Header overlay

Life on the Fringe

Share this

I first read Esther Waters more than fifty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. As a young man I enjoyed reading tales of unmitigated woe, in which one disaster succeeds another, and the novel’s eponymous heroine suffers more than most at the hands of assorted drunkards, snobs, gamblers and predatory employers. And, as an Englishman in Ireland, I was fascinated by the complexity and ambiguity of relations between the two countries, and by Irish views of England ‒ of which Esther Waters is a remarkable and unusual example. In his dedication to the novel, George Moore referred to the fact that, as an Irishman, he had written ‘a book as characteristically English as Don Quixote is Spanish’, while James Joyce thought it ‘strange that it should have been left to an Irishman to write the best novel of modern English life’.

First published in 1894, Moore’s fifth novel is indeed remarkably English, both in its evocation of place and in its exact and lethal dissection of the English class system; but although Moore spent much of his life in England, only moving back to Ireland for some years to take part in the Irish literary revival and the foundation of the Abbey Theatre, he was Irish through and through. Born in 1852 and baptised a Catholic – he became a Protestant in middle age ‒ he was brought up in County Mayo, in the far west of Ireland. His father came from a landowning family, was for a time a nationalist MP, and owned a racing stable, the life of which Moore transplanted to Sussex in the opening chapters of Esther Waters, in which young Esther goes to work as a kitchen-maid at Woodview, on the downs behind Shoreham.

An unromantic figure, with drooping shoulders and a moustache to match – Yeats once described him as being ‘carved from a turnip, looking out of astonished eyes’ – Moore was sent to a Catholic school in Birmingham. He decided he wanted to be a painter, and spent some years in Paris, mixing with the Impressionists, but his career as an artist petered out, so he switched to literature instead. Manet introduced him to Emile Zola, whose unflinching realism he championed and sought to emulate, and nowhere more so than in Esther Waters.

Unable to read or write, the child of impoverished Plymouth Brethren, Esther Waters boasts a ‘sturdily built figure, yet graceful in its sturdiness’. Her face, we learn, is a blunt outline, and her

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

I first read Esther Waters more than fifty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. As a young man I enjoyed reading tales of unmitigated woe, in which one disaster succeeds another, and the novel’s eponymous heroine suffers more than most at the hands of assorted drunkards, snobs, gamblers and predatory employers. And, as an Englishman in Ireland, I was fascinated by the complexity and ambiguity of relations between the two countries, and by Irish views of England ‒ of which Esther Waters is a remarkable and unusual example. In his dedication to the novel, George Moore referred to the fact that, as an Irishman, he had written ‘a book as characteristically English as Don Quixote is Spanish’, while James Joyce thought it ‘strange that it should have been left to an Irishman to write the best novel of modern English life’.

