Hugh Goldwyn Rivere (1869-1956), The Garden of Eden (1901)
Dear friends and readers,
Stirred this past spring by Rodrigo Garcia’s film adaptation of George Moore’s novella, Albert Nobbs (featuring Glenn Close and Janet McTeer), when a friend on Trollope19thCStudies proposed we revive the group readings and discussions we used to have on that list-serv, I said let’s do George Moore’s Esther Waters and then Albert Nobbs. Id long wanted to read Esther Waters, as one of those reputably great and powerful Victorian/Edwardian novels I had (somewhat unaccountably) never been assigned in any classroom, never even owned, nor tried to read. I wanted to do the full novel first as I usually like longer novels better, it had such a good reputation, and both together, might make a really satisfying new experience.
Well two of us have read Esther Waters together and when I come back from a brief time again in next week (we go to Vermont for 7 days), we mean to go on to Albert Nobbs. Esther Waters is a compelling novel, richly written, persuasive, humanely moving; its plot design is unexpected (it takes turns one does not expect as life often does), characters complex, and its social message humane. It has been somewhat misrepresented. It is usually talked of as a novel which exposes the “baby-farm” trade in later 19th century England as if this were the core, central, dominating and most shocking thing in the book. It’s there and important, but it’s not dominating, just one of several devastating experiences Esther has when she become pregnant, has a child out of wedlock, is fired, ejected from her parents’ house, and must work long hours in service even to survive so is forced to put the child out to nurse. She does not realize until a few weeks later that this recommended place means to let the child die. When she does, she snatches her darling back, and at great sacrifice to herself, holds onto him, keeps him in good health by paying someone to take good care of him while she again works in another house.
Emilio Longoni (1855-1932), Reflections of a Starving Man (1894)
It’s also said to be naturalistic, a book in the tradition of Zola’s L L’Assommoir, Frank Norris’s Octopus, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Stephen Crane’s Maggie of the Streets, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Thomas Hardy’s novels represent the most read British version of this school nowadays, with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath the best known recent American masterpiece. Naturalistic novels by women include Mary Webb’s Precious Bane and Gone to Earth. These novelists all present life for real and expose the lies and hypocrisies used to support systems of privilege and power. Unlike Dickens say, they show real sex, much more graphic brutality as a system, real war (e.g., Crane’s Red Badge of Courage) is a literary Naturalist text), real criminality, and most of all the wretched real working lives of poor people ground down by their jobs and lack of opportunities. Certainly Moore shows us the last, and rejects religious fundamentalism and repression, but he really does not adhere to a belief in determinism to the extent that human life is entirely shaped by environmental and social forces. Human will does come into play. Moore also has sequences where his characters enjoy themselves, act out some of their dreams, know romance and he marginalizes the more abysmal miseries. Esther stoically survives even if she has periods of real hunger. The emphasis on Esther’s strong will and highly individual character is not typical of naturalistic novels. The thing is Esther (and William’s) choices are so limited and her strength goes only so far. So the critique of society’ structures and norms is all the stronger (I feel).
I found myself strongly identifying with the character and becoming personally involved. It reaches out to us today. And I’ve written my blog to show this.
Robert Walker Macbeth (1848-1910), Rainy Day (book illustration)
To cover with the first third to half of the novel or so (Chapters 1-27), each turn of the plot is not conventional altogether so you are ever worried what will happen next. I worried because I really cared for the heroine.
One early central sequence is a realistic depiction of an upper class household, Woodview, with a number of servants (a real un-blown-up Downton Abbey) The Barfields have a much more typical rich establishment. Not so very many servants, one women for cook and housekeeper for example. It’s here Esther is half-coerced into having sex with, William Latch, a stableman she is in love with and gets pregnant. There is much on betting on the races: it reminded me of how Thomas More thought dice so stupid and mindless and boring, but what if everyone does it and many bet lots of money, then (unless you are like me who does not until today know how US football is played) you have to pay attention.
