I always say I am a fan of Sarah Waters, but when it comes down to it the only novel of hers I have read is Fingersmith. I pre-ordered The Paying Guests on my Kindle and I was keen to get to it when it magically appeared.
I read a lot of early 20th century domestic fiction – I read a lot of books from here – and this novel fits into that style beautifully.
Here is the blurb …
It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa — a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants — life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.
With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life — or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.
As is usual in a Waters’ novel, the men are incompetent and the women are the chief protagonists moving the plot forward. Frances’s father (now deceased) has left the family in a bad financial situation (and both of the brothers died in the war), so in order to keep the house they have to take ‘paying guests’. The Barbers a young couple move in – he is a clerk (and a bit too sleek and shiny) and she a wife. A relationship develops between Lilian and Frances as they spend their days together keeping house. No one can have what they want: Mrs Wray wants Frances to meet a nice man and get married, Frances wants to live independently with Lilian, Leonard wants to move up the social ladder and Lilian – well I am not sure even Lilian knows what she wants – and thus conflict is created.
Although this is a pastiche of an early domestic novel (like something Elizabeth Taylor would write or Dorothy Whipple) it has a very modern sensibility. It highlights the restrictions on women (and gay women in particular). How Frances was required to stay home and look after her mother (not to mention the house). How Lilian was tied to Leonard – financially, but also the stigma (which Lilian could not overcome) attached to leaving him (especially for a women). After the crime (don’t want to give anything away) the story descends into melodrama. Class (and gender) plays a part in this too – but you will need to read it to find out more.
Waters is a skilled writer and I found it an interesting novel to read. I was disappointed in the latter part of the novel, but think it is worth reading for Lilian’s wonderfully vulgar family and for the sense of freedom expressed by Christina and Stevie living together openly.
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