Sunday, 13 October 2013

Penguin no. 23: Esther Waters
by George Moore

'It is the old story - one law for the rich and another for the poor. Why shouldn't the poor man 'ave his 'alf-crown's worth of excitement? The rich man can have his thousand pounds' worth whenever he pleases. The same with the public-'ouses - there's a lot of hypocritical folk that is for docking the poor man of his beer, but there's no one that's for interfering with them that drink champagne in the clubs.'

Esther Waters is the title which George Orwell declared to be 'far and away the best' of the ten novels which make up Penguin's third series (Penguins numbered 21 to 30) in his 1936 essay Review of Penguin Books. He says of Esther Waters that it was 'written by a man whose fingers were all thumbs and who had not learned some of the most elementary tricks of the novelist...but the book's fundamental sincerity makes its surface faults almost negligible.'

As he suggests, this is an interesting novel with a great many flaws. The story which dominates the first half of the novel seems all but forgotten in the second half, and instead page after tedious page is given over to elaborating the story's principal theme, the moral imperative of working for one's wealth and the peril for the individual of the widespread enthusiasm for gambling. George Moore included far more detail about the Victorian mania for horse-racing than I could ever care to know - the laying of bets, odds and omens, weights and race-days, sweepstakes and illegal tabs, the sweating of jockeys, and what was permitted by the law and what was forbidden. It made in parts for fairly dull reading, but the novel improves when he concentrates on Esther's story.

From early in the novel Esther Waters is presented as a woman with only one ambition, and it is to raise her son to be a hard-working man with a sufficiently developed sense of purpose that he will be able to withstand the corrupting temptations of alcohol and gambling. This will be a formidable task, for she assumes this responsibility while unmarried and illiterate. The only work available to her is domestic servantry, which means 17 hour days and only a few hours each fortnight in which to visit her son. Almost the entire of her salary for years to come will be devoted to paying a nurse for his keep.

Given the era in which Esther Waters was written, the most unusual feature of this novel would seem to be that such a woman was chosen as its heroine. Esther is a working class woman being treated sympathetically; she is portrayed as someone worthy of consideration who is trying to do her best despite the difficulties necessarily faced by someone in her position. She is unskilled but determined, and supports herself and her son by finding work as a kitchen maid, a wet-nurse and a charwoman; she never loses the idiosyncrasies of speech which mark her as a member of the lower classes, and she never learns to read. She has a quick temper, a stubborn nature and a very conservative disposition. Her values were formed during her earliest years when she was a member of the Plymouth Brethren: had she been able to chart her own path, she would have lived a very different life.

Her moral worth is demonstrated in her decision to sacrifice her own interests for those of her son. She had an alternative - suggested here as the standard solution for women in her predicament - but she refused to consider it. In this society, poverty-stricken lower-class unmarried mothers seem to have been treated almost as a resource. They could easily find well-paid employment as wet-nurses for middle-class women who could not face the prospect of feeding their own babies - but their offspring were considered a nuisance, and the lax care of a baby-farmer provided the solution. Esther Waters is indomitable, however, and she abandons wet-nursing when she realises its likely cost and enters a workhouse with her infant son rather than having the burden that he represents removed from her.

Esther, with her strict moral code, her willingness to suppress her own desires in the face of her responsibilities, and her aversion to gambling and drinking, provides a contrast with almost every other character in the novel. The general tone of the novel is so pessimistic that it is difficult to conclude other than that George Moore was despairing at the times in which he lived. Almost everything and everyone runs to ruin, and although the outcomes vary - including illness, neglect, criminality, suicide and starvation - there is invariably alcohol or gambling somewhere in the preceding chain of events. He notes that those who would seek to reform society only ever concentrate their efforts on the lower classes, and yet gambling and alcohol take their toll on every stratum of society here.

And most interesting of all, reading also seems suggested as a corrupting influence, and yet another temptation to which Esther Waters is immune, as to her ongoing shame she never learns to read. The books available to the working-classes are suggested as leading them astray with their notions of romance; those available to the middle-classes provide them with an illusion of knowledge. The problems with contemporary society are presented as so widespread that there seems no hope of them being overcome, with the efforts of the well-meaning serving only to exacerbate them further. It is perhaps being suggested, though, that there will be some hope if individuals make the choice to live moral lives.

First published by Walter Scott Publishing Co., 1894; published by Penguin Books in 1936.

1 comment:

  1. OMG! I have to read this one! Been looking for it for years!



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