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.
I first came across the name Albert Nobbs when I read a newspaper report in late 2010 about Glenn Close shooting a film in Dublin with that title. The fleeting mention of the film being based on a short story by George Moore led me to seek out a copy, which I eventually located in this excellent collection edited by William Trevor. Now I must confess that depite having studied English literature I had avoided Moore’s work, having decided for some reason that it was old hat. Evidently this is a prejudice that has been around for some time; it was Ford Madox Ford who commented: “In an infinite number of reviews and comptes rendus of the literature of the world that I have read – and written – George Moore is almost invariably forgotten.”
After reading “Albert Nobbs” I realised how mistaken I had been about Moore. While his style is more traditional than that of James Joyce in Dubliners (published three years earlier, in 1914), there is nothing conventional about his subject-matter. This is the story of a woman in nineteenth-century Dublin who reinvents herself as a man so that she can secure a job as a hotel waiter. Her ambition is to start her own business and settle down; however complications ensue when she sets her heart on marriage, as her intended is a chambermaid called Helen Dawes.
To say more about the plot would risk spoiling the effect of reading this very singular, novella-length tale. The novelist John Banville, who collaborated with Glenn Close on the screenplay of the film, rightly describes it as “a very strange, very peculiar story” in this recent RTE radio documentary about Moore, but goes on to say that “it’s terribly moving, terribly affecting, not sentimental in any way”. Elsewhere Adrian Frazier, Moore’s biographer, has described it as “a little-known masterpiece of the short story”.
I am pleased to have discovered Moore’s work at last, and to have had the opportunity to make ‘Albert Nobbs’ available to readers in digital form for the first time. This is just the start for Swift Editions, and there may be another offering from George Moore in due course.