There is a strong demonstration of class mobility. Mrs Barfield is religious in the way of Esther, and tries to teach her to read. They are companions. The Barfields, the people Esther works for were working class not that long ago, and they could and do fall again due to the husband’s gambling habits.
We are kept at a distance; Esther has individuality and courage. She’s not abject. On the rolling in the hay, we are not to see her as having sex with these young men, for when William does make his advance, you see she wanted marriage first. She does give in, but it was half-coerced, she was half-drunk and she refuses him the next time. She manages very well in the family group despite an abusive father (about whom she can do nothing to protect her mother). We see the importance of women’s relationships throughout the novel: Fanny Hill takes this parodically (see how the prostitute and madam collude is Cleland); here we will see a generous employee, a supportive landlady can make a big difference. William is a convincing rat — unlike Hardy’s Alec D’Urberville who practically twirls his mustache.
From London: A Pilgrimage, text by Blanchard Jerrold, pictures by Gustave Dore
We are to admire Esther for her stubbornness; it’s part of what makes her survive. She is tempted say to leave the baby with the baby-farmer, but her tenacity and self-respect gives her the courage to wrench it away and leave. She might have been more tactful with William, but I feel we are to assume she was just about raped, really coerced and is angry with him. She also is naive socially and doesn’t even think of manipulating him at this point. By the time she is with Miss Rice (the novelist-lady who hires her as a kind of paid-companion aide) she does so think. It takes time to learn.
We are indeed to feel William could not have felt much when he turns round and marries money.
The book is daring and not daring. The depiction of a near rape for example — it’s the sort of thing Hardy presents in Tess but more frankly. So when Esther later in the book is walking outside one day she meets up with Margaret Gale, another ex-servant of the Barfields. Margaret has become a streetwalker or prostitute; this is presented discreetly because Moore is not horrified and shows Margaret to live a hard life but she is surviving and in some ways better off than the servants who works from dawn to dusk for almost no money at all. Margaret has breathing time and makes a bit more money.
George John Pinwell (1842-75), At the Pawnshop (1867, The Quiver)
We see how miserably men treat their wives — how power corrupts. Much beating of women, casual and deliberate too. This is the era when the first courts decided a woman has the right to leave a man who beat her.
How deep and supportive is Esther’s relationship with her mother who husband regularly systematically beats her, keeps her pregnant, who eats the best food in the house because he controls his salary. How people of the lower classes are torn apart by the economic system, forced to move far away from one another and spend long hours of soul killing work. Body destroying too.
On hospitals, I don’t know when the pernicious practice started to stopped, but as early as the 1840s in Gaskell’s Mary Barton no worker (apparently powerless to effect this just by being sick) person apparently can get into a hospital without an employer writing a letter asking the hospital to take him or her in. By Esther Waters, this has been codified into tickets. It’s pernicious because if you displease the person who has the power to write such letters or tickets, you can’t get medical help. Obviously that can be and was used against strikers or anyone the person thought not respectable or simply didn’t like. No one talks of this much and I wish I knew more, especially when in the UK it was stopped. Perhaps WW1? sometimes wars have some unintended good effects. You’d have had so many near death, how could you stop to “vet” them by asking for letters from empowered types.
I’d like to stress the emotional honesty of the opening sequence. Nothing overdone, nothing forced. I had an experience this weekend of watching a group of relatives casually mistreat a paid home companion — nothing anyone would object to except they didn’t give her the respect of an equal human being and are planning to drop her as soon as they can with no warning. I admit I did nothing at all except (perhaps hypocritically I don’t know) salving my conscience by at least asking after her relatives, home, concerns. I know “home-aides” are still excluded from various forms of social legislation in the US intended to help domestic paid workers.
When Esther snatches back her child and after a period at the workhouse (which we don’t see — an important difference from purely naturalistic novels), Esther begins to prosper; she is hired by Miss Rice partly because Mrs Lewis gives her some slack: she is allowed to live there without paying the rent until she can. Then again a relationship forms. Fred Parsons, a evangelical type asks her to marry him, and she likes his family and they are prepared to accept her, child and all.
