A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
There are very few living authors whose work gets me rushing to my bookshop – and thus I seldom have the thrill of waiting for an author to publish his or her next book. Isn’t it just my luck that, of that few, one is notorious for fairly lengthy gaps between books? But, since Sarah Waters tends to turn in books approximately the size of a breeze-block, we can easily forgive her for spending a few years writing them.
Waters is known for her historical writing (although the novels always feel fresh and alive, never with a layer of cobwebs or stilted manners); she cornered the market in Victoriana before turning her attention to the 1940s. Thank goodness, says I, that she has finally given the 1920s a go. Is it just me who has such a favourite decade? A decade that mere mention of brings about a smile? That is the 1920s for me – I love the clothes, the music, the feel. I don’t love the inequalities or the dentistry standards, but my love for the 1920s isn’t a rational, political one.
So, what do we see of the 1920s in Waters’ The Paying Guests? A cabaret, a host of flappers, a brave new world of intellectuals? Well, no. As the title suggests, we see paying guests – come to one of many homes in the postwar period that had fallen on hard times. Frances Wray lives with her mother; her brothers have died at war, and (less regretted by her) Frances’ father has also recently died. Too respectable to work, but too pay to maintain their standards, they have had to accept paying guests. These turn up time and again in 1920s novels (often just known as ‘PGs’, although I don’t remember Waters using this abbreviation). The term itself sums up everything you need to know – a genteel way of pretending that a business arrangement was a personal one.
Things come full circle here, as long-term fans of Waters may not be surprised to learn… Mr and Mrs Barber are the couple who have moved in, but they do not live separate lives from the Wrays. They are more or less an ordinary upper-working class family. He makes jokes which are borderline vulgar and has a steady but uninteresting job; she (Lilian) is emotional and artistic, hoping to better herself. Guess what? (Erm, spoilers coming) Francis and Lilian fall in love and begin to have an affair behind Mr Barber’s back.
I have to confess this was the section I found least interesting in the novel. I’m never that interested in romance storylines, and I have a particular distaste for scenes of adultery where we’re supposed to be cheering on the adulterers. Mr and Mrs Barber’s marriage is far from perfect – its beginning was far from ideal, and now they are often sick of each other – but he is crude, not evil, and that makes it more difficult for the reader to sympathise with his wife for stringing him along. Not that that matters hugely in a novel, and I certainly admire Waters more for creating realistic and rounded characters rather than a cartoon villain, but, nonetheless, one must get through scenes of an adulterous couple falling in love, and more sex scenes than I look for in a book (and more than would have been in the 1920s version of it, that’s for sure!) But I am an old-fashioned reader; that is all. If The Paying Guests had been romance and nothing else, I would have been rather bored.
The romance between Lilian and Frances is not, however, the crux of the novel. And that I will not give away, even in a review with spoiler warnings (and despite Waters giving it away when I went to hear her talk!) Suffice to say that it happens halfway through, and is unlike anything that appears in any of Waters’ other novels, to my recollection. It is an event momentous enough to drive the second half of the novel, as events spiral out of control, and the reader – particularly the reader who knows Waters to be Queen of Twists – to not trust anybody for too long. Again, I shan’t give anything away, but I think Waters structured her plot with long-term fans in mind…
Since I have had to be a bit hazy over the details, it’s difficult to say exactly what the faults and merits of The Paying Guests are, but I do think that it is possibly Waters’ best to date. I say ‘possibly’ because it is difficult to compare it to her others. It is certainly less ambitious than something like Fingersmith, with a plot that remains much steadier and a single focal character throughout, rather than changes of perspective. Yet all of her other novels (in my opinion) have been extremely good and just fallen short of greatness. Each has a flaw, be it an uneven ending, a few too many twists, or the need of a little editing. The Paying Guests doesn’t have any noticeable hubris – although (while not bloated) I think it could have been achieved equally well if condensed by 100 or 200 pages – but nor is Waters reaching quite as far.
What is present throughout is Waters’ careful, evocative writing and exploration of character. Without any heroes or villains, she is able to present a cast that feels exceptionally real, and Frances is particularly thoroughly realised. Nuances of her station (slightly repulsed by Mrs Barber’s garrulous and gawdy relatives, but willing to scrub the floor in the absence of a maid) and of her emotions (flitting between envy, possessiveness, and affection in a strikingly plausible way) bring Frances fully to life. Is she like other characters Water has created? Perhaps, as she returns to the headstrong but emotional fish-out-of-water more than once, but she is certainly not a carbon copy of any previous inhabitant of a Waters novel.
And what of the period? As I’ve said, this would never pass for a 1920s novel, but that is not the point. As someone who spent four years deeply immersed in the mores and anxieties of the 1920s, during a doctorate, I recognised much. The spectre of the war is seldom mentioned but ever-present; the awkward movements of class and the evolving role of women in a changing society are depicted perfectly. The 1920s was, of course, not simply flappers and cocktail dresses – what Waters has given us, as well as being an involving, exciting novel of action and an intense portrayal of character, is an expert depiction of one facet of the decade. If it is not quite her masterpiece, that is perhaps because she was not (this time) trying to write her masterpiece.