Sarah Waters’s New Novel Rewrites the Rules of Love
The details of a ’20s domestic murder case help fuel the English novelist’s inspired exploration of the intersection of history, social mores, and love.
In her last novel The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters examined the decay of the British upper classes among their moldering stately homes against the backdrop of the huge societal changes that followed in the wake of World War II, and she remains in similar territory in her new novel, The Paying Guests, though this time it’s the middle classes of 1920s Champion Hill, a suburban enclave in South London.
The widowed Mrs. Wray and her unmarried daughter, Frances, are forced to take in lodgers in order to make ends meet, the upkeep of their large and—since the slaughter of Frances’s brothers in the Great War and her father’s demise shortly after—mostly empty villa being beyond the women’s now straitened circumstances.
As is to be expected from her previous works, Waters excels at evoking a seamless portrait of the period about which she’s writing without ever having to rely on heavy-handed detail. This is an era of change coming thick and fast after the war, and London is a city of surplus women and new class mobility. Frances is torn between the old and the new—emancipated enough to have been something of a New Woman, even protesting with her suffragette sisters, but she’s also still tightly entangled in the traditions and conventions of the genteel upper-middle class world in which she’s been raised; the dutiful spinster daughter still living at home looking after her mother, her days measured out not in coffee spoons—she can but wish—but rather in the household chores they can’t afford to pay a char, let alone a live-in maid, to undertake, a duster on her head, her sleeves rolled-up, kneeling on a housemaid’s mat, her hands chapped and sore from continual immersion in water and scouring powder.
The arrival of the Wrays’ “paying guests” (Mrs. Wray’s preferred term), Lilian and Leonard Barber, a young married couple of the clerk class who, in myriad ways, some obvious, some deliciously discreet, lack the breeding of their landladies, makes for a keenly observed domestic drama, the wider changes of the period cleverly explored in microcosm through the negotiations of personal space and propinquity in this single suburban villa: “Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms—as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, was what it really meant to have paying guests: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs. Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door.”
Such imagery, of course, also allows for that added frission of sexual tension we’ve come to expect from a writer who made her name with what she once described as “lesbo Victorian romps,” and, as if to remind us where it all began, there’s an echo here with an early scene in her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, when Nan the oyster-girl finds herself weak at the knees knowing Kitty Butler, the cross-dressing object of her affection, is undressing in the room next to her, with “only the thickness of one slender door between her body and my own smarting eyes!”
That said, Waters has come a long way since the picaresque adventures of Nan and Kitty. To be sure, her Victorian novels had their darker sides—the dank prison cells and dubious spirit mediums of Affinity, and the terrors of the madhouse in Fingersmith—but her work has become progressively more serious since she moved into the 20th century: The Night Watch deals with very real dangers, from brittle broken hearts to lives destroyed by public condemnation of transgression in all its multifarious forms, while The Little Stranger also concerns itself with damaged souls in an unforgiving world. The Paying Guests continues very much in this vein and some of the book’s most stunning sections are those towards the beginning, the days during which the house bubbles with a tension that’s much more complicated than something merely erotic.
Nevertheless, the novel is also a love story—more so, Waters has admitted, than any of her previous works—and Lilian and Frances’s tentative friendship eventually erupts into a passionate but clandestine love affair. This, however, marks a watershed moment, as the novel suddenly and dramatically changes gear, transforming into first a fast-paced crime story and then a courtroom drama.
As she eloquently explained in a recent essay in the Guardian, Waters took inspiration for these more dramatic sections from F. Tennyson Jesse’s 1934 all but now forgotten novel A Pin to See the Peepshow, the story of one young Edwardian-born woman’s journey from the respectable but drab suburban streets of West London to the steps of the gallows. Her father may be “only a clerk in a House and Estate Agency,” but even as a schoolgirl Peepshow’s protagonist Julia Almond knew that she would “get on in the world, she never doubted that.” Oblivious to the hustle and bustle of London all around her in that way that only romantic, day-dreaming schoolgirls can be, she’s lost in “her own secret life;” an imaginary world of Cinderella stories where a handsome prince whisks her away to a life of love, wealth, and frivolity “woven purely of reminiscences of novels and her own desires.”
