Story type: Essay
March 31, 1894. “Esther Waters.”
It is good, after all, to come across a novel written by a man who can write a novel. We have been much in the company of the Amateur of late, and I for one am very weary of him–weary of his preposterous goings-out and comings-in, of his smart ineptitudes, of his solemn zeal in reforming the decayed art of fiction, of his repeated failures to discover beneficence in all those institutions, from the Common Law of England to the Scheme of the Universe, which have managed to leave him and his aspirations out of count. I am weary of him and of his deceased wife’s sister, and of their fell determination to discover each other’s soul in a bottle of hay. Above all, I am weary of his writings, because he cannot write, neither has he the humility to sit down and learn.
Mr. George Moore, on the other hand, has steadily labored to make himself a fine artist, and his training has led him through many strange places. I should guess that among living novelists few have started with so scant an equipment. As far as one can tell he had, to begin with, neither a fertile invention nor a subtle dramatic instinct, nor an accurate ear for language. A week ago I should have said this very confidently: after reading Esther Waters I say it less confidently, but believe it to be true, nevertheless. Mr. Moore has written novels that are full of faults. These faults have been exposed mercilessly, for Mr. Moore has made many enemies. But he has always possessed an artistic conscience and an immense courage. He answered his critics briskly enough at the time, but an onlooker of common sagacity could perceive that the really convincing answer was held in reserve–that, as they say in America, Mr. Moore “allowed” he was going to write a big novel one of these days, and meanwhile we had better hold our judgment upon Mr. Moore’s capacity open to revision.
What, then, is to be said of Esther Waters, this volume of a modest 377 pages, upon which Mr. Moore has been at work for at least two years?
“Esther” and Mr. Hardy’s “Tess.”
Well, in the first place, I say, without hesitation, that Esther Waters is the most important novel published in England during these two years. We have been suffering from the Amateur during that period, and no doubt (though it seems hard) every nation has the Amateur it deserves. To find a book to compare with Esther Waters we must go back to December, 1891, and to Mr. Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It happens that a certain similarity in the motives of these two stories makes comparison easy. Each starts with the seduction of a young girl; and each is mainly concerned with her subsequent adventures. From the beginning the advantage of probability is with the younger novelist. Mr. Moore’s “William Latch” is a thoroughly natural figure, and remains a natural figure to the end of the book: an uneducated man and full of failings, but a man always, and therefore to be forgiven by the reader only a little less readily than Esther herself forgives him. Mr. Hardy’s “Alec D’Urberville” is a grotesque and violent lay figure, a wholly incredible cad. Mr. Hardy, by killing Tess’s child, takes away the one means by which his heroine could have been led to return to D’Urberville without any loss of the reader’s sympathy. Mr. Moore allows Esther’s child to live, and thus has at hand the material for one of the most beautiful stories of maternal love ever imagined by a writer. I dislike extravagance of speech, and would run my pen through these words could I remember, in any novel I have read, a more heroic story than this of Esther Waters, a poor maid-of-all-work, without money, friends, or character, fighting for her child against the world, and in the end dragging victory out of the struggle. In spite of the Æschylean gloom in which Mr. Hardy wraps the story of Tess, I contend that Esther’s fight is, from end to end, the more heroic.
Also Esther’s story seems to me informed with a saner philosophy of life. There is gloom in her story; and many of the circumstances are sordid enough; but throughout I see the recognition that man and woman can at least improve and dignify their lot in this world. Many people believe Tess to be the finest of its author’s achievements. A devoted admirer of Mr. Hardy’s genius, I decline altogether to consent. To my mind, among recent developments of the English novel nothing is more lamentable than the manner in which this distinguished writer has allowed himself of late to fancy that the riddles of life are solved by pulling mouths at Providence (or whatever men choose to call the Supreme Power) and depicting it as a savage and omnipotent bully, directing human affairs after the fashion of a practical joker fresh from a village ale-house. For to this teaching his more recent writings plainly tend; and alike in Tess and Life’s Little Ironies the part played by the “President of the Immortals” is no sublimer–save in the amount of force exerted–than that of a lout who pulls a chair suddenly from under an old woman. Now, by wedding Necessity with uncouth Jocularity, Mr. Hardy may have found an hypothesis that solves for him all the difficulties of life. I am not concerned in this place to deny that it may be the true explanation. I have merely to point out that art and criticism must take some time in getting accustomed to it, and that meanwhile the traditions of both are so far agreed in allowing a certain amount of free will to direct the actions of men and women that a tale which should be all necessity and no free will would, in effect, be necessity’s own contrary–a merely wanton freak.
For, in effect, it comes to this:–The story of Tess, in which attention is so urgently directed to the hand of Destiny, is not felt to be inevitable, but freakish. The story of Esther Waters, in which a poor servant-girl is allowed to grapple with her destiny and, after a fashion, to defeat it, is felt (or has been felt by one reader, at any rate) to be absolutely inevitable. To reconcile us to the black flag above Wintoncester prison as to the appointed end of Tess’s career, a curse at least as deep as that of Pelops should have been laid on the D’Urberville family. Tess’s curse does not lie by nature on all women; nor on all Dorset women; nor on all Dorset women who have illegitimate children; for a very few even of these are hanged. We feel that we are not concerned with a type, but with an individual case deliberately chosen by the author; and no amount of talk about the “President of the Immortals” and his “Sport” can persuade us to the contrary. With Esther Waters, on the other hand, we feel we are assisting in the combat of a human life against its natural destiny; we perceive that the woman has a chance of winning; we are happy when she wins; and we are the better for helping her with our sympathy in the struggle. That is why, using the word in the Aristotelian sense, I maintain that Esther Waters is a more “philosophical” work than Tess.
The atmosphere of the low-class gambling in which Mr. Moore’s characters breathe and live is no doubt a result of his careful study of Zola. It is, as everyone knows, M. Zola’s habit to take one of the many pursuits of men–from War and Religion down to Haberdashery and Veterinary Surgery–and expand it into an atmosphere for a novel. But in Mr. Moore’s case it may safely be urged that gambling on racehorses actually is the atmosphere in which a million or two of Londoners pass their lives. Their hopes, their very chances of a satisfying meal, hang from day to day on the performances of horses they have never seen. I cannot profess to judge with what accuracy Mr. Moore has reproduced the niceties of handicapping, bookmaking, place-betting, and the rest, the fluctuations of the gambling market, and their causes. I gather that extraordinary care has been bestowed upon these details; but criticism here must be left to experts, I only know that, not once or twice only in the course of his narrative, Mr. Moore makes us study the odds against a horse almost as eagerly as if it carried our own money: because it does indeed carry for a while the destiny of Esther Waters–and yet for a while only. We feel that, whichever horse wins the ultimate issues are inevitable.
It will be gathered from what I have said that Mr. Moore has vastly outstripped his own public form, even as shown in A Mummer’s Wife. But it may be as well to set down, beyond possibility of misapprehension, my belief that in Esther Waters we have the most artistic, the most complete, and the most inevitable work of fiction that has been written in England for at least two years. Its plainness of speech may offend many. It may not be a favorite in the circulating libraries or on the bookstalls. But I shall be surprised if it fails of the place I predict for it in the esteem of those who know the true aims of fiction and respect the conscientious practice of that great art.