‘Esther Waters’ was one of those classic novels that I circled for a long time, wondering if I should pick it up or pass it by. The story of a servant who fell pregnant and then struggled to raise her illegitimate son could be profound but it could be grim. When I read Emma’s wonderful review I knew that I had to pick the book up, and now that I’ve read it I have to say that I’m very glad that I did.
It focuses on many of the problems of Victorian society – poverty, gambling, intoxication, inequity – but it is a wonderfully readable book, telling the story of a fascinating – and sometimes infuriating – heroine.
Esther’s story began as she left her home and family to take up a new position, as a kitchen maid in a big house on a country estate. She was apprehensive, but her pride made her hold her head up, and her spirit made her stand up for herself when the cook suggested she get straight to work without changing her dress, which might have been shabby but it was the best that she had.
Her upbringing, among the Plymouth Brethren, had given her a strong faith and firm principles, but it was her pride and her spirit that would prove to be both her downfall and her saving grace.
I was inclined to like her, and to want the best for her. As the story of her family, her upbringing, her circumstances emerged I came to understand what had shaped her character. She was the product of all of that; she was a real, fallible, living, breathing human being.
The style, simple and natural, brought her world to life and allowed her story to shine.
William was the cook’s son. He was eager to secure a position on the estate, to be near that stables, the horses, the gambling that were at the centre of life there. And he took a shine to Esther. She didn’t approve of his gambling, but she liked him, and they grew close, and they began to talk about marriage and a future together.
There was always a buzz in the air on race days, especially race days, especially when a horse from the estate was running, especially when that horse won. For all she disapproved Esther couldn’t help being affected by it, and maybe that was why a line was crossed.
And there were consequences.
Esther, knowing that she had sinned, pushed William away. He took his rejection to heart, he turned his attention elsewhere, and it wasn’t long before he ran off with one of the daughters of the house.
Not long after that, Esther realised that she was expecting his child.
She new that she would have to leave her job, she knew life would be a struggle, and it was, but when her son was born she drew strength from her new role, and bringing him up well became the focus of her life.
The only path open to her after the birth, the only thing that would keep her out of the workhouse, was to pay a baby farmer to care for her child and become a wet-nurse.
Esther was in a horrible situation, and I felt for her and admired the maturity she found to cope.
It worked for a while, but when her child was ill, when her mistress would not let her go to him, when the wet-nurse offered to take him off her hands forever, realised how unjust it all was:
“It is none of the child’s fault if he hasn’t got a father, nor is it right that he should be deserted for that… and it is not for you to tell me to do such a thing. If you had made sacrifice of yourself in the beginning and nursed your own child such thoughts would not have come to you. But when you hire a poor girl such as me to give the milk that belongs to another to your child, you think nothing of the poor deserted one. He is but a bastard, you say, and had better be dead and done with. I see it all now; I have been thinking it out. It is all so hidden up that the meaning is not clear at first, but what it comes to is this, that fine folks like you pays the money, and Mrs. Spires and her like gets rid of the poor little things. Change the milk a few times, a little neglect, and the poor servant girl is spared the trouble of bringing up her baby and can make a handsome child of the rich woman’s little starveling.”
That was, for me, the defining moment in Esther’s story. She would do her best for her son but she would never compromise her principles. That would cause difficulties as she had to work and care for her child, and there were times when she fell very low, but there were also times when good people did their best to help her. And she might have had more, but she was cautious and would not let others now what her circumstances were.
It was when she was doing well, when she was on the point of marrying a good man she met through the Plymouth Brethren, that the father of her child came back into her life. William hadn’t known that there was a child, but when he found out he was ready to be that child’s father.
He wasn’t a bad man, but a fundamentally decent man with a fatal flaw – his love of gambling.
Esther was horribly torn, but she knew that the right thing to do was to marry William, to be a good wife and mother. She was, and she stood by her husband always. Because it was the right thing to do, and because she loved him.
He loved her too, and there were some touching moments as the story of their marriage played out.
Most of all though she loved their son, and she achieved what she set out to do. She raised her son well and she was so proud when he became a soldier ….
The story of how Esther reached that point was wonderful.
It was focused on the reasons for the choices she made, and it did that so very well and with such understanding, but there were gaps. The stories of the conception, of the birth, of stays in the workhouse, of the wedding ….. so much was missing.
But in the end those things weren’t important.
I watched the passage of Esther’s life, I cared, and I understood her journey.
That is what will stay with me.