Give the People WhatThey Want

For Sarah Waters’s novel The Paying Guests, Public Books is simultaneously publishing an original one-panel illustration review by Alison Bechdel, “A Curious Feat of Description,” and a written ...

For Sarah Waters’s novel The Paying GuestsPublic Books is simultaneously publishing an original one-panel illustration review by Alison Bechdel, A Curious Feat of Description,” and a written review by Heather Love, below. 

Sarah Waters’s new novel, a beautiful account of love and loss in post-WWI London, marks a significant departure from the fantastic, ribald Victorian historical novels she is best known for. As a recovering anglophile, a practicing lesbian, and a student of queer history, I find Waters’s early books to be an almost uncomfortably close fit with my interests. The embarrassed pleasure I take in these works makes it a challenge for me to say their titles aloud, or even to write them here. That phrases like “tipping the velvet” and “fingersmith”—the titles of her 1998 and 2002 novels, respectively—evoke graphic images of lesbian sex isn’t what makes me blush. It’s that the sex they describe is so historical. It is believably Victorian, conjured in lively London slang, and replete with period detail. Given how few detailed accounts there are of lesbian intimacies in the 19th century, Waters’s richly imagined novels satisfy—almost too well—the desires of a contemporary audience.

Readers often turn to fiction to address oversights in the historical record. In the case of LGBT history, those desires can be quite pressing, since the lack of a historical legacy can work to delegitimize present realities. Over the years, Waters has worked to fill out that record, providing gripping tales of heroic transgression, romantic escape, and mind-blowing sex. Waters became a novelist while she was finishing a PhD on gay and lesbian historical fiction, a lot of which she found lacking in scope and imagination. In response, Waters has said, she wrote “the kind of novel I’d have liked to read myself.”1 As it turned out, Waters’s first book, Tipping the Velvet, was the kind of novel that a lot of other people wanted to read, too. Waters gave readers what they wanted—damp knickers and heaving chemises, silken cravats rolled fetchingly into trousers, debonair and daring heroines—and imaginatively filled in major gaps in our knowledge of queer life in Victorian London while doing it.

Mobile, diffuse, and forbidden desires, experienced in very close quarters, intensify the sensuality of the book.

The Paying Guests offers a more ambiguous fulfillment. In contrast with the glamorous mashing chorus girls and dashing toms of her early novels, Waters’s latest incorporates the chastened tone of wartime and interwar domestic fiction and the social realities of early 20th-century lesbianism. A subdued realism has characterized Waters’s shift into 20th-century subject matter, apparent in such recent works as The Night Watch (2006) and The Little Stranger (2009), both set around World War II. The story of a dutiful daughter awakened by an illicit affair, The Paying Guests is a continuation of that trend. If, in her first books, Waters took advantage of the relative lack of evidence about female same-sex intimacies in the Victorian period to write historical fantasy, here she writes in a more crowded landscape. In The Paying Guests, the characters and the readers have to pay for our pleasures, which are inextricably bound up with economic hardship, stigma, guilt, and devastating loss. But if the aim is to admit lesbianism into the frame of social reality, these darker fictions may get us closer—while still taking us on a wild ride.

The Paying Guests is narrated from the perspective of 26-year-old Frances Wray, who tends to her widowed mother in their genteel home in suburban London. After the loss of her two brothers in the war and the illness and death of her father, Frances and her mother can no longer pay their bills or afford a servant. Out of desperation, the Wrays decide to take in Leonard and Lilian Barber, a young clerk and his wife, as lodgers. In an early scene, Frances describes her shame at being caught at her housework by one of her “paying guests” (the neighbors are “too polite to call them lodgers”):

Mrs. Barber … had come further down the stairs, and her color was deepening: she was 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—she was bored to death with it, in fact—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 human history yet seemed unable for some reason to cope with the sight of a well-bred woman doing the work of a char.

The upward mobility of the Barbers mirrors the declining fortunes of the Wrays, and Waters’s depiction of the awkwardness and uncertainty of these new domestic arrangements is one of the best things about the book. The characterization of Leonard Barber recalls D. H. Lawrence’s vital young men, his “clerky neatness” offset by a teasing manner and a feral physicality; he often surprises Frances by peeking his “gingery head” around corners. His name links him to E. M. Forster’s Leonard Bast, the young clerk whose cultural aspirations fatally entangle him with two upper-class families in Howard’s End. However, unlike Forster’s “ill-fed boy,”2 Leonard Barber is canny and confident, an astute reader of social and erotic situations.

Lilian Barber is the object of narrative desire in the book, and we are treated to many descriptions of her: “She put an elbow on the table and leaned with her chin on her hand, the flesh on her arm looking rounded, solid, smooth. There were no angles to her at all, thought Frances with envy. She was all warm color and curve. How well she filled her own skin! She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle.” The erotic resonance of this young, vibrant couple stirs Frances out of her self-abnegation, blurring the lines between genteel homeowner and déclassé renters beyond recognition.

