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4.4 out of 5 stars
21
4.4 out of 5 stars


on 1 February 2005
In this novel, written in 1894 and set in those same, Victorian times, we share about twenty years in the life of Esther Waters. For most of the time she works as a servant in various situations. The story is told in a powerfully plain, compelling, and unsentimental way. The details of work, of poverty, of childrearing, and of gambling are both fascinating and heartbreaking. I found myself gripped; eager and fearful to read on to see whether Esther would be able to make ends meet, how she would decide about a proposal of marriage, and how she would deal with the other problems that living posed for her and those like her. She is an ordinary and determined woman, enduring her hardships for the sake of her son, bowing to the inevitable when she has to, making the best of things when she can. This is a sad, moving, touching, and tremendously real story. I highly recommend it, it is a masterpiece.
If you like this then you may well also enjoy the novels of one of Moore's contemporaries: George Gissing who is a remarkable writer.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 27 August 2010
It is rather ironic in these days that people hanker for historical novels and neglect such books as this one. If this was written now, no doubt it would get on the bestseller list and people would say how good it is. Yet those who buy such books never seem to bother to look at and try one of the classic novels that would interest them.

This is considered to be Moore's masterpiece, and it is written in a naturalistic style as he was inspired by Zola's writings. Moore's book went on to inspire other British authors to try naturalism. Written in the days when the two major lending libraries, Mudies and Smiths could literally make or break a book by reason of them buying large quantities to hire out, this book was held back by it's tale of an unmarried woman. When Gladstone admitted that he enjoyed it however the book became acceptable to offer to library members, thus making this Moore's most popular novel. Moore himself could never leave this alone and was continually revising it and this is the final edition that he left behind.

The story itself is quite simple. Esther Waters starts out as a kitchen maid in a large country house, only to end up drinkng a bit too much and being taken advantage of. Her Brethren upbringing helps her to try to carry on, even though she is illiterate, but the problem for so many women of the time was that maids were not kept employed if they had children, especially if they were illegitimate. Following Esther we see the abuse and drunkeness in her own home, the troubles of trying to find employment for herself whilst keeping her child a secret. Also the things that used to happen, trying to keep out of the Workhouse, and baby farming, as well as being employed as a wet nurse and the double standards of the richer classes. Will Esther ever find love and be able to settle down? Or will her whole existence and her child's be full of drudgery?

In some places this is a bit contrived, but it is still very readable and you soon find yourself immersed in the story.
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on 21 March 2017
Couldn't get into this
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VINE VOICEon 27 October 2007
George Moore upset the great circulating libraries of the day, Mudie's and Smith's, by depicting the sexual experiences of a young woman without morally judging her. It was the beginning of the end of the repressive power of the libraries to dictate the themes and moral content of modern fiction. Esther Waters is an illiterate girl, working as a kitchen maid, who is seduced and abandoned with a child to support. Her struggles to bring up her son, Jacky, are told with realism but no judgement. Esther isn't always likeable, she is short tempered and hasty, but her journey from servant to the workhouse and back up again to a measure of serenity at the end of the book is moving. Several scenes are striking in the light they shine on the impossible position women like Esther could find themselves in. Her experiences in the lying-in hospital where she goes for her confinement are chilling in the lack of compassion she is shown. She then goes as a wetnurse to a middle class woman who won't feed her own child. Two earlier nurses have left because their own babies (who they are not allowed to visit in case they bring back infection) have died while in care. Esther's principled stand when she hears that Jacky is ill shows that his welfare is the most important thing in her life. She would rather they were in the workhouse than that he should die through the neglect of the woman he boards with. Moore also uses Esther's limited understanding of her world very effectively. Her every decision is based on what is right for Jacky.
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on 13 January 2003
Describing this novel as 'boring' is a great injustice, and fails to grasp the essential power of this truly heroic tale
Esther Waters is the story of an illiterate young girl who is brought up to believe in the strict Christian teachings of the Plymouth Brethren. Leaving her home in London (and with it a loving mother but a viscious and drunken step-father) she heads to a country house in order to earn a living as a kitchen hand. Here she meets a fellow servant, William, who gets her pregnant before eloping with another woman. The novel is essentially the tale of Esther's struggles to bring her illegitimate son to manhood.
The power of the novel comes from two sources: firstly as a study of the manner in which a single mother was treated by late Victorian society, and secondly the ways in which Esther tries to reconcile her religious beliefs with her daily life as a working mother.
While the first of these themes might be better dealt with in Tess, the fact that Esther's child grows into manhood, and the pleasure that this gives her, adds an interesting counterpoint to the argument often felt in realist literature: that children were a dreadful burden on their poor parents, a burden that it would often seem better to be rid of.
However it is the religious theme that is perhaps the one in which the modern reader might take most interest, partly as a study of the religious attitudes of the time, but primarily as it adds a layer of depth to Esther's character that might otherwise be lacking. Through showing the way she uses religion as a medium to view the world, and how the thickness and intensity of this medium changes as the story of her life unravels, we gain the impression of a flexible but pure faith in a way which even Robert Elsmere fails to produce. There is a strong sense of tension between Esther's religion and the much more numerous secularly orientated characters in the book, but it is an undeniable truth that, on the whole, those characters who profess a belief in Christianity are portrayed as generally more content.
There are weaknesses in the novel (for instance the character of Fred Parson might be better developed and, as with many Victorian novels, the central third lacks the pace of the first and final sections) but on the whole I believe this story successfully highlights the sheer day-to-day heroism of a poverty stricken servant girl in what would today be considered a unendingly harsh world.
In summary I'd say that if you are prepared to approach this book with an open mind, and think about it as you read it, I guarantee you'll find it well worth the read.
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on 17 January 2013
An excellent and overdue, scholarly edition. Esther Waters is an important example of Naturalism in the English novel. It deserves to be on the syllabus of more English Lit degrees.
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on 1 January 2011
I heard this reviewed on the book programme, bought it and found it wonderful. It's a great picture of the times, and from a different angle to other social commentators. Historically riveting and a great and powerful story, full of the determination of the human spirit against the odds and feminist in its unsentimental comment on the female condition of the day. I thoroughly recommend this book, it should be on everyone's bookshelves as Dickens is.
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VINE VOICEon 2 January 2010
This book was another `neglected classic' featured on Radio 4 recently, and championed there by novelist Colm Toibin. It is an interesting question - what is a classic? - and are there such things as neglected classics lurking forgotten in our literary back catalogue? But I will return to this later.

