A Born Writer

Review of Esther Waters, by George Moore.

From The Times Literary Supplement, July 29, 1920

EDITOR'S NOTE: This unsigned essay by Virginia Woolf is interesting in its positive take on naturalistic writing. Naturalists (like Hardy) were precursors of modernism who emphasized the lower strata of society, the bleakness of that life, the helplessness of individuals, and the indifference of fate. Woolf also admires the author's invisibility, an ideal strived for by the modernists. Again I have highlighted (in green) noteworthy sections.
   After many years "Esther Waters" appears again, entirely revised, and with an introduction which, to our disappointment, has more to say about Irish politics than about English fiction. Whether any critic of those days predicted a long life for the book we know not. At what date it was written and what views the author had in mind we are not told. At any rate in the summer of 1920 it sets out again; and whether for a long voyage and by reason of what qualities it has survived so far the critics of to-day must make up their minds. That is not easy. For it is a quiet book, and an old-fashioned rather than an old book. About a century ago it was the habit of novelists to produce masterpieces which were known for such from the moment of birth. "Waverley," "Pickwick," and "Jane Eyre" are all cases in point. The public appauded and the critics clapped hands with them unanimously. Later, for reasons which it would lead us astray to discuss, the process of recognition was much more gradual and difficult, and far from acclaiming at the outset the public had to be coaxed and even coerced before it would tolerate. But "Esther Waters" belongs neither to one class nor to the other. It was neither admitted a classic from the start nor has it fought a battle, won a victory, and founded a school. Somehow it has come through the press of the struggle by qualities which are not so easy to define.

   Leaving aside such obvious merits as the story, which is varied and interesting, and the style, which, with occasional spaces of melody and charm, is invariably lucid and effortless, it seems as if the book's virtue lay in a shapeliness which is at once admirable and disconcerting. The novel begins with the sentence, "She stood on the platform watching the receding train." A few pages before the end the sentence recurs. Esther Waters stands once more on the platform watching the receding train. Once more a servant's oblong box, painted a reddish brown, is on the seat beside her. Between these two appearances eighteen years have passed, eighteen years of labour, suffering, and disappointment. A great deal had happened, so much that she could not remember it all. The situations she had been in; her life with that dear, good soul, Miss Rice; then Fred Parsons; then William again! her marriage, the life in the publichouse, money lost and money won, heartbreakings, death, everything that could happen had happened to her.

   But the recurring scene is not a formal device to reduce the varied incidents of her life to symmetry. All through Mr. Moore has curbed himself to this particular ending, renouncing this, insisting upon that, allowing himself few or none of the licences and redundances in which English novelists luxuriate. The life of a servant girl is a long series of sordid drudgeries scattered with scant pleasures; and thus he has presented it, without taking refuge in sentiment or in romance. Throughout the names are insignificant; the places (with the exception of Woodview, and there we are limited to the kitchen and the pantry) without charm; while the fates above preserve blank faces in the discharge of their duties. No one is allowed either sensational reprieve or sensational disaster. A number of writers have outdone Mr. Moore in the force with which they depict poverty and misery, but they have failed to penetrate beyond their day because they have always dashed the picture from their hands in an access of indignation or clouded it with tears. They have rarely had his power of maintaining that in art life needs neither condemnation nor justification. The story owes much of its buoyancy and permanency to the fact that we can examine it dispassionately. There it hangs, complete, apart. Yet by this we do not mean that there is no morality to be found in it; for when Mr. Moore calls Esther Waters "as characteristically English as 'Don Quixote' is Spanish," he means perhaps that in the person of Esther he has laid bare honesty, fidelity, courage, and has made these, the Saxon virtues, rather than the charms and subtleties of the Latins, the leading qualities in the drama. But he himself remains invisible.

   Vivid, truthful, so lightly and yet so firmly constructed as it is, what then prevents us from talking of immortality and greatness? In one word, the quality of the emotion. Although in retrospect there is not a single scene that lacks animation, or a single character clumsily or conventionally portrayed, both scenes and characters are nevertheless curiously flat. The dialogue is always toneless and monotonous. The conception springs from no deep original source, and the execution has that sort of evenness which we see in the work of a highly sensitive student copying on to his canvas the picture of some great master. If that is the reason why "Esther Waters" does not affect us directly as a more imperfect but more original work is capable of doing, we cannot deny that it holds a very distinguished place in English fiction. Moreover, though the public will always prefer both Shakespeare and Mrs. Henry Wood, "Esther Waters" will go on being read and re-read with peculiar interest by those who attempt the art of novel writing themselves. For, when all is said and done, Mr. Moore is a born writer; and, though great novelists are rare, of how many people in a generation can one say truthfully that?