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39 ESTHER WATERS: THE SOURCES OF THE BABY-FARM EPISODE By Paul Sporn (Wayne State University) The baby-farm episode in George Moore's Esther Waters (1894) Is Important, for It constitutes a significant part of the experience leading the heroine to charge the upper middle class of late Victorian England with criminal inhumanity. Just prior to this incident, Esther, hard pressed for money, an infant son to care for, and otherwise alone In the world accepts a wet-nursing Job with a fashionable London family named Rivers. Required to live In with the family, Esther places her own child at a baby farm, but not without misgivings, for she Is fully aware of the high frequency of death among children who have been "put out to nurse."! Although she has a sense of being "the victim of a dark and farreaching conspiracy" (p. 138) and feels that the Interests of the rich are Inimical to those of the poor, Esther has no clear notion at first of the persons conspiring together or the exact purpose of the conspiracy. When, however, Mrs. Rivers refuses Esther the right to visit her ailing son and gives Mrs. Spires, the woman who runs the baby farm, ten shillings ostensibly to pay for medical aid but actually to rid the house of the woman, the conspiracy becomes a sharply defined conviction. "I understand it all now," Esther explodes with anger. "Fine folks like you pays the money, and Mrs. Spires and her like gets rid of the poor little things" (p. 143). Despite his heroine's vehemence and expllcltness, Moore is neutral about the aocusatlon, presumably in keeping with the principles of literary naturalism, perhaps, as William C. Frlerson suggests of his entire work, in an effort not to offend established opinion.2 He neither confirms, by a direct representation of conspiracy, nor contradicts, by evidence showing otherwise, Esther's charge. A simple conjunction of circumstances In which the baby-farm Incident plays a conspicuous part, then, as opposed to an assured causal connection, gives rise to the most unequivocal charge In the novel of upper middle-class inhumanity. Moore's frequent borrowing from authors whom he admired raises the possibility that he got the baby-farm idea from a literary source. The baby farm described by Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary (I856) particularly comes to mind, Walter D. Ferguson, in nls study of Flaubert's Influence on Moore, suggests L'éducation sentimentale (1869).3 A close look at Flaubert's~baby-farm episodes makes plain that each differs considerably in function and desorlptlve detail from the one in Moore. In Moore the episode is essential in determining Esther's view of the upper middle olass. Before it she has no view of this class. The Madame Bovary episode confirms rather than determines the heroine's already existing view of the provincial bourgeoisie.^ The episode in L'Education is even less significant to the heroine's attitude. The~child's illness is primarily a vehiole to describe naturalistically an advanoed stage of infectious disease and the basis for a comment by an artist hired to paint a life-like picture of the 40 dead child, ironically at variance with Falubert's method In the novel.5 As for descriptive detail, Flaubert's as well as Moore's baby farms are squalid. The descriptions differ, however, chiefly because Flaubert's nurseries are rural and Moore's urban. Flaubert's country settings tend to reduce the effect of the squalor; whereas, nothing alleviates the condition of Moore's baby farm.6 At best then Flaubert contributed a beginning impulse to Moore. The more likely immediate source for the baby-farm episode In Esther Waters is an article exposing the evils of baby farming written by Benjamin Waugh, a founder of England's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, for the Contemporary Review of May 1890. The date Is significant, for In the summer of 1890, Moore wrote to his American friend Marquise Clara Lanza that the human drama of the novel he had begun to work on was "the story of the servant girl with an Illegitimate child, how she saves the child...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 39-42
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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