Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Sarah Waters and her Victorian Novels.

This week my spotlight is on an author who drew me in with her incredible Victorian historical novels. I was knocked out by the depth of research, the incredible storytelling and how sexy they were compared to the rather buttoned-up novels from the period. I first became aware of her work when the BBC serialised her novel Tipping the Velvet – a beautiful, but obscure pornographic reference to performing oral sex on a woman. Of course much of the hysterical and prurient coverage in the media was about the sexual aspect of the story. Mostly, I think, due to the relationships and sex scenes being between women. This obsession with sexuality totally bypassed the novel’s picaresque structure, it’s likeness to the work of Charles Dickens and our heroine Nan’s journey of self-discovery. It completely missed what Waters was doing; the book is always described as a lesbian romp, but it is much more than that. Waters was writing back to this point in history and the period’s literature which is largely populated and preoccupied with heterosexual couples and the institute of marriage. The art and literature acceptable to the establishment was influenced by the middle class family values presented by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The literary canon mirrors what society presented as the norm or even the ideal. I’ve heard people say that homosexuality and bisexuality is ‘everywhere’ now and ‘you didn’t hear about lesbians in my day’. Actually, the last phrase is more accurate than we might think. No, we didn’t hear about the LGBTQ+ community, not because LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist, but because they were not open with their sexuality and certainly didn’t write about it. Waters openly admits she isn’t writing about characters that existed, lesbianism was so undercover in Victorian London that there is no record of it at all. Waters is redressing that balance. She’s creating characters to represent these minorities and the hidden subculture where they might have belonged.

I was fascinated with the research Sarah Waters must have done to create the rich and vivid worlds that she portrays. One page in and you know exactly where you are, because she engages all of your senses immediately. In Tipping the Velvet, Nan’s upbringing was in Whitstable, Kent. Her working class family own an oyster restaurant and Nan helps out, so when she first meets the performer Kitty Butler she is ashamed of how her hot hands smell. Kitty removes her gloves to shake hands and Nan is mortified by “those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many years we had ceased, entirely, to notice them”. Nan is mortified that she smells like a herring, but Kitty assuages her fears, kissing her hands and telling her she smells like a mermaid. This type of description reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s prose in The Picture of Dorian Gray, especially the opening where the lush lilacs are in bloom and the scent is heavy, overpowering and intoxicating to the point of nausea. The descriptions have an element of synaesthesia and wrap themselves around the reader like a mist, taking us to that exact moment. I also loved the switching of gender, allowing characters to experience Victorian London as both sexes in one person and what a different place it could be. Men were largely the only sex who could have these picaresque adventures or ‘romps’ as they are sometimes called, but Waters opens up a whole different world to her characters in just a change of clothes. Waters uses clothes erotically with scenes of dressing and undressing and to represent the gender gap. When Nan and Kitty dress as men the clothes are simpler, they allow an ease of movement and a freedom that women don’t have. She then describes the putting on of chemises, stays, stockings and ribbons, both in the erotic sense of being tied up or bound like a gift, but also to represent the restriction of women. In the most dramatic sense the corset restricts even the woman’s ability to breath. Whereas when Kitty is performing as a ‘masher’, a male drag act, her clothing physically gives her the freedom to perform, but also gives her a pass to be comical and bawdy.

Keeley Hawkes and Rachel Stirling on the cover of the TV series tie in of Tipping the Velvet.

