Feb. 6th, 2010

tispity: (Book pile)
Esther Waters by George Moore

Hers is a heroic adventure if one considers it - a mother's fight for the life of her child against all the forces that civilisation arrays against the lowly and illegitimate

Big thanks are due to [livejournal.com profile] pennywren for introducing me to this highly enjoyable but lesser known Victorian novel. First published in 1894 and set in England from the 1870s onwards, the eponymous heroine is an illiterate, working class girl raised as a member of the pious religious group, the Plymouth Brethren. The story begins as poverty forces seventeen year old Esther to leave her loving mother and drunken, abusive step-father and take up employment as a kitchen maid for the Barfields, a noveau riche horse-racing family. Although she comes to enjoy her new life and forms a warm bond with her devout mistress, she also finds herself falling for William, a fellow servant and all too quickly finds herself seduced and abandoned. The remainder of the novel chronicles the hardships that Esther endures as a working class single mother in unforgiving Victorian London. Esther is a very ordinary woman in many ways but utterly heroic in her devotion to her son, Jacky, and in her single-minded determination to see him grow to manhood and settle into a profession.

Moore writes in the same Naturalistic style as Zola (indeed many of the horse-racing and betting scenes reminded me strongly of the race scene in Nana) and as such this novel paints a very powerful and moving portrait of the ills and hypocrisy of Moore's contemporary society. Indeed, although I took two Victorian modules on my Literature MA a few years back and have therefore read plenty of accounts - both fictional and factual - of the suffering of the Victorian poor, I have to say some of the scenes in this book were still eye-openers! In the course of her life, Esther endures the workhouse, abject poverty, domestic drudgery, the scorn of her society, and all the highs, lows and dangers of the gambling life, but every single decision she comes to, every sacrifice or compromise she makes, is motivated by the desire to provide the best for her son. In this respect her story, though pitiable, is also tremendously admirable and makes for compelling reading. Moore is quite progressive in the way that, alongside her suffering, he also narrates the joy that Esther's motherhood brings her. Her life is a sad one, but, significantly, the novelist never suggests - as some of his least savoury characters do - that Jacky is a burden Esther would do well to be rid of. The depiction of Esther's religion is interesting for similar reasons: faith is generally depicted as a positive force in the lives of the novel's characters, yet while Esther is shown to be a very pure in her ideals, the novel also implies that it is just not possible for a poor, working mother like her to live up to these high moral standards. In her devotion to Jacky, Esther frequently compromises her religious devotion: the long hours she works to support him do not allow her time to attend church and although she disapproves of gambling she later comes to tolerate it for the sake of funding Jacky's education, decisions which are narrated with considerable sympathy and understanding.

While the opening and concluding parts are absolutely gripping I found the pace did slacken off somewhat in the middle, and as I'm not terribly well versed in gambling terminology and techniques I found some of the betting scenes rather confusing - though I understood well enough the dangerously addictive power of the pastime and the hypocrisy of the judges who condemned gambling as a lower-class vice while continuing to indulge in it themselves. But despite these flaws, this was an engaging read and one which I'd be quick to recommend to those of you who'd like to head a little way off the beaten track in Victorian literature. And if anyone else can recommend any similarly neglected pre-twentieth century reads I'd be very grateful for the suggestions!

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