First published in 1894, Moore’s fifth novel is indeed remarkably English, both in its evocation of place and in its exact and lethal dissection of the English class system; but although Moore spent much of his life in England, only moving back to Ireland for some years to take part in the Irish literary revival and the foundation of the Abbey Theatre, he was Irish through and through. Born in 1852 and baptised a Catholic – he became a Protestant in middle age ‒ he was brought up in County Mayo, in the far west of Ireland. His father came from a landowning family, was for a time a nationalist MP, and owned a racing stable, the life of which Moore transplanted to Sussex in the opening chapters of Esther Waters, in which young Esther goes to work as a kitchen-maid at Woodview, on the downs behind Shoreham. An unromantic figure, with drooping shoulders and a moustache to match – Yeats once described him as being ‘carved from a turnip, looking out of astonished eyes’ – Moore was sent to a Catholic school in Birmingham. He decided he wanted to be a painter, and spent some years in Paris, mixing with the Impressionists, but his career as an artist petered out, so he switched to literature instead. Manet introduced him to Emile Zola, whose unflinching realism he championed and sought to emulate, and nowhere more so than in Esther Waters. Unable to read or write, the child of impoverished Plymouth Brethren, Esther Waters boasts a ‘sturdily built figure, yet graceful in its sturdiness’. Her face, we learn, is a blunt outline, and her grey eyes reflect ‘the natural prose of the Saxon’. Though an entirely sympathetic figure, she has a short temper and, when crossed, assumes a sullen look of dogged obstinacy. The story begins, as it ends, with her arriving in Sussex on the train from London. Moore had got to know Sussex when he tried, unsuccessfully, to set up in business as a rabbit-breeder, and he brilliantly evokes the bright light and the bare outlines of the downs, and the chalky dust of the lanes in summer; as a boy he had wanted to become a jockey, and he writes with inside knowledge about the life in racing stables, and the fatal allure of betting on horses. Esther is seduced by a fellow-servant named William, a tall, broad-shouldered youth with ‘a long, narrow forehead, a small, round head, a long nose, a pointed chin and rather hollow, bloodless cheeks’. Although his low forehead and lustreless eyes ‘told of a slight, unimaginative brain’, his ‘regular features and a look of natural honesty made William Latch a man that ten men and eighteen women out of twenty would like’. Mrs Barfield, the owner of Woodview, is a kindred spirit and another offspring of the Plymouth Brethren, but – very regretfully – she has to sack Esther when she learns that she is pregnant. Back in the harsh, inhospitable streets of London, Esther gives birth to her baby son, Jackie. She is first taken on as a wet nurse by Mrs Rivers, a spoilt and selfish woman living in Curzon Street, leaving Jackie with a ‘baby farmer’ in south London. Her subsequent life in London, working as a maid for £18 a year, is unbearably hard: her employers are all too often penny-pinching and unsympathetic, with lecherous sons lurking in the wings; she is reduced for a time to living in a workhouse but, unlike many other servant girls, she steers clear of becoming a prostitute, haunting the garish streets round the Haymarket and Leicester Square. The grey streets and squares of London, from Notting Hill to Peckham, are vividly evoked, and Moore has a keen eye for the Darwinian struggles of those like Esther who survive, just, on the fringes of society. Miss Rice, a writer, proves to be that welcome rarity, a decent employer: both she and Esther are ‘quiet, instinctive Englishwomen, with strong, warm natures under an appearance of formality and reserve’. Esther acquires a new admirer in the form of the evangelical Fred Parsons, ‘a meagre little man of about thirty-five, whose high prominent forehead rose above a small pointed face, a scanty growth of blond beard and moustache failing to hide the receding chin and the red sealing-wax lips’. She spends an idyllic day with his family in Kent, but his hopes are dashed when she re-encounters William, whose socially ambitious marriage has come unstuck. She moves in with him and helps him run the King’s Head, a pub-cum-betting shop in Soho. William’s work as a bookie and his addiction to gambling on the horses provide the novel with its only longueurs, but Moore’s evocation of Derby Day on the Epsom Downs is as masterly and as detailed as Frith’s famous painting, while William’s slow death from consumption in a fog-shrouded Brompton Hospital is described in agonizing detail. Moore wrote Esther Waters while he was living penuriously in under-furnished rooms in the Temple. The bookseller W. H. Smith initially banned Esther Waters, until Arthur Conan Doyle intervened on its behalf, after which it proved both a critical and a commercial success. ‘Everyone is talking of the book,’ Moore declared. ‘The best way to answer one’s enemies is to publish a masterpiece and as I have many enemies the effect of Esther Waters is rather amusing to watch.’ Rereading Esther Waters half a century later, I enjoyed it more than ever. It is, as I remembered, a story of endurance, but whereas the novels of Moore’s contemporary George Gissing are irremediably bleak, Esther Waters is redeemed by unexpected acts of kindness and fellow-feeling, and by the splendid stoicism of its heroine. Wavering, as always, between England and Ireland, Moore ended his days in London, in Ebury Street, back among ‘the people I love and understand – the dull Saxon’; but after his death in 1933 his ashes were buried in County Mayo, near the ruins of Moore Hall, his ancestral home, burned down during the Irish civil war. Moore’s other writings are deservedly forgotten, but Esther Waters has remained in print since its first publication. It is, indeed, a masterpiece of English – or Anglo-Irish – fiction.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © Jeremy Lewis 2017


About the contributor

Jeremy Lewis, publisher, author and literary journalist, who was a great supporter of Slightly Foxed from the very beginning, died in April 2017.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.