Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The Quest for Female Selfhood in Evelyn Innes and Sister Teresa: From Wagnerian Künstlerroman to Freudian Family Romance

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The Quest for Female Selfhood in Evelyn Innes and Sister Teresa: From Wagnerian Künstlerroman to Freudian Family Romance

Article excerpt

"Words cannot tell my delirium, my madness" - thus George Moore exclaimed on first hearing Tristan and Isolde in 1892, a few days after attending a Drury Lane production of Wagner's Rhinegold at the instigation of his friend and collaborator in the Irish Literary Renaissance, Edward Martyn.1 As he later recalled in Hail and Farewell, he had initially been reluctant to accompany Martyn: "For Wagner was reputed unmelodious and difficult to all except the most erudite, and fearing that I should be bored for several hours by sounds which would mean nothing to me, I began to seek excuses ... but the moment the horns gave out the theme on the Rhine my attention was arrested, and a few minutes after it was clear that new birth awaited me."2 This "new birth", stimulated further by repeated visits to Bayreuth during the mid- to late 1890s, spawned new ideas in Moore. Wagner and Bayreuth had already featured in his works prior to his initiation in 1892, but had then, in quasi-anticipation of Max Nordau's Degeneration (original German edition, 1892; English translation, 1895), served to signal dysfunctional psychologies. Thus the Martyninspired protagonist of A Mere Accident (1887) and "John Norton" {Celibates, 1895) embraces a Wagnerian aesthetic in order to sublimate passionate impulses in his life, thereby fortifying his Catholic asceticism; his preference for art rather than people points to his "profound process of alienation".3

Once Moore himself had become susceptible to Wagner, the emphasis shifted from the exploration of states of alienation and repression to its opposite, the expression of sensual affinities, of sensual impulses as they shape both individual characters and authorial style. Therefore, Moore's championship of the "melodious line" is directly attributable to the impact of Wagner on his writing.4 Like the use of leitmotifs in Evelyn Innés,5 the stylistic device of repetition in Diarmuid and Grania (1901),6 jointly authored with Yeats, emulates Wagner's use of musical motifs. As William Blissett noted, the play is "full of Wagnerian motifs accommodated to Irish legend".7 Wagner's success in establishing a German national opera must have held singular appeal to Irish Literary Revivalists like Yeats, Martyn and Moore, all engaged on setting up an Irish Literary Theatre. To Moore, Wagner also came to represent the principle of life that Catholic doctrine set out to deny. In The Lake (1905) the sensuality and passion expressed in Wagner is placed in direct opposition to the dogma of the Catholic Church.8 Ever the selfparodist, Moore ironized Wagner's influence on himself by adopting a quasi-operatic structure for his trilogy Hail and Farewell (1911-14) headed by an "Overture",9 invoked Wagner's "unending melody" in The Brook Kerith,10 and concluded his Wagnerian theme by borrowing the title of Wagner's 1851 Communication to My Friends for his last work (published posthumously in 1933).

As Baudelaire wrote in his 1861 essay on "Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser", Wagner's operas dramatize "the struggle of the two principles which have selected the human heart as their chief arena, namely the struggle of the flesh with the spirit, of hell with heaven and of Satan with God".11 Wagnerian opera and the monumental clash of sensual desires and spiritual imperatives, of life and death drives, are central to Moore's novel sequence, Evelyn Innés (1898) and Sister Teresa (1901). Originally conceived as a single text,12 the two novels explore the artistic, sensual and spiritual trajectory of the impoverished daughter of a Catholic musician specializing in the medieval and Renaissance periods and a female opera singer and music teacher (now deceased). Seduced by the aristocratic art lover and materialist-atheist aesthete Owen Asher, a figure who encapsulated some aspects of Moore himself,13 Evelyn leaves her father's home in Dulwich to become an internationally celebrated Wagnerian soprano, only to withdraw to convent life and a new identity as "Sister Teresa" at the culminating point of her public career, after embarking on an affair with Ulick Dean, a Celtic nationalist composer, occultist and pantheist based on Yeats (and in Moore's later revision remodelled to resemble AE or George William Russell). …

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