Review of the BBC Radio 4’s adaption of George Moore’s ‘Esther Waters’ (1894)

Guy Woolnough (Keele University)

Esther Water frontpiece

Esther Waters (George Moore, 1894) is an interesting choice for the BBC Radio 4 Sunday afternoon serial. [1] It is a novel that I have used it as a historical quarry (rather like Gissing’s Nether World), as a source of references of a particular type, but is not a work that I should ever have chosen to read for entertainment. Like Gissing’s work, Esther Waters belongs to the miserablist genre. It is a narrative of adversity and setback for its heroine, in which it is similar to Tess of the D’Urbervilles. One might draw a parallel with Voltaire’s Candide; although the trials heaped upon George Moore’s heroine are not quite so unrelenting, Esther Waters lacks the absurd humour that makes Candide more than simply a philosophical exercise. Another comparison that comes to mind is Gaskell’s Mary Barton, which also engages with very real social issues of the Victorian working class. However, Mary is much more effective in influencing her own destiny than is Esther, who struggles to cope with events beyond her control.

Esther’s words at the start of the radio production, “Dear Lord, help me,” epitomize her forlorn hope and doomed expectations. Esther arrives as a kitchen maid at a house where the squire derives his amusement and income largely from the training and racing of horses. She has escaped a brutal step father, only to find that she is exposed to the corrupting influence of a house where gambling has most of the family and staff in its grip.

Everything is against Esther. Her father’s early death, her drunken abusive step father, her missed education, the feckless young man she falls for, unwanted pregnancy, bullying fellow servants, exploitative or incompetent employers, baby farmers, police persecution, widow-hood. Esther is presented as a ‘good’ girl who wants to read religious books, to help her mother, to care for her baby, to behave properly, and is therefore an interesting archetype of Victorian working class respectability. Against her the system seems to conspire.

Esther’s hopes for a good, Christian lifestyle are supported by the kindly mistress of the house, but she is deserted by the unreliable son of the cook, who leaves Esther with a baby, while he departs with the squire’s niece.  Esther’s struggles to find work, and to support herself and baby, take her ever downwards. Although she avoids prostitution, Esther finds herself at the mercy of a lady seeking a wet nurse and a ruthless baby farmer, until with no other choice, episode one ends with Esther and her baby entering the workhouse.

I have found the novel interesting for showing the horse racing and gambling culture of the nineteenth century[2]. The novel depicts the horse racing scene well, and in the later chapters presents an accurate portrayal of a pub where illegal gambling was carried on. The servants are swept into this culture, in a way that I find slightly patronizing: the working classes in Esther Waters look to their ‘betters’ for employment, education, religion and even for their vices. Esther is led to ruin by the gambling culture, even though she is keen to respond to the moral and religious education of the squire’s wife, who does not share her husband’s enthusiasm for horse racing.

My appraisal of working-class cultures in the nineteenth century is quite different. Plebeian religious groups, for example, such as the Plymouth Brethren and the Primitive Methodists[3](Burgess 1980, Field 1977, Kendall 1906, Hempton 1996, McLeod 1993, Nash 2004)

Powell Frith's Derby Day (1856-8)

were fiercely independent working class groups who turned against the churches of their ‘betters.’ Although all classes shared an interest in betting on horse racing (see, for example, Powell Frith’s Derby Day they participated separately. Several sports were largely working class; labouring men could participate for themselves, as dog breeders, foot-racers, wrestlers, cock fight promoters, boxing trainers etc[5]. Working-class cultures were not diluted and inferior versions of what the upper classes did, but were distinct and independent.

Esther Waters is a politically powerful book, not as precisely focused as Robert Tressel’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but with a strong narrative of working class exploitation. Moore’s work surpasses Tressel’s in its situating women at the heart of this exploitation. We see women such as the cook and the maids working hard while the men play with their horses and fantasize about quick money. Moore made a strong point about the transience of wealth and status. The squire gained his wealth through success on the turf, and loses it before the end of the book. The family of William Latch, Esther’s errant lover, had been wealthy but were now reduced to service. In the second half of the book, William goes on to make a tidy sum only to lose it again.

The choice of this book for the radio serial will therefore seem appropriate to many who deplore the current- and increasing- inequalities of wealth in Britain and observe that the burden of welfare cuts is falling more heavily upon the vulnerable and upon women.

