Esther Waters by George Moore

In this episode we discuss the controversial and ground-breaking novel, Esther Waters by the Irish novelist George Moore.  We are joined by Tom Crewe, author of the prize-winning New Life (Chatto & Windus) and one of this year’s crop of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Esther Waters was first published in 1894 and is told almost entirely from the point of view of an illiterate working-class woman, who falls pregnant by a fellow servant, is abandoned by him, and decides to raise their child on her own. Telling her story allows Moore to catalogue the glamour and sordidness of 1890s London society in astonishing detail and his refusal to judge his heroine led to it being banned from W.H. Smith’s railway bookstores. Despite (or because of) this, it sold over 24,000 copies in its first year and has been in print ever since. We examine what sets Moore apart from other writers of the time, including Émile Zola, Thomas Hardy and George Gissing, why it has had such a positive influence on later admirers like James Joyce, Jean Rhys and Colm Tóibín, and how its simplicity of style and detailed presentation of Esther’s inner life feel so surprisingly contemporary.

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Esther Waters plot summary (from Swift Editions)

The story of the life of a “fallen woman”, Esther Waters caused a sensation when it was first published in the late nineteenth century. Calls for it to be banned on account of its sexual frankness were rejected by Gladstone himself.

The plot follows the misfortunes of Esther, driven from home by a drunken stepfather and forced into domestic service at the age of seventeen. Esther is seduced by a fellow servant who deserts her, causing her to lose her position and descend into a life of poverty, hardship and humiliation in London, where she is forced to fend for herself and her baby boy. Her fortunes change for the better when she marries, but her husband is a bookmaker and publican operating outside the law and their luck is destined not to last . Set against a backdrop of horseracing, and the gambling and drinking that goes with it.

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