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.