Sarah Waters fans will love her latest mighty tome (almost 600 pages), this time set amid the economic upheavals which followed the First World War. Frances Wray and her mother, living in reduced circumstances after the death of Mr Wray and the subsequent discovery of his enormous gambling debts, decide to take in lodgers, “paying guests”, to help make ends meet. Always a good setting for the introduction of a variety of characters who would not otherwise have come together, this scenario is strongly reminiscent, for me, of Dostoevsky’s aristocratic Russian families, who, fallen on hard times, let out apartment rooms to all sortsof individuals who arrive centre stage from nowhere. So it is in The Paying Guests, a pastiche on a domestic novel.
Although Waters is generally regarded as being a writer of lesbian literature, here it seems that the passionate love affair which develops in the first half of the novel between suffragette supporter Frances and newly-arrived lodger Lilian Barber, the blowsy, arty wife of clerk Leonard, is little more than incidental to the narrative. Indeed, it forms part of the background for the depiction of a re-ordering of a society in which women are rapidly becoming aware of their potential power. The male characters, with the exception of Frances’s brothers, victims of the First World War battlefields, are louche, suspect and insinuating (Leonard Barber) or dishonest and irresponsible (Frances’s dead father).
With the house opened up to lodgers, the mixing of social classes becomes inevitable and sensibilities are offended all round when Frances has to start doing her own housework, whilst her snobbish mother feels “as though she was opening up the house to thieves and invaders”. In her anxious attempts to deal with the social uncertainties facing her, Frances confesses to Lilian that she once had a relationship with a woman friend, temporarily shocking her young lodger into retreat.
Waters creates some wonderfully Dickensian scenes, set in the upper rooms occupied by the Barbers. Lilian’s large and voluble extended working-class family comes to visit, taking temporary possession of some of the Wrays’ prized pieces of furniture, much to Mrs Wray’s disgust. In another episode, Frances is invited to join the Barbers in a sort of game of strip snakes and ladders which involves much smoking of cigarettes and intoxication with gin, and ending in an unseemly tussle between the Barbers. ‘‘‘I’m a little drunk! Christ, how squalid!’’’, thinks Frances, before climbing into bed, where “the mattress tilted like the deck of a ship”.
The descriptions of the interior of the Wrays’ house are delightful and detailed, from the plain good taste of Frances’s bedroom and the arty disorder of Lilian’s rooms to the creaking polished floorboards which announce the Barbers’ every visit to the lavatory at the bottom of the garden. Descriptions of clothes add much to Waters’s vivid Edwardian picture; Frances’s plain grey dress and hat; Lilian’s colourful dresses, silk kimonos and little slippers; Leonard’s blazer and striped tie, his ginger moustache.
All is seen from the point of view of Frances and the reader has little idea of the processes at work in the minds of the other characters. Leonard is a suffragette-baiter, with his insinuating remarks, and Lilian is the product of her colourful London family, but the social changes going on around them hardly appear to come into their sphere of vision.
In a somewhat disorientating narrative development, the second half of the book becomes a murder mystery, where plot supercedes social comment. The character of the novel changes suddenly, becoming more like a Victorian melodrama, with the police inspector calling and carry-on in the court room. This reader’s feeling is that this could indeed have formed the substance of a second book, a crime novel less concerned than the earlier chapters with the major transformations taking place in the social landscape in those post-war years.
A surprising turn of events, but a delicious (and long) read for aficionados.