At the same time the contrast between female and male characters in Esther Waters may recommend the story to modern audiences. The men are variously feckless, dishonest, unreliable, drunken or violent, whereas female characters such as the cook and the squire’s wife are far more independent in their thinking. Mrs Latch, the cook, stands out against the appeal of quick money from the Turf, whereas the male servants are all in thrall to the gaffer and his stable. Even the (female) baby farmer is competent and ‘successful’ at her dreadful work, whereas the men seem destined to fail in every enterprise, legal or illegal.

Of course the attraction of Esther Waters for a present day radio producer is perhaps its ability to portrayal a grim ‘reality,’ though it is problematic how ‘real’ Esther’s trials were. Every incident and occurrence is plausible and supported by empirical evidence, but one doubts that anyone could be so unfortunate. As in Candide, every contingency turned out for the worst. To use a gambling analogy: one feels that had Esther wagered £5 on at least one coin in a hundred landing heads up, she would have lost. Statistically, not impossible, although highly improbable.

Esther Waters has been televised twice, in the 1960s and 70s, neither of which I have seen. The current radio adaption has ‘improved’ Esther’s character to suit the tastes of modern audiences. She is more assertive in this version than in the book, so that her angry reaction to some of the injustices she suffers will suit modern sensibilities, and her outbursts do confirm our stereotypes of the oppression meted out to working class females in the Victorian Britain. Esther’s character has been ‘improved’ in other respects too, for the radio Esther did not engage in the cruel bullying of ‘the Woolgather’ which Esther did in the book.

Compressing the story into two hours of radio has caused some shortcomings. The production has tended to increase the miseries of Esther’s life: the book shows Esther enjoying the company of the young people in the servants’ hall, but this is missing from the BBC production. The first episode was a rush of characters, whom it was at times difficult to differentiate. A third hour, or a television production, could have avoided these problems.

The decision to serialize Esther Waters is as politically relevant today as is the BBC TV’s forthcoming Mary Barton. Both must contribute to current discourses about poverty and women in society. It may be that Mr Gove, as government appointed guardian of the nation’s school history, would prefer the BBC to serialize a morale-boosting Captain Marryat or Rider Haggard book, but I welcome the decision to present works that raise issues that are controversial today and confound some stereotypes of the past: Esther Waters is certainly an anti-dote to Downton Abbey. We are presented with a narrative of a strong minded young woman who has been wronged, and who would in the twenty first century have been able to achieve much more than the many feckless men in the story. I am particularly pleased that the BBC has looked beyond Dickens and Trollope, and has dusted off an interesting old volume. Now when will they serialize Gissing’s Nether World?

Guy Woolnough is just completing his PhD at Keele University. His PhD explores the policing of petty crime in Victorian Cumbria.

Twitter: @GuyWoolnough

[1] For a review of the book, see

[2] See:  Bellingham, C., 1924. Confessions of a Turf Crook. Told by himself; Chinn, C., 1991. Better betting with a decent feller bookmaking, betting and the British working class, 1750-1990;  Clapson, M., 1989. Popular Gambling and English Culture, c1845-1961. PhD thesis, University of Warwick; Vamplew, W., 1976. The turf : a social and economic history of horse racing.

[3] Burgess, J., 1980. A history of Cumbrian Methodism; Field, C., 1977. The Social Structure of English Methodism. British Journal of Sociology, 28(2), pp. 199-225; Hempton, D., 1996. The religion of the people: Methodism and popular religion c.1750-1900; Kendall, H.B., 1906. The origin and history of the Primitive Methodist Church; Mcleod, H., 1993. Religion and irreligion in Victorian England how secular was the working class?; Nash, D., 2004. Reconnecting Religion with Social and Cultural History: Secularisation’s Failure as a Master Narrative. Cultural and Social History, 1(3), pp. 302-325.

[4] Powell-Frith, W., 1893/4. Derby Day. Manchester City Art Galleries.

[5] Bailey, P., 1978. Leisure and class in Victorian England rational recreation and the contest for control, 1830-1885; J. Benson, ed, The Working class in England, 1875-1914; Cunningham, H., 1980. Leisure in the Industrial revolution; Flanders, J., 2007; 2006. Consuming passions : leisure and pleasure in Victorian Britain; Murfin, G.L., 1990. Popular leisure in the lake counties; Walton, J.K. and Walvin, J., 1983. Leisure in Britain, 1780-1939.

One comment

  1. It’s good to read about Victorian novels which are not widely known. Dickens, Gaskell and Trollope dominate the media, but give us only a partial view of Victorian culture. I find it interesting how Woolnough has explored the subtle differences in emphasis between the original book and the way in which it has been adapted for a modern audience. Even though the listening public today demands a genuine Victorian feel, it has to be delivered with a modern interpretation. Perhaps I should seek out the original to read it.

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