If for nothing else, George Moore would have a significant place in literary history as an author who did as much as any other in the 1880s and 90s to extend the scope of English prose fiction. These were years of great excitement in intellectual and artistic life throughout Europe, and Britain was by no means immune from Continental enthusiasms, as it had largely been in the earlier decades of Queen Victoria's reign. The cordon sanitaire of the Channel no longer held, even though representatives of Mrs. Grundy, like the Customs Officer in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, survived well into this century, still hoping, if they were unable to stamp out literature altogether, at least to stop it entering the country. The battle in the late nineteenth century was neither simply an ethical nor an aesthetic one, any more than it has been since, but it was a challenge to the well-established British habit of shifting the ground of any artistic debate, in order to turn it into a moral campaign, and hence be able to exclude anything 'foreign' on the grounds that it was 'unsound'.
Only a short while before, Matthew Arnold was still teaching that France might seem to have the superior culture, but Britain had the better morals, and, as he rhetorically asked in Literature and Dogma of 1873, 'which is the more vital concern for a man: conduct, or arts and antiquities?' The correct mid-Victorian reply was, of course, 'conduct', but this response did not satisfy new generations of writers, many of whom, like Oscar Wilde, set about re-answering the question. One of Wilde's most celebrated aphorisms occurs in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray of 1891: 'There is no such thing as a moral book or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.'
This assertion that artistic concerns should take precedence . . .