George Moore published his collecion of short stories, The Untilled Field, in 1902, over ten years before James Joyce’s Dubliners appeared, yet the two collections are closer contemporaries than those dates would suggest.

Joyce wrote his stories mostly in 1905, adding its most famous, and most powerful story, The Dead, after the rest were finished. It was his long struggle towards publication that pushes the two collection apart.

The two collections, and the two writers, are well worth a comparison. Both were Irishmen, writing in English, and living in exile, Joyce at the time of his writing in Trieste, Moore in London. Yet they were from different classes, Joyce slipping down the urban middle class spectrum, Moore running through the fruits of his rural landowner’s estate. Both wrote for an international intelligentsia of British and American readers. Both sought publication in London. Yet Joyce, losing patience with Grant Richards tried publication with a Dublin company, Maunsel & Co., who pulled out of the deal after dithering for a year or so. Moore, like Joyce, something of a linguist, published his stories originally in Erse, a language which he did not speak, providing English manuscripts for translation. English editions followed, with deletions and additions, finally settling down into what might be regarded as a ‘standard’ text around the late nineteen twenties.

Both writers took their homelands for their subject, Joyce writing about Dublin(and continuing to do so for the rest of his literary career), and Moore, in this collection at least, writing about the rural Irish peasantry. Both collections have fifteen stories in them, and both authors cast a bleak, discerning eye upon the human condition as it is played out in the places they wrote of.

Joyce’s stories are said to be ones of paralysis, Moore’s, to my way of thinking, exhibit a similar sense of entrapment. In Joyce’s Eveline, the eponymous heroine cannot bring herself to emigrate with her lover: ‘She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal.’ But in Moore’s ‘Home Sickness‘, where the woman is abandoned as James Bryden returns to America without her, it is the author’s reflection upon the story that chills: ‘There is an unchanging, silent life within every man that none knows but himself.’

The parallels between these two writers, and their Edwardian collections, are sometimes in harmony, sometimes in discord, often in strange and haunting counterpoint, where the same themes are viewed from different perspectives. Poverty, Catholicism, emigration, and disjointed love affairs are their common currency. Like Joyce’s Dublin, Moore’s rural Ireland has its characters, some of whom pass from story to story, like Mary Byrne and Ned Kavanagh. Some of Joyce’s, of course, went on to populate Ulysses.

I discovered Joyce long before I had heard of George Moore, but over the years, I have found myself drawn to reading Moore rather than Joyce. Both men were writing about the past, about places in which they had lived, rather than in which they were living. Their stories are from the perspective of exile, and of memory, and are often about those two themes. They pose questions about why we are the way we are, about the difficulties of escaping what we have become. In ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say he wishes to ‘fly by’ the nets of convention, and culture, that constrain him. Both writers undertook similar flights, and from similar nets. The differences, and similarities between them, and their stories, make them a rich source of comparison, each illuminating the other.

Written a hundred years later, another collection to throw into the pot is Claire Keegan’s 2007, Walk The Blue Fields, from Faber. Also set in rural and provincial Ireland, a surprising similarity of themes connects all three, or perhaps, considering that the human condition does not change in essence, not so surprising after all.

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