Friday 2 May 2014

Review: Esther Waters, George Moore (1894)

George Moore

Esther Waters is a novel which has a kitchen maid as its heroine, morality as its subject, and a distaste for hypocrisy at its core. It is a novel which discusses what other nineteenth-century texts only hint at and appears strikingly modern, while still being embedded in its time (the slang of the race track, the conversation in the public house, journeying through London streets at night). Working class orphan Esther raises her illegitimate child alone in a world which is deeply hostile to her – but she is no Tess Durbeyfield. She faces poverty and homelessness, while never becoming a tragic figure, and exposes the faults of those around her through her forthright honesty and pragmatic approach to leading a moral life. 

For general readers: Esther Waters has an immediacy which is appealing to modern readers and its focus on working class characters is also attractive, given our interest in servants and worker characters, from TV shows like The Mill and Downton Abbey, to our tastes in Victorian stage comedy. Don’t expect pages of lengthy description or narrative exposition – this feels raw and real.

Yet the reading experience is a little uneven. Long sections of dialogue about racehorses can be hard work, even if our confusion is meant to mirror that of the initially naïve and unworldly Esther, brought up by the Plymouth Brethren, and so entirely ignorant of gambling. And there are leaps in time which can be a little unsettling, especially given it still seems something of a surprise for little Jackie, an illegitimate child in a novel, to survive his infancy.

The passages I found most affecting were those which dealt with the physical and emotional consequences of Esther’s pregnancy (dealt with in a previous post), the terrible position of wet nurses, divided from their own children to nourish richer women’s, and Jackie’s confusion when caught between his two parents. Esther’s response to the unexpected return of an absentee father rings very true, alternating between her possessive and protective feelings towards her child. 

For students: Esther Waters naturally complements the study of ‘fallen woman’ literature, nineteenth-century censorship, the influence of French novelists, especially Zola, and the move in the 1890s towards writing we may consider ‘modern’ in bent. But there are other topics worthy of critical attention.

The treatment of Esther’s fellow servant Sarah in the courtroom, tried for stealing from her employers to fuel her partner’s gambling addiction, is an interesting point of contrast to the treatment of more aristocratic and middle-class women in my earlier series looking at women in the dock and witness box.

The kind of healing companionship between women which the novel deals with, in Esther’s partnerships with Miss Rice and Mrs Barfield, could also prove fruitful for study. These pairings are unequal (with Esther always definitively in the role of servant) but offer an alternative to the suffering incurred by male/female sexual relationships, and reminded me of the conclusion to a later novel which similarly deals with illegitimacy (yet here where sexual relations cross class lines) – E.M. Forster’s 1910 Howards End.

Which lesser known nineteenth-century novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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