ESTHER WATERS AND THE DOWNTON ABBEY EFFECT

Dirk Bogarde and Mary Clare in the 1948 film of Esther Waters

One of the most striking aspects of the success of Downton Abbey is its huge popularity in the States, although as it is essentially a spin-off from an American movie (Robert Altman’s Gosford Park), perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised at this. As the New York Times reports, publishers have been jumping on the bandwagon.

The television series hasn’t been without its critics in the US, however, with the Wall Street Journal recently taking issue with its ‘soft focus’ portrayal of domestic service. Novelist Elizabeth Lowry recommended instead some more authentic fictional depictions of the ‘long-vanished world of masters and servants’, including, I was pleased to see, Esther Waters by George Moore.

Moore’s novel of the life of a ‘fallen woman’ was a bestseller in Victorian England, and probably as talked about as Downton Abbey is today; its sexual frankness even led to attempts to have it banned. It’s been rather forgotten in recent years, apart from a glowing endorsement on BBC Radio 4 by Colm Toibin, who chose it as his favourite neglected classic: ‘You will not forget Esther Waters. You grow to love her and want her to thrive . . . You can’t put it down . . . once you’re halfway through it, you really don’t want to be doing anything else.’

Esther Waters has been filmed twice, notably in 1948, when it gave Dirk Bogarde his first starring role, and was adapted as a television series in the 1960s. Perhaps in the wake of Downton‘s success  and Glenn Close’s new film of Moore’s short story ‘Albert Nobbs’ – the time is right for a new version . . . and for readers to discover the original.

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