John Everett Millais (1829-96), “Robert Lyon and Hilary”
The marriage between Esther and Fred never occurs. In the middle to near the end of the book (corresponding to the second volume, Chapters 28-33/34), the book takes an unexpected turn. Esther is driven by her passions (erotic) which her mind cannot fully control. When she unexpectedly meets William, she shows herself drawn to him, unable to say no. We are to feel she finds William irresistibly sexually attractive, and she is really just not allured by Fred. The point made early about how Fred is small, meager and does not turn her on (so to speak) is part of this. We are supposed to find Fred’s particular brand of evangelical Christianity overdone. It did help him to accept Esther though as well as his mother. The portrait is complex.
I was much moved by the chapter in which Esther tells Fred she must marry William, or to put it more narrowly at the moment of the chapter, she must go live with him and hope that he will get his divorce, marry her and be a good father to his and her child as well as husband to her. The book is famous for its depiction of baby-farms, but I think this chapter is as important — the asserted thoughts and feelings behind her decision are probably still inculcated in women today. We know from the novel’s text and this scene itself that she is also intensely attracted to William physically as she is not to Fred, and that she is ambitious to be a tavern-owner and finds the prospect somehow glamorous.
To again bring in identification, again I parted company from Esther. I would not have left that baby with that baby-farmer and certainly would have gone back, taken it away and taken my chances. So I would certainly have married Fred. Esther fears the boy, Jackie, will hold her decision against her and stop loving for for giving him a different father than his bio-dad (as we would call Wm today).
I also think perhaps — now referring to Moore’s being daring and yet not daring — Moore lacked the nerve to marry Esther off to someone else when the child’s father was around. It’s an ancient idea that fathers have even primary rights over their children. We are perhaps supposed to feel that she feels tied to William emotionally and physically because she’s had his child, i.e., it is “natural” for her to prefer the father of the child. How quickly Mrs Lewis accepts William as the boy’s father notice.
William is not good husband material at all. He’s proven that thoroughly. He’s a gambler, and as presented for all she knows, he’d hit her. No I might have stayed stay away and married Fred all the quicker, hoping that if William presented himself as the father after Fred married me, that Fred would understand. He has understood about the child out of wedlock. In fact here Esther seems to me to make a serious mistake — not to be blamed as we are all creatures of unknown emotional forces within us, and one is sexual attraction. She was in love with William originally and she only began to love Fred after Fred was so good to her.
Austen would say esteem and gratitude are much better grounds for marriage than sexual attraction and shows this in her books. I agree.
One of the weaknesses of the book is we don’t see enough of Jackie and he is not characterized individually. Since so many of Esther’s decisions, indeed her life story hinges on her having gotten pregnant and having given birth to a living child and then decision to bring him up with love and care, to have him hardly there at all and then there just archetypally weakens the book considerably. We lose sight of how much part Jackie is playing in Esther’s decisions. Her anger at the child preferring the father’s goodies, her breaking the new toy might seem so selfish and again the old angry resentful Esther emerging (but then again why not? why should she not be angry? it’s from such anger revolutions emerge) without sufficient justification. But she is justified. She has given all to that child. The child becomes frightened as he knows he cannot depend on this fleeting father and is willing immediately to give up toys, suits, if he has his mother’s promise to be there always.
He would have accepted Fred. I thought Fred eloquent and clearly that he sees through that Esther does not love him and that is partly sexual and that she is ambitious.
Now what could have happened is Wm does not get his divorce, does not marry Esther, she has another child and Wm is a lousy husband. Instead we fast forward to a year later and are told it all went well. And William is presented as kind, sexually satisfying and doing well in his public house for Esther and Jackie, until he is threatened with fines and closure because he also brings customers by running a betting shop on the second floor. Fred comes to warn them about this — and also lecture them.
