Review: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

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The Paying Guests opens in 1922, in a genteel suburb of London called Champion Hill. The 26-year old Frances and her mother, Mrs Wray, have suffered grievous losses during World War I. All the men of the family are dead–two sons in battle, a feckless, irresponsible father from a stroke, leaving them in debt. The gracious Edwardian life the women had known is finished.

Frances, once a frequenter of political meetings with an interesting female lover, is now forced by circumstances to engage with tiny economies and household dirt, leaving no time for an intellectual or personal life. She resents the “dishonesty” of the house that imprisoned her–“the scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years“–but nevertheless washes the hall floor with vinegar, rakes out the ashes of the stove, struggles to render breast of lamb edible, dusts the “barley twist curves of wonky table legs and the scrolls and lozenges of rough-hewn lawn chairs“–all the useless, pretentious furniture that belonged to the lost family life. Frances would happily have the damn things carted away, but her mother–an excellent study of a distressed gentlewoman–can not let go of the past.

To make ends meet, mother and daughter decide to take in lodgers or, as the contemporary euphemism has it, “paying guests“. Enter the jaunty aspirational clerk Leonard Barber and his short-skirted, lipsticked wife, Lillian, bringing bric-a-brac and gin into the upstanding Wray home. From the moment the colourful, curvaceous Lillian Barber enters the house it’s obvious which way things will go. She slips off her shoes, not wanting to mark the floor so energetically polished by Frances, and her sweet little feet in their fancy stockings leave “small damp prints on the wax“. The very next day she takes an extravagant and semi-public morning bath. Mrs Wray is scandalised by the timing and the cost, but Frances pictures “that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat“. The passionate love affair that ensues between landlady and lodger turns both lives inside out. The sex is blazingly descriptive, rarely found in literary fiction.

Set during the last years that gay marriage was illegal in Britain, The Paying Guests offers a window into a period when marriage between women seemed unthinkable to most and yet tantalisingly possible to a few: Chrissie, the girl Frances left in order to take care of her mother, now shares a flat with Stevie, a new female lover, and supports herself as a typist. Can Frances leave her mother for paid work and a shot at Chrissie and Stevie’s happiness? Can Lillian leave her husband for Francis? This question torments their affair from its first moments, when, just after they’ve made love, Lillian sets down her left hand “to steady herself against Frances’ embrace, and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.” And it’s central to the rollercoaster plunge the book takes next when the only straight character to whom Frances and Lillian declare their love for each other dies.

Will the lovers’ dream of marriage (or its approximation) end in accusations of murder, trials and hangings? Maintaining uncertainty with a virtuosity that makes a short read of a long novel, The Paying Guests frequently references Anna Karenina, casting Frances and Lillian alternatively as Kitty and Levin, openly skating their way to domestic bliss, and as Anna and Vronsky, doomed to play out a secret passion that can end only in death.

Waters holds a doctorate in English literature, and she brings a cultural historian’s gift for research to her work. Sometimes, it’s easy to fault Waters’s scholarly background for the all-too-realistic pace of the police investigation and courtroom drama that take up the last third of the novel. But the grinding wheels of justice serve to refocus our attention onto Frances and Lillian themselves, resulting in a third act no less gripping than the first. Will the lovers, separated by Lillian’s family and subjected to the uncertainty of a long trial, crack? In The Paying Guests, Waters tilts a mirror towards the decades of gay and lesbian struggle that preceded 2014’s landmark decision to legalise same-sex marriage in England. Still, at the novel’s end, after its dramatic plot resolution, Waters allows us the faintest hope that a changing world filled with social upheaval may have a tiny corner for Frances after all.

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