I’ve enjoyed all of Sarah Waters’ novels; she is a writer with a sure touch when it comes to characterisation and an appealing taste for the dramatic and sensational in plots. I recently taught her previous novel, The Little Stranger, as part of a module on Gothic literature, and am struck both a range of differences and parallels between this and her latest novel. The Paying Guests is set in the 1920s, and carefully depicts the situation of many women after the war – genteel but impoverished, disturbed by the gradual dissolution of class boundaries and the world they knew, much as the family of Hundreds Hall in The Little Stranger felt after WW2. The Paying Guests also features a mother and daughter, living together in a house haunted by the past – in this case, the two brothers killed in the trenches – and with a difficult relationship bound up in duty and occasional mistrust or even dislike, though tempered with love. Into this household, so poor they cannot keep a servant, come the ‘paying guests’, a young couple of the ‘clerk class’. Frances, the daughter, though tentatively seeking liberation with the new wave of feminism which dawned after the Great War (she once threw her shoe at an MP), is also ‘cross-grained and unmarriageable’, not always able to behave as she is expected to.
By contrast, the Barbers who take lodgings in the house seem, at first, a cheerful young couple, interested more in music and socialising than in recent history, looking forward to the future rather than dwelling on the past. Yet as Frances overcomes her little snobberies to make friends with Lilian Barber, it seems as though a positive step forward has been taken for women’s lives, paving the way to a brighter future not just for these women but for all women of the period. Waters seems to be drawing on women’s fiction of the period for her style and approach in the book, and does so with a mostly authentic voice; there are passages which might have been drawn from novels by Elizabeth Bowen or Winifred Holtby.
The attraction between Lilian and Frances is clearly based on more than friendship, however, and things soon go seriously wrong: the majority of this novel is a crime novel, of sorts, but not of the ‘whodunnit’ variety – rather, ‘who will pay?’ is the question. Without wishing to give too much away, the effect of a series of investigations and trials take their toll on Frances and Lilian, and the tension of this and the impossible situation in which the women find themselves is played out over a large part of the novel (perhaps, if I’m honest, this took a little too long). Yet the sensational plots with which Waters is so adept are manifest here: there is blood and gore, characters defamed, families hounded by newspaper men – it has a distinctly period feel to it, and yet it works well for a modern audience (perhaps partly because of the addition of blood, and sex). This isn’t just a story about a crime, though: it is also one which depicts the anxieties of a period of unrest, the difficulties faced by many after the war, the rigid gender and class stereotypes which bind the participants in the story, and the difficulties faced by those who do not conform. This novel is in some ways a return to Waters’ earlier works, such as The Night Watch, where relationships between women are examined in a historical context. All her novels play with different aspects of literary history, from Gothic to thriller, but all seem rooted in close attention to detail and a remarkable sense of reality, manifested here in the routine of Frances’ grindingly dull housework. As the review in The Guardian suggests, this is a domestic drama, but not at all in the way one might expect: the domestic world is depicted as shifting, disintegrating, on uncertain foundations as the world readjusts itself after the seismic shock of the war.