Maybe after all I would not have married Fred. I did myself marry someone I thought might give me an enjoyable life. I didn’t want someone who was (as I had seen all my life growing up in a working class lower middle home) who would be afraid to spend the money he made, would sock it away and not spend it — as to to accumulate something towards what? safety? paying for your old age in yet another compromised situation of half-misery and loneliness. And I have enjoyed what the money would buy that we had had and keep to the courage (with him there) of living today and telling myself when the morrow comes (if it does) then I’ll act if I must however I see it out of my own character. Yes Fred’s a banal killjoy
Still I might not have gone to live with William either. By marginalizing the great dangers — that Wm would not be able to get a divorce, that she might have gotten pregnant, that he might have left her in a far worse situation, Moore dodges this. In life one can’t or I might not have. After all Esther had a good situation living with Miss Rice and she need not have done anything. She could have offered say to go away for a couple of weekends and let someone take photos and do the trial but not had sex with Wm (as it seems they don’t use contraceptives) until marriage.
Another unreality is that Esther has not gotten pregnant again. That makes their lives so much easier. Moore ought at least to account for this by suggesting she now can’t or it’s difficult for whatever reason. And again by Chapter 41 Jackie is still kept at a distance; it’s as if she doesn’t have a child.
Apparently Moore is not interested in that kind of trajectory of tragedy, women as victims. He has shown us abused women but really it’s part of what he wants to show is working class life. Early in the novel he did say Wm and Esther were a good pair, would work, and could have made it and we begin to see them make it now as in one paragraph we are told that Wm got his divorce easily and he and Esther married and a year has passed. Really so easy? Moore is not a naturalist writer as naturalists would have gone for this story of Esther probably defeated at one of these turning points.
“Urban Smoke,” an illustration from Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain, the later 19th century
We move back to chapters about racing and betting taking over the working people’s lives (to be fair, as well as drink for solace) — as with Trollope, one has endure these chapters because Moore himself went to the races, bet, and liked to discuss horses. Also racing was common, horses were ubiquitous until the car emerged and I suppose it’s partly natural that they should have become a “toy” for pleasures as well as a “instrument” for hard work. The poor horse was an abused creature and still is or can be.
The 24 hour a day presence of a child in your life often changes it utterly, if you’re it’s mother, and especially if you have no financial or emotional support to enable you to fulfill yourself too. And that’s not what Moore admits to. Perhaps because he’s a man and hasn’t experienced it himself.
Some things to emphasize: here and there I see naturalism influencing the book. The description of the whole experience and raced of Derby day, beginning: “This was the last race,” especially where the landscape is described at length and the narrator sees this from the perspective of “William struggled with the crowd …” It’s very Hardyesque.
Also the beautiful effective description in the book of both the town and countryside: all have their beauties: “a Cockneyh pilgrimage … ” Lovely and yet so real because of the perspective.
Here and there too sex between Wm and Esther is done justice to.
Millais, A Chill October (1852)
The last third and conclusion of the book (Chapters 34 to the end).
Sarah’s story. As in Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho where at the close suddenly we switch to another minor heroine and have an intense even more frank replay of Emily’s ordeals, so i Sarah near the end of the book we have a harrowing replay of Esther’s. Thrown out of her house, she takes up with Bill. As he has done before, Moore only alludes to the core of the story: we see her a year later thrown out by Bill and are only told of how he forced to be a prostitute to support him. Then how she is so easily saved by Esther. In naturalistic books by Zola, Upton Sinclair, Dreiser and other top naturalists, Sarah would have perished – as she would in real life probably. But Moore does tell the story, and he emphasizes how erotically enthralled she is by Bill — conveys it. This one gripped me.
Meanwhile Esther and William are threatened by his ill health (he seems to have TB), the animus and needs of their neighbors to stop them being a betting center, and the aftermath of Fred’s visit to warn them. Then I was much moved by the persuasive, creditable — utterly believable account of William’s descent into a fatal illness of TB and gambling as a wild addiction while his house is attacked for being a betting place, he is fined and forced to close. I see now that Sarah’s story serves as a catalyst for the house’s exposure.
