Monday, June 2, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.  

“ESTHER WATERS” by George Moore (first published 1894; revised edition 1920)

            Quite some time back on this blog, I wrote an appreciation of The Lake, a novel by the Irishman George Moore (1852-1933). My appreciation of this very Irish novel was answered by another appreciation of it written by Professor Brian Boyd (look up the author and the novel on the index at right). As I said at the time Moore, who once had a very high reputation but who now tends to be known only to specialists, was of Irish Catholic stock and wrote extensively about Ireland, often with a critical and certainly with an anti-clerical and anti-religious tone. But his instincts and cultural training were more Continental than Irish.  He admired Zola and spent some time in Paris painting and learning to write Naturalist novels. His most Zolaesque works (such as A Mummer’s Wife, the story of an alcoholic woman in an acting company) have an English rather than an Irish setting. And as I wrote in my account of The Lake, anyone reading those of his novels not set in Ireland would assume that the author was an Englishman rather than an Irishman.
This is especially true of what was for years Moore’s best-known novel, Esther Waters, which has probably been re-printed more often than any of his other works.
Moore had, in his later years, the unlovely habit of re-writing his published works and hence bringing out new and altered editions of stories that he had already presented to the public. Esther Waters was first published in 1894, when Moore was 42, and it made a big impact (partly because the aged prime minister Gladstone noticed it favourably). But Moore revised it a number of times, especially for a new edition in 1920 when he was 68, and it is the 1920 edition which I know from my old battered Penguin edition.
Essentially a realist novel, it is the story of a woman who is seduced and abandoned by a gambling man, struggles to bring up her child on her own, then eventually meets once again, marries and stays married to the gambling man until his death. Like Joyce Cary’s A Fearful Joy (or for that matter like Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders) it is, then, a male novelist’s episodic account, spanning many years, of the life of a humble woman who is drawn to an unreliable but sexually-potent man.
Specifically, illiterate 19-year-old Esther Waters, brought up as a strict Plymouth Brethren, goes into “service” in the house of the pious Mrs Barfield whose family, despite Mrs Barfield’s personal puritanism, have interests in running stables, in racehorses and in gambling. Three or four years older than innocent Esther, the chief cook’s son William Latch is a servant like Esther, but he is a very flashy character and is clearly an apprentice bookmaker. He sweet-talks and seduces Esther in a scene which now seems to us incredibly discreet, but which would have been regarded by the novel-reading public of 1894 as very frank. I quote it in full, complete with Moore’s original row of dots:
William threw his arm around her, whispering that she was his wife. The words were delicious in her fainting ears. She could not put him away, nor could she struggle with him, though she knew that her fate depended on 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.” (Chapter 11)
Only when Esther is seven months pregnant does she confess her pregnancy to her employer (Chapter 12). To modern readers, it seems a little odd that Mrs Barfield, who lives in the same house with her, has noticed nothing before Esther makes her confession. But this improbability may have been acceptable to the reading public of an earlier age. William Latch has by this stage scarpered. Mrs Barfield is sympathetic, and even writes Esther a good reference, but Esther is still dismissed.
So begin the eight years of her life that prove the most wrenching part of Esther’s existence and that are still the best parts of the novel. As a single mother Esther receives no sympathy from anyone. She is exploited by her own mother and stepfather who only take her in because she is able to pay board, from the wretched piece-work which is all the employment she can secure. She is personally humiliated by the charitable trustees of the hospital in which she gives birth. She spends time in a workhouse and is almost permanently separated from her infant son. Struggling to bring up her young Jack, she has to take the most lowly-paid work as a servant and at one point is a wet nurse for a wealthy mother, thus depriving her own infant of milk. And there are sinister characters she encounters in her vulnerable state, such as the baby-farmer who broadly hints that she would take a down payment to get rid of the little boy.
None of this means that Esther is helpless or a doormat. Moore is at pains to show that, when pressed, she can defend herself and answer back to those who patronise her. I relish the exchange when a horribly self-righteous employer, Mrs Bingley, claims to have a moral duty to ensure that Esther does not spend her wages “in any wrong way”. Esther replies “There ain’t much chance of temptation for them who works seventeen hours a day.” (Chapter 20)
Finally Esther receives some sort of reward when she finds a reliable woman to babysit her child, and a stable and sympathetic employer. She also begins to see a very clean, decent and supportive Plymouth Brethren preacher, Fred Parsons, and there is the possibility that they could wed.
