaneously began publishing mass-market translations of other sexually charged works by Zola and his ilk, he began to rip large holes in the moral fabric of Victorian England. A massive feud erupted between Vizetelly and the circulating libraries, culminating in the former being imprisoned for three months on a charge of ‘obscene libel’. Moore remained loyal to Vizetelly throughout.

Moore shocked the Victorians because he was willing and eager to broach such taboo subjects as prostitution, extramarital sex and lesbianism, all of which ran rampant beneath the great British façade of dignity and restraint. But the initial disapproval of his works gradually changed to applause and by the 1890s he was making enough money from his literary works to live on. He was also earning money as an art critic and played an instrumental role in introducing the works of the French Impressionists to British audiences.

In 1894 came the novel ‘Esther Waters’ in which Moore championed the cause of the single mother, or fallen woman as the Victorians called them, with his controversial account of what happens to an innocent young maid after she is impregnated and abandoned by a roguish footman. British Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone was amongst the first to give ‘Esther Waters’ the thumbs up.

Esther Waters’ was the hit novel of 1894 and it made Moore a star. That May, he met Maud Burke at a party in the Savoy in London. She was a wealthy 22-year-old American debutante travelling through Europe. They had Ireland in common. Although she was born in San Francisco, Maud’s father George F. Burke came from Ireland and claimed descent from the patriot Robert Emmet. [4]

They met again in August at the Wagner musical festival in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. Moore then followed her to Aix les Bains where, if not for the first time, the relationship was consummated. There are whispers that she also found time to seduce Prince André Poniatowski, grandson of the last king of Poland.

Maud then returned to the USA and, in May 1895, she entered an arranged marriage with Sir Bache Cunard. However, as Adrian Frazier, author of ‘George Moore, 1852-1933’ (Yale University Press, 2000) reveals, Moore met Maud soon after the wedding and it quickly became clear that marriage was not going to stand in the way of their lust. In August, a mutual friend organized a country house weekend and it was here that the child, Nancy Cunard, was probably conceived. She was certainly born eight and half months later and always thought of Moore as her father.

George Moore by John Butler Yeats

In 1901, Moore returned to Ireland, ostensibly to help his cousin Edward Martyn co-found the Irish Literary Theatre, the forerunner of the Abbey. The aspirations of the Gaelic League and the Irish Literary Revival appealed to his rebellious spirit. One of the first plays the new theatre staged was his political satire, ‘The Bending of the Bough’, which laid bare his nationalist sympathies.

Moore is credited with reinventing the whole concept of the Irish short story when he published a collection in 1901 called ‘The Untilled Field’ which tackled subjects such as emigration and, rather more controversially, the meddling of Catholic priests in the day-to-day lives of their parishioners. Inspired by the Russian author Turgenev, the heady, anti-clerical content scared the intended publishers from printing the book. The Gaelic League took up the challenge, translating his stories into Irish and publishing the entire collection. Moore later revised the texts for an English edition, which is deemed to have inspired James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’.

Moore’s tilt at the Catholic hierarchy did not leave him unscathed. He had a particularly unpleasant fall out with his brother Colonel Maurice Moore, a British Army officer and devout Catholic. Having served in the Anglo-Boer War, Maurice had returned to Ireland in about 1903 to managed the Moore Hall estate. However, George was appalled that Maurice was using estate money to send his boys to a Catholic boarding school. The fall out prompted him to publicly announce his conversion to the Church of Ireland in a letter to The Irish Times in 1903.

He further alienated many close friends, including his cousin Edward Martyn, with his satiric, tell-all auto-biography, ‘Hail and Farewell’. ‘Dublin is now divided into two sets,’ he told The New York Times while writing the book. ‘One half is afraid it will be in the book, and the other is afraid that it won’t’. (The Dublin artist Sara Purser famously responded by calling Moore a man ‘who told but didn’t kiss’).

As such, Moore’s departure from Ireland in 1912 was not entirely lamented. Lady Maud was by now living it up as the foremost salon hostess in London. However, any hopes the elderly Moore might have held for rekindling their romance died when he discovered she was involved in an intense romance with the conductor Thomas Beecham, seven years her junior.

The film ‘Albert Nobbs’ is based on a story, first published in 1918, by the controversial Irish author George Moore.

