Esther Waters and the Libraries

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Esther Waters and the Libraries is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Daily Chronicle on 1 may 1894.

Esther Waters and the Libraries

Sir, — Whatever action the Society of Authors may take on the question of the exclusion of Esther Waters from the railway bookstalls, it is, I think, the duty of every newspaper which has the interests of literature at heart to comment upon it. It may be argued that Messrs. W. H. Smith and Son are a private firm and may do what they like in the matter. As a matter of fact, however, through the huge monopoly which they hold the firm is practically a public institution, and is far too great a thing to be managed upon lines of individual caprice or intolerance. A huge power rests in their hands. Exclusion from their stalls and their library means that the work is cut off at the meter as far as the country consumer goes. Such a power must be used with forbearance, otherwise it becomes unfair both to the author and to his public.

Esther Waters is, in my opinion, a great and a very serious book. It is great because it draws many aspects of life, and every one of them with an attention to detail and a thoroughness of workmanship which put the book on the very highest plane of fiction. It is serious because it deals with a succession of vital questions, and because the most frivolous reader cannot fail to have his conscience touched by it — to have it brought home to him that humble tragedies surround him on all sides, and that he may not have to go further than his own kitchen to find a field for his benevolence. It is the greatest sermon against gambling that has ever been preached, and though in the course of the story it deals with matter which, if coarsely treated, would become objection- able, I do not think that any literary critic would accuse Mr. Moore of bad taste. To draw vice is one thing, and to make it attractive is another.

On what ground, then, can Messrs. Smith and Son inflict so serious an injury upon this author and his book as to exclude it from a large share of its natural market? The obvious duty of a distributing house is to distribute, and not to act as an illegal and unauthorised censor upon literature. It may seem to their advisers immoral to draw certain sides of life, but to many others it seems equally immoral that a great branch of literature should be devoted entirely to frivolity. If the book is objectionable there are recognised means for suppressing it, but both authors and public have a right to complain of a monopoly being used in such a fashion that it becomes a law within the law. Esther Waters is a good book - good both in literature and in ethics - and if it is to be placed outside the pale of legitimate fiction, it is difficult to say how any true and serious work is to be done within it.

Yours faithfully,

Reform Club, April 30