At which point, William Latch comes back into her life and “jerking out her words, throwing them at him as if they were half-bricks, she told him the story of the last eight years” (Chapter 26). Even though William is unreliable, even though he is in the throes of separating from a wife, even though he drinks too much and gambles too much, the sexual attraction is still strong. Esther Waters and William Latch first cohabit and then marry. William takes out the lease on a pub and the novel shifts into a new phase with Esther as the wife of a publican who makes most of his money as a tout and bookie.
The only word I can think of for much that follows is raffish. William and his associates are semi-criminals. Police sometimes raid William’s pub for illegal bookmaking. There are episodes about people ruined by gambling and by drink – things which again, to the reading public of a past age, would have seemed very shocking to find in a novel. And yet there is a tawdry glamour to the racecourse where Williams takes the punters’ bets; and to Esther, despite her misgivings, “he did seem very wonderful in his checks, green necktie, yellow flowers, and white hat with its gold inscription ‘William Latch, London’ ” (Chapter 32).  George Moore is aware of the seedy side of the racing community, and after one Derby is run he does speak of “the sun-baked downs strewn with waste paper and covered by tipsy men and women, a screaming and disordered animality” (Chapter 33). Even so, if the episodes of Esther’s struggles as a single mother are the most wrenching in the novel, then the racecourse episodes are the most entertaining.
Which brings me to a very odd sort of dichotomy in this novel. On a number of issues it seems to be facing two ways at once. When it was first published in the 1890s, some critics admired it as an expose of the evils of gambling and drinking. In the end, William Latch is (like some of his associates) destroyed by the way he lives – he dies in a sanatorium, having contracted tuberculosis after years of standing in the open air taking bets at rainy racecourses. I suspect Moore was half attempting to do what his model Zola did when he wrote about the destructiveness of alcoholism in L’Assommoir. Yet it is hard to take Esther Waters seriously as an anti-gambling, anti-drink tract, especially as Moore spends some time chronicling the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful with regard to the pleasures of the poor (such as the judge who, having orated to a wretch in the dock on the evils of betting, retires to his rooms to enjoy a bottle of claret as consolation for having lost 300 pounds on the gee-gees).
Even more ambiguous is Moore’s attitude to the meaning of Esther’s life. Our sympathies are all on her side when she is the solo mother trying to cope with hard circumstances. The implicit indifference of society to her needs is something we would still deplore. Overtly, Moore champions her for her dedication to motherhood and to the welfare of her child. Indeed the novel often tells us that it is the birth and nurturing of Jack that gives her life meaning.
On the very last page of the novel (Chapter 47), Esther, who has gone back to the kindly Mrs Barfield, meets her son once again. Now aged about 19, he has joined the army. This is the paragraph we get:
A tall soldier came through the gate. He wore a long red cloak, and a small cap jauntily set on the side of his close-cropped head. Esther uttered a little exclamation and ran to meet him. He took his mother in his arms, kissed her, and they walked towards Mrs Barfield together. All was forgotten in the happiness of the moment – the long fight for his life, and the possibility that any moment might declare him to be mere food for powder and shot. She was only conscious that she had accomplished her woman’s work – she had brought him up to man’s estate and that was her sufficient reward. What a fine fellow he was! She did not know he was so handsome, and blushing with pleasure and pride she glanced shyly at him out of the corners of her eyes as she introduced him to her mistress.”
I do not think that only radical feminists will blanch at the phrases I have underlined here.
I am quite convinced that many women do fulfil themselves most completely in motherhood, and that some women suffer through not being mothers. Even so, I find this conclusion (and Moore’s other declarations on motherhood) a little jarring in the context of a novel which spends more time showing us how irresistible Esther finds the sexual attraction of William. Is Moore really saying that she is fulfilling an urge to be a mother? Or is he dramatizing the raw power of sexual attraction? I think the latter. I suppose I am accusing Moore of a little insincerity here, despite the genuine concern he shows for the single mother.
Despite this, and even though it is not my own favourite among Moore’s novels, I can see why Esther Waters was once so popular. Moore’s prose is clear, his eye for detail (especially in the realities of servants’ lives and of the pub and the racecourse) is acute and he has structured his episodic story neatly. William comes back into Esther’s life almost exactly halfway though the novel. There is a kind of circular structure, with Esther beginning and ending the tale in the house of Mrs Barfield. The ending may be unconvincing on a number of levels and the ideas inconsistent, but it is still a good novel.

