George Moore's Esther Waters (1894), which was published in the period of agitated debates over the labour movement, women's movement, changing gender roles, new custody rights, and single motherhood, can be read as a New Woman novel, although its protagonist lacks some of the typical New Woman’s features. Esther is not an independent, emancipated middle- or upper-class woman, but a victimised lower-class heroine and a quintessential mother who decides to raise her illegitimate son, and does so, struggling all her life against hardship and poverty. The novel describes realistically lower-class poverty, seduction, abandonment, new womanhood and single parenthood in late-Victorian England.
A kitchen maid as a novel's protagonist
Moore's initial intention was to provide a naturalistic account of low-class urban life in England in Zola's fashion. However, as David Skilton wrote in the Introduction to the 1999 edition of the novel, Esther Waters "represented a British naturalization of a French approach, and not the lifeless imitation of a foreign model." (xiv) In A Communication to My Friends, Moore wrote, “ I was asking myself [after the publication of A Drama in Muslin in 1886] if servants, who in English literature are never introduced except as comic characters, might not be treated as the principal characters of a novel.” (Ohmann 176) Indeed, servants, with the exception of Pamela in Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), are never principal characters in English fiction until the publication of Esther Waters.
From the fallen woman fiction to the New Woman fiction
Esther Waters is rooted in the tradition of loosely connected novels published in the second half of the nineteenth century that can be described as the fallen woman fiction, or the novels of seduction and abandonment. Other novels of this subgenre include Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (1853), Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1863), Wilkie Collins' The New Magdalen (1873), George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways (1885), Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), and Somerset Maugham's Liza of Lambeth (1897).
Unlike the typical heroines of the fallen woman fiction, Esther is a woman who does not fall; she transgresses her social and gender limitations in patriarchal Victorian society and eventually experiences a rewarding motherhood without marriage. She is a model for a New Woman emerging from the lower classes who ignores the stigma of female fallenness and, as a single mother, against all odds, raises her illegitimate son to become a legitimate and respectable member of society.
Although George Moore draws chiefly on the fallen woman fiction written by Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert in France, he is also indebted to the emerging New Woman fiction in England. He portrays Esther Waters as a poignant lower-class heroine who defies the Victorian myth of a fallen woman, which equated her with deviancy and moral deterioration. Moore held an ambivalent view of Zola's naturalism, and as a result, he created a powerful low-class heroine, an illiterate single mother with an illegitimate child, who stands far beyond the confines of Zola's method. Esther's fate defies the naturalistic belief in social determinism: the power of heredity and circumstances. Moore's heroine has a strong will and high moral standards despite the fact that she is perceived by some as an unrepentant fallen woman.
The novel contains some intertextual references to the English fallen woman fiction. In Esther Waters Moore reversed George Eliot's treatment of a fallen woman in Adam Bede, where Hetty Sorrel kills her baby to save herself from shame. Moore, in A Communication to My Friends, wrote that Hetty Sorel prompted him to subvert the fallen woman stereotype in fiction. He wanted to show an unwed mother not as a helpless victim of a man's seduction, but as a proud single mother who is determined to raise her child against all odds and circumstances. “A woman's moulding of the subject, a true moulding” — he wrote — “would be Hetty living to save her child.” (66-67)
In Gaskell's Ruth the female protagonist saves her baby son, but dies before he reaches adulthood. Contrary to the representations of both Hetty and Ruth, Moore decided to create a seduced and abandoned woman who, overcoming all prejudices and injustices, survives as a happy and self-fulfilled single mother, and raises her son to adulthood.
A realistic history of lone parenthood
Esther Waters, the daughter of a housepainter, was brought up among the Plymouth Brethren. From childhood she was impelled to live in a cruel and unjust world. Unlike Gaskell’s Ruth and Hardy’s Tess, Esther is no ravishing village beauty, just “a girl of twenty, firmly built with short strong arms and a plump neck that carried a well-turned head with dignity. Her well-formed nostrils redeemed her somewhat thick, fleshy nose” (1). Indeed, Esther's greatest asset is not her beauty, but her strong female character which enables her to overcome all the obstacles and concentrate on one goal in her life — to raise her son.