Spurned love may have led him to the path he now pursued, as he began to write about people with a suppressed sex life, or who had never had sex. ‘Celibate Lives’, the collection in which ‘Albert Nobbs’ appeared in 1927, focuses exclusively on that theme. Frazier believes Moore may also have conjured up a new line in asexual protagonists in direct response to the ultra-saucy books coming on the market by the likes of D. H. Lawrence, author of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs’ first appeared in a little-read 1918 publication called ‘A Story-Teller’s Holiday’, and was privately printed by Cumann Sean-eolais na hEireann (The Society for Irish Folklore). [5] The story is said to have been inspired by a newspaper account of a real head-waiter in a Dublin hotel who was only discovered to have been a woman after her demise.

Moore intended the story to be ‘neither comic nor indecent but merely pathetic’. Indeed, he reckoned it ‘was the most pathetic’ thing he could imagine. [6] And he liked it so much that he ensured it was included in his rather more successful ‘Celibate Lives’. The story of Albert Nobbs is ‘excellently told’ opined the Dublin Magazine in 1928.

Moore’s latter years were sad and lonely. Moore Hall, his beloved family home, was burned down by anti-Treaty forces during the final days of the Civil War on account of his brother Maurice being a supporter of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Hailed as the first great modern Irish novelist, Moore’s immense portfolio included over 60 books and plays, of which at least a dozen are still in print. “O, I write ’til it is time to go out to dinner,” he told a friend. “Writing bores me less than anything else.”

He published his final book in 1930 before succumbing to kidney failure at his London home three years later. His ashes were interred on Castle Island in Lough Carra, beholding the ruins of Moore Hall.

Nancy Cunard, his reputed daughter, would go on to make her own mark as an art patron, political activist and muse to the likes of Hemmingway and Joyce. She had remained devoted to Moore until his death.


With thanks to Adrian Frazier, Eleanor Grene, Brian Hoban and Jane Marcus.





[1] The Gentleman’s magazine, Volume 86, by John Nichols, p. 1092. (E. Cave, 1799).

[2] Blake’s accounts were later to be deemed untrustworthy and in 1882 he was replaced as land agent by Tom Ruttledge.

[3] In 1886, Moore also published Confessions of a Young Man, a vigorous memoir of the time he spent in Paris and London during his 20s , which was hailed by The Modern Library in 1917 as “one of the most significant documents of the passionate revolt of English literature against the Victorian tradition”.

[4] There is some doubt as to the identity of Maud’s natural father. Adrian Frazier writes: ‘ She was left a ward of a San Francisco millionaire named Charpentier if I remember correctly, who had been a business associate of her father before his death. The mother remarried. She was a wild plutocrat princess of the New World–quite like the Leslie girls, her friends, one of whom married Randolph Churchill.’

Contemporary newspapers sources state that her father was George P. Burke, a San Francisco millionaire. He may have been the George P. Burke who was deemed one of the leaders of the bar in the Pajaro Valley in Phil Francis’s book, ‘Santa Cruz County; A Faithful Reproduction in Print and Photography of its Climate, Capabilities, and Beauties (San Francisco: H. S. Crocker Company, 1896, p. 163.) In this book, he is described as ‘a jolly, companionable man, and a good and careful lawyer, he is popular in private life and a success in professional circles. is practice is large.’ George P. Burke of Santa Cruz died aged 57 in 1917 and was buried in St. Francis Cemetery, Watsonville. His wife Mamie died in 1897 aged 28 so was evidently not Maud Cunard’s mother. With thanks to Thomas F. Jordan & Billy Vincent.

[5] According to Adrian Frazier, “the story was initially part of a story-telling contest at the end of A STORY-TELLER’S HOLIDAY between George Moore (revisiting Co Mayo) and Alec Trusselby, a sort of shanachie & mushroom collector on the estate. Alec told ribald stories of medieval Irish monks; Moore told modern stories. Alec pronounced GM the winner on the basis of ‘Albert Nobbs.’”

[6] Letter to John Eglinton, aka WK Magee. Frazier maintains that ‘Magee himself didn’t like the story, and thought the subject was an old woman who never had sex and missed it–very unpleasant, to his mind. Moore supposed, then, that he had failed to render his subject properly, but defended the fact that his pathetic story had a droll element to it. [Balzac had written a collection Moore admired called DROLL STORIES.] GM had entertained “a hope…that I had shown in this story how pathetic a droll story may be. The pathos of the old spinster’s desire for the joy of paternity seems to have escaped you…”’