Parallels with Flaubert’s tragic domestic heroine Emma Bovary are also quite recognizable in Peepshow, as Julia too finds herself married to an older man after a whirlwind wartime romance (if the decidedly lackluster affair even deserves such a title) that initially offers her the freedom she lacks as a single woman, not to mention getting her out of having to share a bedroom with her younger cousin. What she doesn’t realize until it’s too late of course is that her husband will return from the Front no longer an officer with polished field boots, but just an ordinary man in plain dark clothes, “only older, balder, fatter, duller,” a mere ghost of the man she imagined she was marrying, but one who’ll expect a devoted and doting wife from whom he’ll demand his marital rights.
Julia’s subsequent reactions against the tyranny of convention, although tame by today’s standards—she refuses to give up her job, insisting on earning her own money; seeks out a backstreet abortionist rather than have her husband’s child; and takes a younger lover—are, by those of the period and her class, shocking. Like her predecessor Emma Bovary, Julia has no particular feminist agenda; she’s not at all interested in the Women’s Suffrage movement. Her rebellion is couched purely in the romantic expectations she believes she’s entitled to, but her heedless attitude to the conventions of the social milieu and gender-based restrictions of middle-class suburban 1920s London have unforeseen tragic consequences and, along with her lover, she eventually finds herself facing the hangman’s noose for the murder of her husband. A far-fetched ending some might say—though not necessarily any more dramatic than the demise of Flaubert’s heroine—but, as Waters points out, the unnerving truth is that it’s a loosely fictionalized version of a real life cause célèbre, the Thompson and Bywaters murder trial of 1922, which found the lovers Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters guilty of the murder of Thompson’s husband, Percy, and consequently executed for their crimes.
A Pin to See the Peepshow is an interesting beast, especially when one considers it’s a product of the 1930s literary landscape—a British Madame Bovary meets Kate Summerscale-esque true crime, with a dash of domestic middlebrow fiction (the type of novels women writers who didn’t belong to the Bloomsbury Group were writing). Given Waters’s position as the undisputed queen of revisionist historical fiction, one can understand how Tennyson Jesse’s fascinating hybrid presented her with an enticing blueprint. The links between the novels are immediately apparent from the get-go, Waters litters the text with little clues to the history from which she’s taken inspiration—for example, the novel is set in the year of the trial, and Bywaters lodged with the Thompsons for a time—and, without wanting to completely ruin the story by divulging every detail, much of the earlier text is transposed onto the latter one, albeit with a few key revisions along the way.
Long established fans may well grumble that The Paying Guests hasn’t surpassed Waters’s earlier work. The slow buildup of the novel’s first half is certainly reminiscent of the exposition in The Little Stranger, for example, but looking back on the burgeoning love affair that winds its way through these early chapters, it’s not quite comparable to the chilling early signs of events to come in the story of Hundreds Hall. And the second half, while it has the pace and suspense of, say, the more dramatic sections of Fingersmith, again it can’t quite compete in terms of unexpected twists and turns. But what Waters is doing in The Paying Guests is something more nuanced than mere plotting pyrotechnics. She’s tested her skills as a historian, taking them to their very extreme, the end product of which is an entirely believable piece of social commentary that nevertheless expertly undermines the damning, short-sighted, and narrow-minded strictures of the period it sets out to elucidate.
The Paying Guests is a novel that very much belongs to the literature of female (sexual) transgression and punishment that can be traced back to Madame Bovary (1856), Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest (1894), and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), and then through the likes of A Pin to See the Peepshow. But Waters has given it a radical revisionist slant. As in her previous novels, she re-writes history by replacing traditionally heterosexual romances with homosexual, specifically lesbian, love stories. But—and here I should insert a spoiler alert—The Paying Guests goes one step further in that it re-writes the rules of female sexual transgression that conventionally call for the offender’s punishment. Thus, as the novel concludes, instead of facing the hangman’s noose like Julia and her lover, and although buffeted and bruised—perhaps even irrevocably so—by their run-in with the law, we leave Lilian and Frances sitting quietly in the gloaming; together and, more importantly, free.