Published in 1894, George Moore’s groundbreaking experiment in pushing the boundaries of Naturalism in English-language fiction presents a stark portrait of both how much things have changed in the past century or so and how little things have changed over the time period. During the year of its initial release, Mudie’s Library and Smith’s Library as well as a number of circulating libraries through England flatly refused to make the book available to members. The starkly realistic novel that stood in sharp contrast to the most popular books of the era by writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, J.M. Barrie, Jules Verne, Wilkie Collins and Mark Twain. As a result of the type of more realistic depictions of human nature influenced more by French novelists of the time than their British and American counterparts, Esther Waters became an object of controversy and the target of censorship. And what, exactly, was the realistic depiction of acts considered too risqué for the delicate sensibilities of British library card holds in the last decade of the 1800s?
The title character—poor servant girl Esther—gives in to the seductive intent of one of her fellow downstairs employees and doesn’t have the courtesy to die before the rake comes back into her life and marries the single mother. That is one certainly one element which doubtlessly led to a backlash by the purveyors of common decency, but it has been suggested that Moore’s greater crime was to write a scene in which the medical staff attending to the birth of Esther’s illegitimate offspring and her subsequent post-partum care exhibit a remarkable level of indifference to Esther’s concern about her current and future state of deprivation.
It was one thing for George Moore to break with the tradition of popular fiction at the time to provide exciting and entertaining stories about hell hounds on the Moors and ghosts haunting the manor and men who would be king by offering a heroine who was so promiscuous and sinful as to have sexual relations outside of marriage exactly one time. After all, such an extraordinary circumstance could hardly be considered relevant as an indictment of the very character of the British Empire. To reveal in an uncompromisingly honest manner the hypocrisy and lack of humanity amongst those members of the empire expected to exhibit the least hypocritical attitude as they provide the most humane of services, on the other, could well be seen as casting a bad reflection over the entirety of Britain. As such, Esther Waters simply could be tolerated by those with the greatest influence over what was being read among the millions of British citizens facing their own financial hardship and dependent on the kindness of circulating libraries.
Only when George Moore proved that the efforts by these libraries to censor his work had resulted in the net effect of their being at the very least 1200 pounds to the negative did the country’s librarians finally determine that Esther Waters was not going to bring the entire empire crumbling down around them. The legacy of Moore’s novel has been three different adaptations for the stage, including two involving the author himself, a 1943 theatrical film and two different British TV series in 1964 and 1977.