Silly Footnote: I first read Esther Waters as a teenager, because there was a television adaptation of it in the 1960s. I re-read it about twenty years ago when I was making my way through nearly all of Moore’s novels. For some reason, when I got to read it the second time, all I remembered from my first youthful reading was a phrase that occurs in the following scene where Esther and her friend Sarah Tucker are at the Derby. The scene goes like this: “Sarah continued her cursive chatter regarding the places she had served in. She felt inclined for a snooze but was afraid it would not look well. While hesitating she ceased speaking, and both women fell asleep under the shade of their parasols. It was the shallow, glassy sleep of the open air, through which they divined easily the great blur that was the racecourse.” (Chapter 32) The phrase that had stuck in my mind, after most of the rest of the novel had slipped away, was “the shallow, glassy sleep of the open air.” Now why should this be so? I haven’t the faintest idea. Maybe it was simply a case of me recognizing a state which I had experienced myself – that odd half-asleep state when you doze at the beach or in the back yard and you can hear noises but register them in a different way from the way you register them when you are fully awake. Anyway, there it is. Hardly a resonant phrase, but one that stuck for years in my mind. “The shallow, glassy sleep of the open air.” Curious.

Sensible Footnote: I recently saw, courtesy of the miraculous Youtube, all the 1948 film Esther Waters starring the forgotten Kathleen Ryan as Esther and young Dirk Bogarde, in his first starring role, as William Latch. It also has a very young Cyril Cusack as Fred Parsons, the sympathetic evangelist. I have noticed that nearly all the on-line reviews of this film are either patronising or dismissive of it. One singularly inept website (Britmovie) refers to it as “an 18th century bodice-ripper”, showing that the web-writer is capable of being wrong on two counts. The film is set in the 19th century, not the 18th – meaning the web-scribbler is one of those semi-literates who say “the 1800s” when they mean the 19th century. Further, the film is by no means a “bodice-ripper” in the accepted sense of that term (meaning a story with a period setting and much explicit sexual play). What actually surprised me was how close to the novel it was. The ending has been hyped up a bit to give it more punch (William Latch’s dying in a sanatorium is intercut with exciting scenes from the Derby on which he is gambling). Otherwise, it is essentially George Moore’s story – complete with a rather jarring affirmation of mother love in the last shot. The raffish racecourse scenes were convincing and I was surprised that a film of this vintage could have what was so clearly a baby-farmer talking about how she could dispose of Esther’s baby. Rather dour and plodding, by no means a classic, but an honourable enough literary adaptation nevertheless.


  1. Having recently read "Esther Waters" for the first time I agree with your comments. It did strike me that though Esther is often submissive there were moments when she was unexpectedly feisty and "giving lip"

    1. Glad you agree. She isn't a doormat. But though I appreciate the quality of this novel, I still find Moore's final hymn to motherhood a little false - I'd even say insincere, because it does not chime with anything else he wrote and certainly not with the (single, celibate, childless) life he himself lived.