Welsh historical-novelist Sarah Waters's sixth novel, The Paying Guests (2014), tells the tale of a mother and daughter in 1920s London who must take on lodgers to afford their house. The result of taking on these paying guests is a devastating l...
The Paying Guests is a 2014 novel by Welsh author Sarah Waters. It was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and named 'Fiction Book of the Year' by The Sunday Times who said that "this novel magnificently confirms Sarah Waters' status as an unsurpassed fictional recorder of vanished eras and hidden lives."
Sarah Ann Waters OBE (born 21 July 1966) is a Welsh novelist. She is best known for her novels set in Victorian society and featuring lesbian protagonists, such as Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith.
Waters was named as one of Granta's 20 Best of Young British Writers in January 2003. The same year, she received the South Bank Award for Literature. She was named Author of the Year at the
2003 British Book Awards. In both 2006 and 2009 she won "Writer of the Year" at the annual Stonewall Awards. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2009. She holds an honorary degree from Lancaster University. She has featured on the Pinc List of leading Welsh LGBT figures.
She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2019 Birthday Honours for services to literature.
Each of her novels has received awards as well.
Tipping the Velvet
Betty Trask Award, 1999
Library Journal's Best Book of the Year, 1999
Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, 1999
New York Times Notable Book of the Year Award, 1999
Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian and Gay Fiction, 2000
Lambda Literary Award for Fiction, 2000
Stonewall Book Award (American Library Association GLBT Roundtable Book Award), 2000
Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year Award (shortlist), 2000
Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian and Gay Fiction, 2000
Lambda Literary Award for Fiction (shortlist), 2000
Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (shortlist), 2000
Somerset Maugham Award, 2000
Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, 2000
The Best Translated Crime Fiction of the Year in Japan, Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! 2004
Crime Writers' Association Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, 2002
Man Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2002
Orange Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2002
British Book Awards Author of the Year, 2003
The Best Translated Crime Fiction of the Year in Japan, Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! 2005
The Night Watch
Man Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2006
Orange Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2006
Lambda Literary Award, 2007
The Little Stranger
Man Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2009
Nominee for Shirley Jackson Award, 2009
The Paying Guests
Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (shortlist) 2015
Welsh historical-novelist Sarah Waters's sixth novel, The Paying Guests , tells the tale of a mother and daughter in 1920s London who must take on lodgers to afford their house. The result of taking on these paying guests is a devastating love affair and a terrible crime.
Set in London in the 1920s, Sarah Waters' sixth novel concerns itself with the transitional social world of postwar Britain, and with the new forms of license, mobility and self-definition to which the smashed civic order was giving rise as the old constraints of class and gender fell away. This was also a period in which a new kind of literary realism was born, in particular a female style, as a result of the loss of men and male authority and values. Writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor could use the domestic novel to grapple with the intricacies of a broken civilization and the reconfiguring of gender and social roles it entailed. This style might be described as the attempt to depict the loss of propriety while remaining proper, and the result was some exquisitely tortured and distinctive prose that did not age well and consequently has been undervalued – though never entirely neglected.
It is this prose and its transitory feminine perspective that Waters offers a pastiche of in The Paying Guests, using as her starting point the characteristic predicament of a genteel household of women driven by necessity to let out rooms in their large and now – father and brothers being dead – half-empty Camberwell villa. In this newly fragmented world, people traditionally separated by money and social status find their lives haplessly intermingling: ingress is a common theme of the literature of the period, as privileged people are forced to recognize that the damaged class-barrier no longer offers them protection from a nebulous modern chaos whose source appears to be the lower orders. The Paying Guests sets out very much from this premise, with its narrative the sounding board of the violated middle-class sensibility. A gaudy young working-class couple, the Barbers move in with widowed Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances, bringing their worldly goods piled high in a van: "the thought that all these items were about to be brought into [Frances's] home – and that this couple, who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger, and brasher, were going to bring them, and set them out, and make their own home, brashly, among them – the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as though she was opening up the house to thieves and invaders."
Frances is a kind of riddling Bowenesque heroine, imprisoned in the mannerisms of her sex and class yet beginning to shed her illusions about male power and become conscious of her own competence and destiny. She has dabbled in feminism and has a reputation for being outspoken; repeated attempts to pair her off with a nice young man have failed. At the same time she is hamstrung by impoverishment and by a traditional sense of feminine obligation and duty, to her mother and to the now irrelevant social values her mother continues to espouse: surprised on the stairs one day by the new lodger, Frances sees Mrs Barber "gazing in a mortified way at the duster on Frances's head, at her rolled-up sleeves and flaming hands, at the housemaid's mat at her feet, still with the dents of her knees in it. Frances knew the look very well because she had seen it many times before: on the faces of neighbours, of tradesmen, and of her mother's friends, all of whom had got themselves through the worst war in history yet seemed unable for some reason to cope with the sight of a well-bred woman doing the work of a char."
In fact it is working-class Mrs Barber, with her rouge and her kimono, her gramophone and her sloppy habits, who seems the more liberated of the two: what Frances comes to realise is that marriage, even to a leering City insurance clerk, is still the unique source of female autonomy, despite the new ideals of equality that Frances and her like are starting to adopt. As the intimacy between Frances and the Barbers progresses, their three-way scrutiny of one another – and the raw novelty of such scrutiny – becomes part of the desperate personal attempt, by turns cruel and compassionate, to stay abreast of social change. In a long chapter describing a drunken evening Frances spends playing snakes and ladders with the couple, Waters dramatises with considerable penetration the new social and sexual ways of being that are emerging with the loss of the old boundaries. "[Mrs Barber] put down her glass and reached across the board to hit [Mr Barber]. She swung her hand hard, but he caught her wrist and they struggled. It wasn't quite like their tussles from before, which had been manufactured as if for Frances's benefit. They fought seriously this time, reddening with the effort of it; for several seconds they were almost still, in a sort of perfect tension, braced against each other but attempting to pull apart, like a couple of repelling magnets."
This fascinating domestic scenario might have made for an absorbing short novel; but at more than
500 pages long, The Paying Guests has ambitions elsewhere. That these pertain to plot rather than to the development of the novel's core ideas is disappointing, particularly once it becomes clear that the delicate tension between two distinct female types – both of them compromised, yet both yearning for autonomy – in the dawn of the women's rights movement is simply a strategy for fanning the flames as Frances and Mrs Barber progress towards an affair. Waters's plain-spoken description of this relationship immediately begins to undermine the novel's integrity as a period piece: the sexual perspective is designed for the modern reader, and starts to resemble a costume drama. Its pastiche propriety and faux-Edwardian prose (people are forever "colouring" and "crimsoning" and "putting themselves tidy") become irritants; and the novel's descent into melodrama as a murder is committed – and the inspector called – turns this engaging literary endeavour into a tiresome soap opera.
Waters's unusual gift for drama and for social satire is squandered on the production of middlebrow entertainment: the early parts of The Paying Guests contain many careful reimaginings of a vanished era of human interaction, an era in which character retained its power even as the social framework of the individual was breaking down. Her meticulous reconstruction of Mrs Barber's rambunctious working-class family, of Mrs Wray's tenebrous bourgeois circle, of Leonard Barber's larky feminist-baiting are full of interest for the modern reader, since Waters possesses the ability to illuminate in that old world what still echoes in ours. The voracious English appetite for period drama has given rise to too many bloated narratives: it would be good to see Waters produce something corrective and sharp, in which her authoritative and incisive dramatic style was permitted to be sufficient satisfaction on its own.
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