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Good, enjoyable - but not a classic
on 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.