Blood in the Waters

September 13, 2014   •   By Paula Morris

IN THE PAYING GUESTS, her sixth novel, Sarah Waters expands on one of the most prominent themes of her last novel, The Little Stranger: class upheaval after a war in which men of all backgrounds have fought and died together, and women of all backgrounds have experienced new independence, responsibility, opportunities, and loss. It’s this particular fascination of Waters’s — the class system with its rules, roles, and repressions coloring every aspect of personal and professional relationships — that reveals her as a quintessentially British writer and suggests why, in her last three novels, she’s been drawn to postwar flashpoints of social transition, and to the confusion and unhappiness they engender.

After her celebrated debut in 1998 with Tipping the Velvet, a lively romp through late-19th-century London’s theatrical demimonde, Waters explored Victorian spiritualism and women’s prisons in Affinity (1999). Then Fingersmith (2002) channeled the overheated melodrama of Wilkie Collins in a complicated page-turner involving an asylum, secret fortunes, and switched identities.

Waters’s two most recent novels, however, were both set in the more austere 1940s, in a Britain blighted with physical and psychic scars. The Night Watch (2006), her most structurally ambitious work to date, rewound the lives of its disparate characters from postwar limbo back through the danger, violence, and personal losses — as well as the passions, hedonism, and adventure — of the war years. In The Little Stranger, Waters confined herself to the dingy postwar years, creating her own subversive take on the country-house novel in an atmospheric ghost story.

The Paying Guests — set in 1922, after the First World War — is a social drama, an illicit love story, and a crime novel. Its final section, more than 200 pages, is occupied with the aftermath of a murder, from police investigations to newspaper headlines to a sensational criminal trial in which nobody — victim, accused, witnesses, family members — is entirely innocent.

The novel’s protagonist is buttoned-up 20-something Frances Wray, an upper-middle-class woman who already seems middle-aged. She lives with her widowed mother in a Regency villa in Champion Hill, a suburban haven of big houses, serene gardens, and fresh air above scruffy Camberwell. This is south-of-the-river London, a mile or two away from what Frances ruefully thinks of as “life, glamour, all that.”

This London is nothing like the flashy dilettante world of Waugh’s “Bright Young Things.” Frances exists in an early 20th-century Cranford of middle-class female austerity. Her father has died leaving nothing but poor investments and fake Jacobean furniture, and Frances exchanges concerts at the Wigmore Hall and political speeches in Hyde Park for a life of scrubbing floors and worrying about how to pay the butcher.

She may feel “old-maidish, with her pinned-up hair and her angles, and her blouse tucked into her high-waisted skirt, after the fashion of the War,” but she’s not just a mild-mannered spinster. During the war she fell in love with a girl called Christina, an intense affair that she sees as her first “thing of the heart and the head and the body.” Their plans to move in together are scuppered by Mrs. Wray, who thinks that “the friendship had something queer about it,” and uses one of Christina’s love letters as damning evidence.

The war puts an end to Frances’s dreams of escape. Her two brothers, John Arthur and teenaged Noel, die in action, her parents go “to pieces,” and the servants desert them. With her father’s death and the discovery of their lost fortune, she decides that she can’t leave her mother. Yet her lover, Christina, is more determined to leave the safety of the suburbs. She breaks with her family, moves into a Bloomsbury flat, and finds another woman, Stevie, who’s “braver than me,” Frances admits, “or harder-hearted, anyhow.”

What Frances comes to see as the “sham Bohemianism” of Christina’s life — clattering typewriter, mismatched furniture, sludge-colored wallpaper and cardigans, politics in the abstract — is possible in Bloomsbury but not south of the river, not in the middle-class streets of villas or the working-class streets of flats above shops. Frances stays at home, ruining her hands and dulling her wits doing the work once performed by a team of servants. John Arthur’s former fiancée calls to reveal a new engagement, and commends Frances for “settling into her role.” A dismayed Frances knows exactly what that means — playing dutiful daughter to a depressed and impractical Victorian mother.

Early in the novel, dragged to a stilted social event, Frances confesses to missing the war.

But we can’t succumb to the feeling, can we? We’ll fade away like ghosts if we do. We have to change our expectations. The big things don’t count any more. I mean the capital-letter notions that got so many of our generation killed. But that means the small things count more than ever […] ordinary things, to be done well. Bits of ground to till and care for. Houses to sweep.