The novel begins when Esther is sent out for domestic service in the Woodview mansion by her abusive and alcoholic stepfather. Esther hopes that her life in Woodview will be fulfilling, but soon she is seduced by a footman, William Latch, under a promise of marriage. Although he offers to marry her, he suddenly disappears with another woman. Esther, who gives birth to a child out of wedlock in London's Charlotte Hospital, decides to raise it alone. Esther endures her situation as a seduced and abandoned woman, struggling bravely — and successfully — against adversities in her life. Her great maternal love endows her with strength and stamina that allow her to bring up her son.
Her personal self seemed entirely withdrawn; she existed like an atmosphere about the babe and lay absorbed in this life of her life, this flesh of her flesh, unconscious of herself as a sponge in warm sea-water. She touched this pulp of life, and was thrilled, and once more her senses swooned with love; it was still there. She remembered that the nurse had said it was a boy. She must see her boy, and her hands, working as in a dream, unwound him, and she gazed until he awoke and cried. She tried to hush him and to enfold him, but her strength failed; she could not help him, and fear came lest he should die; she strove to reach her hands to him, but all strength had gone from her, and his cries sounded hollow in her weak brain. Then the nurse came and said: 'See what you have done, the poor child is all uncovered; no wonder he is crying. I will wrap him up, and you must not interfere with him again.' But as soon as the nurse turned away Esther had her child back in her arms. She could not sleep. She could not sleep for thinking of him, and the night passed in long adoration. 
Esther experiences poverty and humiliation, but when she brings up her little boy, she demonstrates courage and strength of character. In order to earn a living she works for a time as a wet-nurse. In Victorian England, wet-nurses were usually women who previously gave birth to an illegitimate child. They were usually sought in lying-in hospitals. This practice aroused controversy because wet nurses had their own babies whom they might neglect.
Although the Victorians treated unsupported, unmarried mothers with utmost severity, Esther, like the eponymous heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Ruth, manages to survive with her child. She supports herself by her own labour. Esther is shown by Moore with a great degree of objectivism and realism. Although she is treated as a fallen woman, Fred Parson, an evangelical stationer’s foreman and a member of the Salvation Army, is determined to marry her because he thinks that she has already atoned her sin.
However, then William Latch, her seducer, reappears begging her to come back to him so that he can be a father to his child. Eventually, Esther decides to marry William Latch in spite of his earlier conduct. He is now the licensee of the pub, The Kings Head in Soho. Surprisingly, he proves to be a good husband and father, and sends Jack to school. Esther helps her husband in the keeping of the public house, which is also a gambling den. However, she disapproves of betting, as it is against her religious principles.
Moore’s metaphor of gambling as an illness spreading through society is quite clear in the novel. During the late Victorian period, gambling was endemic among both the upper and lower middle classes. Some public houses also served as gambling dens, where money was thrown away over an evening’s game of cards. Eventually, William is ruined by his bookmaking habit and loses his pub. He is arrested, falls ill and dies of consumption without making provisions for her and his son. On his deathbed he tells Jack: “Your mother (...) is the best woman that ever lived.” (372)
When her grown-up son cannot find employment and enlists in the army, Esther, who feels rewarded as a mother, returns to Woodview, which is now in ruin. Its only resident is Mrs Barfield, her former mistress, who needs her help and companionship.
A tall soldier came through the gate. He wore a long red cloak, and a small cap jauntily set on the side of his close clipped head. Esther uttered a little exclamation, and ran to meet him. He took his mother in his arms, kissed her, and they walked towards Mrs. Barfield together. All was forgotten in the happiness of the moment — the long fight for his life, and the possibility that any moment might declare him to be mere food for powder and shot. She was only conscious that she had accomplished her woman's work — she had brought him up to man's estate; and that was her sufficient reward. What a fine fellow he was! She did not know he was so handsome, and blushing with pleasure and pride she glanced shyly at him out of the corners of her eyes as she introduced him to her mistress. 