The novel’s key plot turns take place in the Wray household, and the drama depends on a precisely rendered domestic architecture heavy on corridors, thresholds, and connecting doors. This constricted frame creates an air of claustrophobia and surveillance that feels true to the straitened circumstances in postwar London, and prompts both excruciating (in a good way) suspense and a heightened eroticism. Mobile, diffuse, and forbidden desires, experienced in very close quarters, intensify the sensuality of the book. It’s a sensuality that’s universally affecting, whether in scenes of hallway eavesdropping or of coupling in the scullery. The centrality of this powerful eroticism gives way fairly quickly, however, to betrayal, mourning, and guilt. But the novel’s downbeat ending is fitting for the place and time: an England numb with grief and disappointment, mired in debt, and cut loose from traditional forms of authority and value.

The somber tone of the The Paying Guests is consistent not only with the atmosphere of postwar London, but also with a tradition of postwar domestic novels written by women. This body of fiction, with its focus on the everyday effects of social upheaval, the space of the home and domestic labor, and on the tension between modernity and convention, is often identified with the British feminist press Virago’s Modern Classics imprint. Virago is Waters’s UK publisher, and The Paying Guests reads like a love letter to its backlist. The constricted scale and subtle analysis of gender conflicts recall the wartime and Big House fictions of Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann’s early novel of sexual development, Dusty Answer (1927), Jean Rhys’s dark chronicles of female sexual and economic hardship, and Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of a young woman’s struggle for independence, Testament of Youth (1933).

Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Paying Guests maps the social geography of the city through Frances’s meandering walks. One can imagine following Frances Wray’s path through south London as tourists can now follow Clarissa Dalloway’s through the West End. Although Waters describes the electric charge and liberating anonymity of such walks, undertaken by women alone or in couples, she, like Woolf, ultimately troubles the distinction between public and private spaces in the novel. In a scene where Frances splurges on a hot lunch in a “‘cosy corner’ café,” for example, Waters describes how she “resisted the temptation to mop the plate with the bread and butter, but felt quite vulgar enough to roll herself a cigarette. She smoked it to the satisfying chink and splash of crockery and water that floated up from the basement kitchen: the sound of someone else washing up.” While the commercial spaces of the city liberate women temporarily from their domestic burdens, neither Frances nor the reader can leave those burdens completely behind.

Middlebrow writer Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness is the most inevitable point of reference, however. As the most widely read lesbian novel of the 20th century and the subject of a high-profile obscenity trial, The Well
casts a long shadow over The Paying Guests. Hall’s famously depressing book traces the fortunes of a masculine woman who, exiled from her genteel family, drives an ambulance in WWI and searches for both love and social acceptance—a combination Hall depicts as unachievable. Like Frances, Hall’s heroine, Stephen Gordon, is torn between a different kind of life and her allegiance to her family’s conservative values.

While she might celebrate the possibilities of lesbian eroticism, Waters does not gloss over the stigma that clings to the spinster, a stigma that Frances absorbs into her sense of self.

Despite a fairly dark view of the chances for lesbian love, The Well was singular in allowing its masculine heroine to live at the end of the novel. The final pages even include a plea for the social acceptance of those people whom Hall called (drawing on sexological research of the time) “sexual inverts.” Historians argue that it was the political message of The Well—mild as it now seems—that resulted in its banning, since its sexual content would hardly qualify as obscene. (Radclyffe Hall could have learned a thing or 20 about writing sex scenes from Sarah Waters.) Waters draws extensively on Hall’s representation of same-sex love, but, importantly, resists the temptation to write a 21st-century ending for this novel of the 1920s.

At the end of The Paying Guests, Waters leaves her heroine some hope that a new life might emerge from the ruins of the old, but a happy ending seems doubtful at best. While she might celebrate the possibilities of lesbian eroticism, Waters does not gloss over the stigma that clings to the spinster, a stigma that Frances absorbs into her sense of self. Lying in bed “in a ferment of misery,” Frances thinks: “What was the use of her being alive? Her heart was some desiccated thing: a prune, a fossil, a piece of clinker. Her mouth might as well be filled with ashes. It was all utterly hopeless and futile …” Erotic fulfillment salves this wound, but its comfort is fleeting, and it cannot undo the effects of living at odds with one’s social world. As Waters’s portraits of the history of lesbian life have gotten grittier and more realistic, she has dialed down the extravagant pleasures of her early work. But if what we wanted all along was proof—proof that women such as Frances lived and loved and struggled—then The Paying Guests offers even more satisfying thrills.

For Alison Bechdel’s review of The Paying Guests, “A Curious Feat of Description,” see here. icon

  1. See Carol Seejay, “Sarah Waters’ Victorian Love Affair,” Lambda Literary Review, April 1, 2006.
  2. See E. M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910; Vintage, 1989), p. 46.
Featured image: Engraving after Paul-Albert Laurens (18701934)  Photograph by ketrin1407 / Flickr