Posted in Book Stuff

*Esther Waters: Sex in the 19th c

I am borrowing a meme from Litlove to highlight a book that impressed me, but which is little known.

What book are you highlighting?

Esther Waters by George Moore, published 1894. You can read it online here or download it here.

As a naturalistic writer, he was amongst the first English-language authors to absorb the lessons of the French realists, and was particularly influenced by the works of Émile Zola. His writings influenced James Joyce, according to the literary critic and biographer Richard Ellmann, and, although Moore’s work is sometimes seen as outside the mainstream of both Irish and British literature, he is as often regarded as the first great modern Irish novelist.

more of that here

George Moore by Edouard Manet, 1879
Though Moore attended an art school, his father hoped for him to have a military career. His father’s death and subsequently his inheritance, allowed Moore to study art in Paris, where he met a number of Impressionists. Hence the portrait here. While in Paris he also wrote a bad book of poetry, which received critical mockery. He returned to Ireland to deal with family debt, gained a reputation as a fair landlord, and decided to give up on art and try his hand at writing in London. He wrote a second bad book of poetry.

After that he wrote a memoir, Confessions of a Young Man, about being young and free and bohemian in Paris. It did rather better. He was starting to find his metier. He next wrote a 3 volume novel about love, which was banned by libraries for being too physical.

His next book, A Mummers Wife (1885) is widely recognised as the first major English language novel in the realist style. This too was regarded as unsuitable by Mudie’s and W H Smith refused to stock it on their news-stalls. Despite this, during its first year of publication the book was in its fourteenth edition mainly due to the publicity garnered by its opponents.

There were various court cases in which Moore’s publisher and the libraries were on opposite sides, the libraries urging the banning of demoralizing literature, and the publisher selling Emile Zola’s novels in English. Moore stood by his publisher and continued to write books that were realistic novels about sex out of wedlock, prostitutes and lesbians.

Esther Waters is about the first of these subjects, a young woman who is a servant and has a romance with another servant. Pregnant, she gets dismissed, and the novel explores her life as a working class single mother, the difficulties she has providing care for her son while working to care for other women’s children, and how she surmounts these. The novel is written with great energy and sympathy.

What is it about? Please give a brief summary.

I started that above, but the novel is also about gambling addiction and betting on horses, a fascinating social history of class. At that time, taverns couldn’t exist solely on offering booze. Betting was the thing, but betting and booking was illegal. The tavern keeper was in a dilemma: risk losing the tavern and personal freedom if arrested or risk losing the tavern due to lack of business if no betting was offered on site.

When did you first read it?

I read it in the summer of 1997. I had just finished The River Midnight, which took place in the 1890’s, and I still couldn’t let go of the period. I decided to set my next book in London of that time. For research, one of the things I was doing was reading literature of the period, which I got from the library of Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. My husband and I were spending the summer in a cottage on a farm about 15 minutes north of there. I read Esther Waters soon after reading Middlemarch (1870-72) by George Eliot, which wasn’t research just pleasure. I was amazed at the difference 20 years had made in the subjects and styles of the 2 novels.

What makes the book stand out to you? Why do you love it?

This is the reason I wanted to write this meme, to talk about exactly this. I’d never heard of Esther Waters, which is still in print, btw. Another book, The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen, was far more famous as a Yellow Book imprint of the 1890’s and doesn’t hold a candle to Esther Waters.

It has a modern feel, with shorter sentence structure, sympathy of the characters by portraying their point of view, awareness of systemic societal pressures due to prejudices of the time, class structures, and values that are historically and socially contingent. It is this sympathy, the understanding and realistic portrayal of people, always human, in a particular time and place that makes this book stand out in my mind and contrast with those dreary books that have to provide a dire fate for women whose sexual behaviour moves out of bounds (including The Woman Who Did, and moving right on up to Thelma and Louise).

The book begins with this:

She stood on the platform watching the receding train. A few bushes hid the curve of the line; the white vapour rose above them, evaporating in the pale evening. A moment more and the last carriage would pass out of sight. The white gates swung forward slowly and closed over the line.



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

8 thoughts on “*Esther Waters: Sex in the 19th c

  1. Me too. Sounds very interesting. Will definitely add Esther Waters to my list. I wonder why most of us have never heard of George Moore? Pure ignorance I suppose.

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