Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests – TLS
Virago may not be the pioneering publishing house it once was, but it seems fitting that, today, Sarah Waters is one of the brightest stars in its firmament. Her career has been spent revisiting earlier moments in history to recover stories of women who have languished in obscurity or fallen into rumour, just as in the 1970s and 1980s Virago resurrected the careers of so many overlooked and under appreciated women writers. Her latest novel, The Paying Guests, owes a particular debt to one of their iconic green-spine paperbacks: F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, originally published in 1934 and revived by Virago nearly half a century later. Jesse’s novel was itself an act of rescue, based on the life of Edith Thompson, unjustly hanged in 1928 after her young lover murdered her husband. (Letters she wrote, imagining her husband dead and out of the way, provided the only ‘evidence’ against her.) Waters has acknowledged A Pin to See the Peepshow as the inspiration for her new book, but in its immaculate period recreation one can feel the influence of many of the other writers Virago reclaimed from this time such as Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Bowen and Rebecca West, all of whom wrote novels about ambitious yet thwarted women, still living in the gloom of Edwardian respectability and struggling to find the freedom glimpsed in the suffragette movement, in new opportunities for women during the war, or in varying shades of bohemia.
Following Waters’s last novel, The Little Stranger, a country house ghost story in which the dead of the Second World War continue to haunt those who survived, The Paying Guests is also about living in aftermath, about people imprisoned in a world the past will not relinquish. Set four years after the end of the Great War, this time in a middle class villa in South East London, it tells the story of the declassé Wrays, spinsterish Frances and her easily dismayed mother. Left alone and without wherewithal after the men in the family have died in the war or in its wake, the women are forced to let lodgers into their home. Much of the novel takes place in the Wrays’ faded house in Camberwell, a small oasis of gentility surrounded by London’s seedier territories, and disturbed from time to time by one of the indigent – battle-scarred men roaming the capital in search of work. Equally disturbing, and now inhabiting the Wrays home, are the paying guests, Lilian and Leonard Barber: she a working class, Langtryesque beauty, a creature of ostrich feathers and kimonos; he an ambitious clerk, a man, like Forster’s Leonard Bast, unable to contain his desires. More subversive than Bast’s yearning for the poetic, though, this Leonard wants material and sexual freedom and an end to the old order that holds him back.
Beyond the encroachment into her home, the indignities of sharing toilet and bath, of being caught in the hallway less than adequately dressed, of strange noises keeping her from sleep, it is a larger existential threat posed by her lodgers (“invaders”) that Frances feels so keenly, an assault on the edifice of respectability she has struggled to maintain. For as Waters slowly and expertly reveals, Frances is a fraud. Outwardly dutiful and unremarkable, her interior life veers between fantasies of rebellion and the dread of exposure, forever wondering “Will mother hear?”.
The dramatic turn of events for which Waters is known, contributing so much to her popularity, is meted out in more gradual revelations in The Paying Guests. The first ripple of shock comes when Frances declares she can take care of herself, and we realize she’s talking about masturbation. Then there’s something wrong with the way she attacks the skirting boards. The Wrays can no longer afford servants, but as Frances’s mother observes, the zeal with which her daughter takes to skivvying throws doubt upon her whole character. Her relationship with a friend, flat-sharing at the edge of Bloomsbury with another woman, is also dubious, seeming oddly charged and infused with envy. During late-night chats with Leonard, too, she finds it hard to conceal her irritated jealousy. The clerk’s aspiration galls her, the temerity of his longing for things others possess. And while Frances’s feelings carry the veneer of snobbery, the belief that people shouldn’t get above themselves, lurking beneath is the appalled recognition that she is just like him. Because it is Lilian, of course, that Frances is secretly courting, and who is the exhilarating object of her desire.
In Waters’s early Victorian novels, she found a way of placing lesbian underworlds at the heart of gothic and romance fiction, making palpable ideas that were only hinted at in the nineteenth century. Now, with her third work set in the twentieth century, she has demonstrated that this approach proves just as effective in war or crime stories. In The Paying Guests, the ‘crime’ of homosexuality is mirrored in the crime of murder, the suspicion of one feeds directly into the other, ratcheting up the suspense and compromising all judgment – just as the peace itself is compromised, being “the kind of safety that came after war…got by doing harm”. In such tainted circumstances, Waters asks, can happiness only be gained at the expense of others? The affair between Lilian and Frances is exacted at a terrible cost to those around them.
Perhaps the greatest revelation, though, of this, Waters’s sixth novel, is not how well the secrecy and paranoia of gay illegitimacy fits the enclosed world of genre fiction, but how sharply it brings into focus the struggle of everyday life: the effort to make oneself plausible battling the search for authenticity, the dread of being found out against the courage to pursue one’s desire – these are the things which Frances feels acutely, but they are also the experience of many others around her, trapped by class, beaten down by war. The hard lesson, then, of The Paying Guests is that Frances’s melodramatic sense of her predicament, her Nietzschean defiance which continually threatens to pierce the norm, is not unique or even particular to her kind of love. When put to the test, she is revealed not as special, but lacking the courage some others display. At the novel’s close, finally understanding this, Frances thinks now that she and Lilian must dare to love not because it is a thrilling, secret, distinguishing thing (the compensations of obscurity) but because it is a matter of “duty” to their fellow strugglers: because of them, they must “make [this] one small brave thing happen”.
This review appeared as ‘One Small Brave Thing’ in the TLS on 24.10.14.