Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Esther Waters by George Moore

on January 30, 2014

‘Hers is an heroic adventure if one considers it – a mother’s fight for the life of her child against all the forces that civilisation arrays against the lowly and the illegitimate.’

This review may sound a little morbid, but it is a novel of struggles and hardships, so please remember that. Esther Waters is a novel which deals with many problems which were prominent in real-life Victorian society so I’ll do my best to mention as many as I can in this review 🙂

Published in 1894, Moore’s tale is another example of the realism we see depicted in the work of Zola. In fact, George Moore was highly influenced by the gritty side of Zola’s work and used to meet with him to discuss the naturalism they both used in their novels. As seen already in Zola’s L’Assommoir, naturalism involves a scandalous depiction of the truth. This genre transcends what convention stated as proper subject matter for a bourgeois novel to contain, and instead focused on the dirt, the grime, and the problems of real life without glossing over hardships and the like, hoping to show a side of life literature had never seen before. Just a little point before I move on: realism is NOT simply the depiction of reality. Rather, it assumes the stance of telling a narrative as if it had direct insight into how people are. It attempts to ground itself in an epistemological role of building a picture of how we can know information about people. It gives the illusion of depicting real life, when in fact, it cannot. Although we acknowledge the authors are not telling us a true story about real people, we are drawn into the illusion these stories can occur. (Sorry for going all serious uni student on you there! I just felt that it’s always helpful to remember what the authors were trying to do in their novels 🙂 ) Anyway, to the actual story…

Poor Esther Waters. Keep count of how many times you think this whilst reading! We see a woman who is continuously affected by her proximity to toxic environments and the people she comes into contact with. Why doesn’t she just up and leave, you might ask. Well, let’s just say her priorities lie elsewhere…

We first meet Esther on a train station platform, travelling to her new position as a kitchen-maid at an estate called Woodview owned by the Barfields. She seems to settle in well there, until William (the cook’s son) takes a shine to her. As I mentioned earlier, surroundings play an important role in Moore’s novel, and the problem lies in the fact that the Woodview estate is obsessed with horse-racing and gambling. Esther, being brought up to be an extremely religious young lady refuses to be involved with such things (apart from one little flurry). William, on the other hand, makes the most of every race and gambles on the horses from the estate. As time passes, Esther and William grow closer; they talk of marriage and the future on their evening walks. However, one night, something happens that changes Esther’s life forever. It is never explained in great detail what actually occurs (which is rather strange for a naturalism novel), but you get a pretty good idea that they do slightly more than have a little chat. I’ll leave you to figure it out!

‘They lay together in the warm valleys, listening to the tinkling of the sheep-bell, and one evening, putting his pipe aside, William threw his arm round her, whispering that she was his wife. The words were delicious in her fainting ears, and her will died in what seemed like irresistible destiny. She could not struggle with him, though she knew that her fate depended upon her resistance, and swooning away she awakened in pain, powerless to free herself. … Soon after thoughts betook themselves on their painful way, and the stars were shining when he followed her across the down, beseeching her to listen.’

After a few months, William runs off with one of the daughters of the house, leaving Esther to discover that she is in fact pregnant:

‘something awoke within her, something that seemed to her like a flutter of wings; her heart seemed to drop from its socket, and she nearly fainted away… The truth was borne in upon her; she realised in a moment part of the awful drama that awaited her, and from which nothing could free her, and which she would have to live through hour by hour.’

Esther comes to realise the terrible position she is in and that she must leave her job at Woodview. I’ll not bore you with all the details of her travels and her attempts to find a situation afterwards, but I will tell you that it’s not easy for her. Also, I thought it was worthwhile to note that the depiction of the birth is also unusual. You would expect some sort of detail from a novel of this genre, but instead the reader is anaesthetised, along with Esther, and we only awake when her son has been born. Just as we are intoxicated and unconscious to how she came to bear her child, so are we excluded from the birth.