Frances is trying to talk herself into accepting her postwar martyrdom, a narrow and perhaps cowardly life, her sexual energy channeled into dogged, endless housework.

But Frances’s passion-free world — “the tired house, the empty rooms, her grieving mother” — is disrupted by the arrival of the brash “paying guests” of the title, lodgers who’ve come to live with the Wrays to help them pay the bills. The Barbers — “Len and Lil, from Peckham Rye” — make a noisy, garish first impression on the Wrays. Into the chaste, sepia-toned villa the Barbers clatter with their gaudy new possessions, “a portable gramophone, a wicker birdcage, a bronze-effect ashtray on a marbled stand.” Lilian Barber, with her bobbed hair and gypsy scarves, is a working-class “It” girl. She’s the “artistic” one in her family of shopkeepers, more interested in decorating than housekeeping. She spends her days — to Mrs. Wray’s tight-lipped disapproval — drifting around in a kimono and taking baths.

Leonard Barber, with his low-level job in “assurance,” is one of the maligned “clerk class” shouldering its way upward. “They look tame,” observes Stevie. “They sound tame. But under those doilies and antimacassars they’re still rough as all hell.” In fact, the Barbers’ arrival on Champion Hill unleashes hell. Len has a secret life that emerges late in the novel, and his young wife finds a secret life of her own — first as Frances’s obsession, then as her lover, and eventually as her desperate co-conspirator.

Waters’s choice of name for her character is surely a nod to another unfortunate, social-climbing clerk, Leonard Bast in Howards End. Forster’s underfed clerk comes of age in a stratified Edwardian England; he teeters, insecure and trapped, on the brink of squalor, his yearning for intellectual, economic, and sexual fulfillment unmet. Fifteen years and one World War later, Leonard Barber is a brash and confident veteran, an ordinary young man who’s managed to survive a war where so many “gentlemen” — like Frances’s brothers — fell.

He strides through a shabby, edgy postwar London, unperturbed by its dueling Greek choruses — a hysterical tabloid media and disgruntled out-of-work veterans begging in the streets. There are too many “louts one sees hanging about on the street corners,” according to Mrs. Playfair, a grand neighbor of the less fortunate Wrays. “The War took all our best men,” she concludes, “and with them went everything that’s decent and lawful.”

Unlike Leonard Bast, Leonard Barber is unconcerned with being one of those “best men” or with playing cultural catch-up. He smokes in the garden, dashes up the stairs whistling music-hall tunes, and cranks up the gramophone. And unlike Frances and her kind, Len is both untroubled by nostalgia and undaunted by the uncertainties of the postwar world. He’s a survivor, an up-and-comer. In the manner of another literary lowborn vet, Stanley Kowalski, he walks with a swagger and acts on his desires with a brutish narcissism. Len Barber is a man who believes he can only gain from changing times, just as Frances believes she can only lose.

Waters has an instinctive feel for story and dramatic pacing, but she’s also a gifted evoker of scene, her inclusion of historical detail assured and subtle. At the mortuary Frances senses “the scent of disinfectant, like a creeping jaundiced colour in the air.” The police court has a “trumped-up, blustering feel to its heavy paneling, its thrones and coronets,” and its prisoner’s enclosure is “something like a horse’s stall.” To Frances, the “briny smell of black dye” at home is “like the smell of khaki and of certain French cigarettes, forever to be associated with the worst days of the War.” When the scullery roof leaks, “the rainwater spread and darkened, to make treasure maps and Whistler nocturnes of the walls and ceiling.”

Some readers of The Paying Guests may chafe at the novel’s length; they may complain of overwriting and thickened scenes, resisting the languid seduction of a novel that barely hints at anything approaching crime until a couple hundred pages have gone by. But for the tense trial and its personal dramas — not to mention moral complexity and startling class hypocrisies — to have sufficient resonance, the slow build is necessary, and Waters, above all an astute and accomplished storyteller, never falters. Frances Wray isn’t Waters’s most charismatic heroine, perhaps, but the spreading chaos of her crises is engrossing, as she stumbles toward making “one small brave thing happen at last.”

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Paula Morris is a novelist and short story writer from New Zealand.