While I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet. I loved Affinity. It has that deliciously gothic feel alongside the same themes of feminism and sexuality. It is a much darker novel, especially if we compare it’s conclusion with the arguably happy ending and the self-actualisation she allows Nan in Tipping the Velvet. Affinity looks at power and possession, it’s very sensual rather than a ‘romp’ and could be categorised as a psychological thriller in the same vein as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Set in late September 1874, we meet Margaret Prior, who is thirty years old and described as plain. She hasn’t been sought after on the marriage market and has to find a way to make her life meaningful, but respectable. So she becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank Women’s Prison, hoping to find purpose after suffering a period of mental breakdown and enforced rest at her parent’s home for the last two years. The pentagonal Millbank corridors seem endless and the doors with their inspection slits become symmetrical, until she opens one and hears ‘a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story.’ This sigh belongs to the medium Selina Dawes. Margaret’s charitable role is to bring comfort to the women behind bars, but this woman is incredibly different to the poor, sad and often downtrodden women she’s seen until now. This plain woman on the verge of thirty has come to comfort those behind bars, several of whom Waters brings to instant, sad life. Margaret is instantly transfixed by the vision she sees in the ‘eye’ of the door. Selina is captured in a private moment (or is she?) with her face turned towards the sunlight stroking her own cheek with a violet. Margaret finds this pose sensual and records in her diary that ‘she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow…” Could Margaret be that violet?

Selina Dawes is not only beautiful, she’s intelligent and exciting to talk with. The conversations between the two women are thrilling and charged with sexual tension. Selina challenges Margaret’s views on spiritualism as fanciful and suggests that since such a place as Millbank exists, couldn’t anything be real? Strangely, Margaret does become confronted with evidence of the supernatural. First a locket disappears from it’s place in her room, then on another occasion, flowers magically appear. Most strange of all is how much Selina knows about her, even the things she keeps hidden, and very soon she tells Margaret she loves her. Waters weaves Margaret’s weekly diary entries with past ones that reveal a previous attachment to the woman who is now her sister-in-law, including a plan to abscond together to Italy. Clearly, this adventure never happened. We are also privy to Selina’s writing, mainly about her life before prison and how she came to be there. As the visits go on, Margaret starts to accept that Selina has some sort of supernatural power and believes that she is a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Selina asserts that she did not assault a woman at a séance, but were those séances real or fraudulent? I felt desperately sorry for Margaret who appears to have a better life, but in reality both women are in prison. Margaret’s prison is built on class and convention, a mother who doesn’t give her any space and the knowledge that her desires will never be acceptable to her family or society. I was so desperate for her escape.

Zoë Tapper and Anna Madely on the cover for the TV tie-in of Affinity

The third of her Victorian novels is Fingersmith and it really is her masterpiece in my opinion. We’re back in the Dickensian-esque back streets of London and the world of the fingersmiths or pickpockets. The first half of the book is about Sue Trinder, brought up in a nest of thieves with a female Fagin called Mrs Sucksby at the helm. Then one of Mrs Sucksby’s associates comes to her with a plan. ‘Gentleman’ has been planning a con and if it pays off they’ll be very rich; even better than that, it’s all legal. It all depends on Sue to play the part of a lady’s maid to a rich and very isolated young woman. The Gentleman has been wooing this wealthy heiress, who goes by the name of Maud. Very sheltered, with only her Uncle for company, Maud was born an orphan in the asylum where her mother gave birth. Sue’s job is to become her maid and gain the lady’s confidence, so that she can influence Maud into accepting Gentleman’s proposal of an elopement. As soon as they’re married he controls her fortune and if between them they can gaslight her into an asylum, he will make it worth Sue’s while. However, Sue likes Maud and they begin sharing confidences and become friends. Now Sue is conflicted about their plan, but it’s here that Waters has created a twist to end all twists. It’s the best twist in literature and I won’t be convinced otherwise! I can’t tell you anymore about the book without ruining it for those who haven’t read it yet and if you haven’t I’m so jealous that you get to experience it for the first time.

Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy on the cover of the TV tie-in for Fingersmith

These three novels are not linked by anything except their historical period, but in each one you are immersed completely into the 19th Century and the most unsavoury locations and aspects of it. We recognise these filthy streets, this poverty and these villains thanks to Dickens and his Nancy, Bill Sykes and Fagin. When I pick up one of these novels for a re-read I feel like I’m indulging myself because they’re so rich, evocative and sumptuous in both world-building and storytelling. I enjoy her later novels too, but these three were the closest I’ve ever come to that feeling of being a child and discovering the incredible storytelling of Little Women or Jane Eyre for the first time. They always take me back to that formative experience of falling into a book and never wanting to come back out into the real world.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Throwback Thursday! The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.

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.