It’s been too long since we had a Sarah Waters novel and although I love her Victorian era fiction, this novel really did stay with me. In 1922 a mother and daughter live in a villa in Camberwell. A house once filled with the sounds of men – husbands, brothers and servants – is now largely quiet. Only the widow, Mrs Wray, and her daughter Frances remain. Impoverished by war and a lack of men to bring home the money, they are forced to rent out rooms in their home. Frances is a spinster, resigned to looking after her mother for the rest of her life, but with the arrival of tenants Lillian and Leonard Barber their house routine changes considerably. The couple do not come from the same class as the Wrays, and are the new, upcoming clerk class. However, no one could foresee the profound change their presence will make to Frances’s life as passions and frustrations mount. The Wray’s lives will never be the same again.
As some regular readers will know I love this post WW1 period of history. London is a very tense and unsettled place to live. The war followed by Spanish Flu has left generations in mourning, but has also managed to level out the class system, liberate women. Sadly it has also birthed a whole new dependent generation of people with disabilities and PTSD. Ex-servicemen might find a woman doing their job, who is very reluctant to give it up and return to the home. Or their disability prevents them from working at all, in some cases forcing them to beg on the street. The aristocracy are in decline – often hit by double death duties some are forced to go abroad, particularly the US, to look for a bride with money in order to prop up the estate. Women have moved out of the domestic sphere and have enjoyed the sense of freedom they’ve had. It’s a period of flux in a societal hierarchy that’s been in place for half a century or more. It’s a huge upheaval, but in such upheaval, previously suppressed groups can find their freedom.
I feel so much for Frances. The opportunities war brought to her are gone, but then so is the safety of her pre-war days when her father and brother were there to support and protect the household. Now she looks after her elderly mother alone, and now they can’t afford servants all the household tasks have fallen to her as well. She is sure she will die a spinster. She is also haunted by a lapse in self-control she gave in to during the war, scandalously involving another woman. Frances is haunted by her actions and now she knows how easy it is to lapse, she is even more determined to avoid impropriety. Their income is so depleted that Frances has prepared some of their upstairs rooms for use as a bed sit. They will now have to share their homes with a couple who are of a much lower class. The Barbers are shocking to Frances, and her mother, who are used to an element of deference from the lower classes. They are very direct and unencumbered by the manners and etiquette the Wrays are used to. Frances is desperately embarrassed by her lapse and their weakened circumstances. Taking in lodgers, or ‘paying guests’, is a humiliation for the family but they have no choice. The Barbers will have to be endured.
Sarah Waters cleverly takes a domestic space and uses it to illustrate the greater societal shifts of post-war Britain. Just as the aristocracy are having to relax the rules on who they marry, the Wrays have to get used to people they would never previously have entertained living in their home. Thinking they can remain separate and self-contained is an idea that simply doesn’t work in reality. Once they’ve settled in, the Barbers seem to encroach on the Wray’s private spaces. Their boundaries blur as the couple pass through Frances’s kitchen to get to the outside toilet. They meet each other on the landing in dressing gowns. With every cough or creak of the floorboards, Frances feels her quiet life being impinged upon. She is also finding her sexuality challenged again; she considered her war time experience with a woman a ‘one off’ incident. Now she senses an awakening as she gets to know Lillian. She knows women friends who live openly in London with their same sex partner. They are co-habiting with each other and being discreet, but true to who they are. Frances had chosen to stifle her feelings for fear of falling in love again and instigating her own ruin. The proximity of another woman could be challenging this and her connection to Lillian leads to a terrible act with far reaching consequences.
As usual with Waters, it was the strong characters and sense of place, that I engaged with first. I saw a review that called this crime fiction and of course it is, in that we have a crime and a nail-biting court case. It’s certainly a great addition to the crime genre, but it wasn’t the first things that stood out to me about the book. I love Waters’s women characters – they’re intelligent, complex and trying to be themselves in a world that wants to suppress and control them. Her depth of description makes her chosen historical period burst into life: the fabrics used in clothing, the objects in the Barber’s room, and the touch of forbidden skin. Her characters have rich inner lives and complex psychology. I would recommend this – and her other novels for anyone who loves historical or crime fiction. The court scenes are so tense and I found myself wishing and hoping for a particular outcome. That’s how good this author is, she can make you root for a character like they’re a real person and feel emotion for them. That shows how talented Sarah Waters is and if you’ve only read her Victorian fiction, make room for this on your book shelves.
Publisher: Riverhead Books 16th September 2014
Meet The Author
Sarah Waters was born in Wales in 1966 and lives in London. Author of Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, her most recent book is The Little Stranger. All of her books have attracted prizes: she won a Betty Trask Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and was twice shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Fingersmith and The Night Watch were both shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange prizes, and Fingersmith won the CWA Ellis Peters Dagger Award for Historical Crime Fiction and the South Bank Show Award for Literature. Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith have all been adapted for television.