Esther Waters was written in 1894, and set in the harsh reality of 1870's England for a poor servant girl. It caused quite a stir at the time, dealing as it does with issues of immorality such as illegitimacy; divorce; gambling; and the terrible spectre of the workhouse. It was only after Gladstone gave his stamp of approval to the novel that it became accepted and indeed, very popular in its day.

Esther is not a heroine from the usual mould. She is an illiterate serving girl in a horse riding stables, who becomes pregnant after something off a one off fumble with her unreliable paramour. And the resulting struggle by Esther to keep hold of her poor child, whatever else she has to do, is a harsh tale of desperation and devotion. The story is told by Moore through Esther's eyes, and this makes the characterisation a little sparse in places, as she is hardly a worldly wise woman. She has a simplistic and somewhat innocent view of the world and the people that she meets in it.

However, Moore does a remarkable job of writing from Esther's female perspective. The book does not feel as if it is written by a man. One of the most powerful scenes is where Esther, who is struggling to make ends meet as a wet nurse in the home of a wealthy lady, discovers that her own baby is ill, but is not allowed to go to him, and realises that the price of keeping the babies of the rich alive may very possibly be the life of her own child, as the two previous wet nurses in the house had found to their cost. Esther makes a powerful speech to her employer about the total injustice of the wet nursing practice that was so common at that time:

`when you hire a poor girl such as me to give the milk that belongs to another to your child, you think nothing of the poor deserted one. He is only a love-child you say, and had better be dead and done with. I see it all now.'

The story follows Esther through her struggles to make enough money to keep her son, with the prospect of the workhouse never far away. It is a good story, and one in which the reader's sympathies are clearly with Esther and all girls like her who found themselves in desperate situations through no fault of their own in Victorian England. It is told in a pacey style and is definitely something of a page turner.

But for me, in the end, it is not a classic. Or at least not a classic in the sense of a fabulously descriptive Dickens novel; or a powerful Bronte book full of wilderness and passion. These masterpieces have stood the test of time and are as much loved today as they ever were. The power of the writing and the skill of the authors in crafting beautiful, funny, haunting, sad, rich and descriptive novels is still clear and has stood the test of time. George Moore's Esther Waters is for me, a highly entertaining and laudable book in its successful attempts to highlight social injustice. But for me the reason that not many people have heard of it, let alone read it, is that it is of its day, and not deserving of the too often used label `classic'. So to come back to the question I posed earlier, I do doubt after reading a couple of these so -called neglected classics, if there are really any such books out there at all.
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on 28 December 2009
Ester Waters is the story of a poor young servant girl in a naturalist style influenced by Emile Zola. Like most such novels the story could be unfairly summarised in but a few sentences and could be labelled `boring', especially if you can tick the usual boxes of `someone dying of consumption' (usually at the most poignant moment), `a disgraced pregnancy' or `has ruthless boss/guardian/husband' - all three are here with Ester.

The story is an unmarried servant girl gets pregnant, loses her job and tries to bring up the child alone; she is religious and is ultimately resolved with the kid's father. There are many interesting characters including William (Ester's boyfriend) and Mrs Barfield (Ester's boss who she returns to at the end) - both of whom add significant depth to the otherwise simple story. The people really do come across as rounded with understandable good and bad sides, there are no caricatures - even the paid baby killer isn't evil as such. Moore clearly took more than just the naturalist style of Zola by rather than just being clear and unambiguous about the late 1800's, he based the tale around a dominant theme as a backdrop (which Zola does all the time by the way) which in this case is `horse racing/betting' and its influences on rich and mainly poor alike.

I liked the dilemma and story contrast for Ester by advancing out of her poverty by getting back with William who is now making money by running a betting book - she is now rendering poor families poorer.

I was a little disappointed in a few areas: one is Ester is constantly fearful of the workhouse and does end up there once; yet we get absolutely no description of her time there - this struck me as a real oversight. The second is that, despite overcoming Victorian moral censorship at the time, the author appears still quite inhibited in some descriptions.

I've read quite widely on naturalist style of the period including of course Zola, Gissing, Fontane, Queiros, Galdos, Prevost and perhaps de Balzac, Braddon, Maugham and Mann. This is definitely the best book to come close to being as good as Zola (my personal bench mark) and it's certainly worth the read. I will definitely be looking out for more of this author (but will need to be careful as I understand Moore's style does vary over his life and was less regarded laterly)
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on 15 September 2013
The story is a bit grim, but so well written, I couldn't put it down. One of the best books I have ever read!
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