Nineteenth century fiction maintains a delicate balance between realism and Romanticism, often with a strong foundation of sentimentality. In England at the end of the century, George Moore led the way toward the kind of literary realism represented in France by Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola, but he believed that the most carefully observed facts are insufficient unless seen through the glass of imagination and humanity. Marked by unprecedented frankness, Esther Waters was the first English novel to reveal the pilgrimage through life of a human being as a physical creature. The novel caused a scandal almost as great as that caused by Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895) and was for a time banned from circulating libraries; it had a tremendous influence on the works of younger writers, among them W. Somerset Maugham, who was inspired to write his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897).
Moore deliberately took a mundane subject, wrote about it using circumstantial and realistic detail, and did so without melodrama; his simple prose style nonetheless establishes place and setting with surprising poetic impact. The novel presents a vivid picture of the life of a lower-class young woman from a large family, with a mother who has married a man who is not prepared to support his step-children. Blessed with little education, Esther Waters has few alternatives other than to become a servant, and Moore portrays in unflinching detail the lives of such girls in the nineteenth century in large country houses and lower-middle-class homes. At best, such work represents a temporary refuge, and servants live in fear of being cast out and thus being deprived of shelter. Often the only alternatives for a girl like Esther, once she becomes pregnant, are prostitution or suicide. For Esther, as a deeply religious young woman, such alternatives are untenable, depriving her of further means of survival.
While Esther is a woman of great principle, those same principles are limited and limiting. Functionally illiterate, despite her employer’s efforts to teach her to read, Esther is also unable to read her life in emotional terms. Having led a sheltered existence, she is frequently unable to read the situations in which...
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