Because William and Esther testify on Sarah’s behalf, they call attention to themselves and their house, and the police raid them. The judge is as harsh towards them as he is towards Sarah.
I was strongly angered as I am meant to be by the judge’s hypocrisy: Moore’s point is that there are two sets of laws, one for the rich and the other for the poor. The rich can gamble and do what they want and the poor are despised and hunted down for the same behavior, half abetted by other of their own poor people because what is really wanted is that the poor work work work very hard and remain “respectable” and not bother the luxurious life of the rich whom the poor serve. Someone like Fred Parsons is actually serving the rich when he insists that (justifiably) that gambling, drinking and what other pleasures are available be strictly controlled to keep the poor minimally comfortable.
The book here fits into the naturalistic type of novel — these all strongly critiqued the capitalist system, from the above angle as well as that of the natural world people can’t fight. People do have sexual desires, they have children out of wedlock, they get sick. The way Wm gets sick, the money it costs, the way the hospital works, that he cannot get to “Egypt” is the result of his poverty. He caught his first bad cold and TB by going to race-tracks as a bookie and then switched to keeping this in the house as his health would no longer take the punishment of the courses. I did underline one example of imagery typical of the naturalistic novel: “She [Esther] grew frightened as the cattle do in the fields when the sky darkens and the storm draws near” (chapter 41, p 318)
The way William’s final death scenes first in the hospital and then moved into his own house are handled is touching. We see how far we are from the 19th century pious novel as there is no religious imagery or ideas here.
I kept thinking that Esther might turn to Fred in the end as she shares his ideas, but it is more fitting (I feel) for this work of art to end where it began. She has to support herself, has nothing, has her son. She is too old to do the job as a laundress so must “go out to service,” cannot live on her own supporting the boy at school. He will now have to go to work too.
I liked the ending and it felt fitting but I would say that at many of the turns of the story I felt Moore was inventing as he went along. There was no first outline.
So we see her by chance (and also fairy tale) return to Woodview, the house she worked in earlier with Mrs Barfield again as her congenial employer. She fulfills an older version of her position as this woman’s friend-Servant.
Elin Danielson Gambogi (1861-1919), The Sisters (1891)
It is not unrealistic to present the mistress and maid as friends. Many were, and there was not always a large distance between them. We see that in Roger Scatcherd’s wife in Trollope’s Dr Thorne who spends her time with her housekeeper
I am feeling I am ending where I begun but this book reminds me I am not. I am very different from the person I set out as and have had some measure of success with my husband so we need not live as other people’s servants with no time or place of our own or life to create of our own.
Tyler, my friend’s response:
Yes, it is a stoic ending. Quite sad. It’s as if all Esther’s life ends up being worth is that she had a son, and he could be killed in war as you say. It is not tragic like other naturalism novels – I’m most familiar with Zola’s, which tend to be depressing and disastrous in their endings, but it is still sad. It does come full circle, and in the friendship between Esther and the mistress, seems to suggest perhaps that time is the great leveler. In just a few generations, the Barfields rose up the social ladder and now they have fallen back down some and Esther has gone up some and they are almost equal, and simply time and the beat goes on and perhaps all is vanity in the end. It will be interesting to read another book by Moore now to see the similarities and contrasts.
It is a stoic ending, but it is also a kind of full circle. I was much moved by the last moment as Esther looks at her soldier son, and we are reminded how he could lose his life at any moment. He took that job as soldier partly to make money. We see the three of them standing against a fall landscape, the tone of the book sad, sombre autumnal.
I very much look forward to reading Albert Nobbs. As a piquant note: Janet McTeer starred in the film adaptation of Mary Webb’s naturalistic early 20th century Precious Bane, so she starred in the film adaptation of George Moore’s Albert Nobbs.
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