In Esther Waters, George Moore revealed a sincere and strong respect and appreciation for working-class single, unsupported mothers who lived at the bottom of the Victorian class structure without support of family and society, and yet many of them managed to raise their illegitimate children to become good and deserving citizens. The above passage, however, implies, ironically, that a lower-class young man's path to career and social advancement was military service.
The principal concern in Esther Waters is an unsentimental study of late Victorian poverty, economic exploitation of the lower classes, and the plight of poor single mothers. Other social themes include seduction, the immorality of baby farms and the evil of betting. Throughout the novel current social issues are intertwined with the fictional narrative.
Esther is a New Woman in spite of the fact that she does not have the awareness of middle-class New Women. As Rita S. Kranidis asserts, “Esther Waters is, in her simplicity and in her lack of awareness, essentially a nonpolitical being. Not bound by middle-class conventions, she appears to be the embodiment of feminist ideals in practice, but these are never articulated or preached. She is the New Woman minus the philosophical, political and ideological underpinnings for which she was notorious” (114). Esther is a prototype of working-class New Women, who emerged in British society at the turn of the 19th century due to the growing availability of female employment, and proved to be economically self-dependent. Many of them accepted single parenthood as a fact of life and were determined to raise their children in spite of all adverse circumstances and social stigmatisation.
Although Moore had a limited perception of working-class women, he succeeded in creating a convincing working-class New Woman character as a fulfilled mother and single parent, who differed significantly from stereotypical late-Victorian upper-class militant spinster-feminists, ridiculed in fiction and the popular press.
Publication and reception
An early version of Esther Waters appeared in instalments in the Pall Mall Gazette in October 1893 under the title “Pages from the Life of a Workgirl." The first book edition of Esther Waters was published in London in March 1894 by an obscure publisher, the Walter Scott Publishing, Co Ltd, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Later that year, a two-volume edition was published by Heinemann and Balestier in Leipzig. The second, revised edition appeared in 1899, and the third revised edition was published by William Heinemann in London in 1920.
Although Esther Waters was banned by the circulating libraries for its alleged immorality, the novel was well received by both critics and readers, who considered it as Moore's best and most successful novel. The novel was praised for its moral message by Prime Minister William Gladstone in the Westminster Gazette. It soon became a bestseller, which had over twenty-five editions, selling in many thousands of copies and was translated into several languages during Moore's life. Esther Waters triggered a fashion for realistic lower-class life fiction, such as Somerset Maugham's Liza of Lambeth, Arthur Morrison's Tales of Mean Streets, and Richard Whiteing' s No. 5 John Street. Interestingly, James Joyce called Esther Waters "the best novel of modern English life” (Skilton XX).
Esther Waters was a milestone in the development of realistic fiction in England. Moore showed that late Victorian society continued to be divided into a privileged and underprivileged classes. Those in the privileged classes were well protected and generally well-off; however, the underprivileged found it extremely difficult to move beyond the confines of their class. In this respect, Esther Waters, modelled on French examples, can be read as an important social document, reflecting the Condition of England debate — a nation divided at the turn of the nineteenth century. Esther Waters is also an example of the New Woman fiction, which realistically portrays a lower-class heroine who defies the Victorian myth of female fallenness and becomes a happy, self-reliant, unrepentant single mother.
- Esther Waters and stream-of-consciousness narration
- George Moore’s Esther Waters and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Baugh, Albert C. A Literary History of England. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948.
Hicks, Granville. Figures of Transition: A Study of British Literature at the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Macmillan, 1939.
Kranidis, Rita S. Subversive Discourse: The Cultural Production of Late Victorian Feminist Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Moore, George. Esther Waters. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by David Skilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
___. A Communication to My Friends. London: Nonesuch Press, 1933.
Ohmann, Carol. “George Moore’s Esther Waters”. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 25(2) 1970, 174-187.
Regan, Stephen. Introduction to George Moore's Esther Waters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Last modified 12 July 2014