Struggling to support her child, Esther takes a job as a wet-nurse for a wealthy woman’s child, but has to leave her own baby with a less than trustworthy woman as she cannot take him with her. This leads to the next most important feature Moore discusses in the novel, and that is the practice of wet-nursing. It was an extremely popular occupation for women in the Victorian period with adverts frequently published in The Times; a girl who had recently had her own child needed in order to provide the milk meant for her own baby to someone else’s. This in turn leads Moore to mention the baby-farming issue. When Esther realises that her own son is being treated poorly in care, and that other women’s children have died so that this woman’s child could be fed, she snaps. She sees the whole situation as predatory and horrific. She cannot bring herself to gamble with her own son’s life. Esther regards it as:

‘a life for a life… The children of two poor girls had been sacrificed… Even that was not enough, the life of her beautiful boy was called for… she was the victim of a dark and far-reaching conspiracy.’

Ultimately, Esther sees through the façade of the practice of wet-nursing; in no way could she ever sacrifice her child. She realises she is depriving her own son of his only means of sustenance, and tells her employer she no longer wants the job. She shows she is a woman of morals and standards and courage.

Skipping ahead a little, William returns wanting to spend time with his son. At first, Esther is unsure whether she can trust him again, but he tells her that she is to come and live with him so that he can get a divorce from his first wife. She agrees, and they open a pub together with William’s money he has earned from gambling and racing, and to be fair, they do have an extremely happy life together. However, once more, the horse racing plays a massive role, and this is where I’ll touch on my final issue: the influence of betting. At Woodview, Mrs. Barfield sees it as nothing but folly, stating:

‘Oh, that betting!… the whole place is poisoned with it… I have seen it all my life… seen nothing come of it but sin and sorrow; you are not the first victim. Ah, what ruin, what misery, what death!’

Esther’s illegitimate pregnancy is a result of too much merriment after the servants won money at the races, but the atmosphere of betting, in Mrs Barfield’s view, only results in disappointment and sadness. The environment Esther inhabits constantly turns back to betting again, be that at Woodview or in her own pub. Men (and women) talk about it constantly, want to know odds, and risk their life savings in the hope of gaining more. In the novel, it’s depicted as a real problem, with people seeing it as a quick fix to get money. Moore writes of the highs a community could experience if the betting paid off:

‘the dear gold came falling softly, sweetly as rain, soothing the hard lives of working folk. Lives pressed with toil lifted up and began to dream again. The dear gold was like an opiate; it wiped away memories of hardship and sorrow,’

but he also shows the other side. William squanders away his money, but hopes to recoup it all with what he has left. Foolishly, instead of saving what little income he had for his wife and child, he bets the last of the money in hopes of a big payout. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, and William dies leaving Esther effectively bankrupt. On Esther’s return to Woodview at the end of the novel, she is greeted with open arms by Mrs. Barfield and the reader sees her grown-up son preparing for duty as a soldier. All in all, despite her struggles, she has brought her son up well, and that is all she really worried about in life.

Quite a depressing read, I know, but if you want an insight into many problems which were part of Victorian society, Moore does an expert job of depicting them.

Wow, I really need to write on happier books! I promise the next one will be cheerier 🙂


8 responses to “Esther Waters by George Moore

  1. OK I agree it does sound depressing but ultimately I’m fascinated by this book that I have never heard of. The illegitimate pregnancy along with wet-nursing and baby-farming has me really intrigued to read a novel written at the time this was a reality for many. Great review thank you!

    • emma says:

      Thank you so much! Really appreciate your feedback! As I was writing it, I thought, ‘oh no, this is really depressing, nobody will enjoy it’ haha 😛 I’ll be writing on another of his books soon which I also really enjoyed so keep a wee eye out for that 🙂 I’ve just given a brief overview of the themes – they’re explored in much more detail in the actual novel, so I’d highly recommend it to get a different (perhaps more sinister) insight into Victorian culture.

      • I know more than a nice girl should about baby-farmers (Two new books feature on my Friday Finds this week) so to read a fictional views written at the time sit nicely with my collection 🙂

  2. […] and then struggled to raise her illegitimate son could be profound but it could be grim. When I read Emma’s wonderful review I knew that I had to pick the book up, and now that I’ve read it I have to say […]

  3. Mel u says:

    I read and was fascinated by this book about two years ago. Lots of great details, especially about the importance of the horse. Great review.

  4. […] which I was reading! I have already talked about Moore’s writing style in my review of his novel, Esther Waters, which is equally as good as A Mummer’s Wife. This novel is somewhat different. I, for one, […]

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