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 AEschylean gloom in which Mr. Hardy wraps the story of Tess, I contend that Esther’s fight is, from end to end, the more heroic.
Also Esther’s story seems to me informed with a saner philosophy of life. There is gloom in her story; and many of the circumstances are sordid enough; but throughout I see the recognition that man and woman can at least improve and dignify their lot in this world. Many people believe Tess to be the finest of its author’s achievements. A devoted admirer of Mr. Hardy’s genius, I decline altogether to consent. To my mind, among recent developments of the English novel nothing is more lamentable than the manner in which this distinguished writer has allowed himself of late to fancy that the riddles of life are solved by pulling mouths at Providence (or whatever men choose to call the Supreme Power) and depicting it as a savage and omnipotent bully, directing human affairs after the fashion of a practical joker fresh from a village ale-house. For to this teaching his more recent writings plainly tend; and alike in Tess and Life’s Little Ironies the part played by the “President of the Immortals” is no sublimer—save in the amount of force exerted—than that of a lout who pulls a