The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

26th Aug 2014

The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests is Sarah Waters' first novel for five years. One of the most eagerly anticipated works from one of the hottest authors around, excitement over it has been building since Virago announced publication late last year.

The front cover, early teaser extracts and marketing all promised “vintage Waters” and, broadly, this is what’s delivered. A shabby old house, a dark secret and a leg-trembler of a love story set against a backdrop of societal change and rainy old London.

Frances Wray is a woman nearing her thirties, mourning the loss of her brothers to the First World War, unashamedly breathing a sigh of relief about the loss of her Father and living with her anxious, aging Mother Mrs Wray in her childhood home in a respectable suburb.

Rising costs and lack of money force the upper-middle class Wrays to take in lodgers, the working class couple Leonard and Lilian Barber, who Mrs Wray insists on referring to as “Paying Guests” to keep up appearances.

Through the Barbers, Frances is brought into contact with the newly emerging clerk class, their culture, their families and, as she becomes more entwined with Lilian’s world, an awful secret which she must keep at all costs.

The marketing was right: this is vintage Waters. But with the exact mix which Waters has managed to concoct here, she's given her readers something a little different.The marketing was right: this is vintage Waters. But with the exact mix which Waters has managed to concoct here, she’s given her readers something a little different.

This isn’t done through her characters, who range from the predictable – Frances’ mother a carbon copy of Mrs Ayres from The Little Stranger, and Lilian’s caricatured working class family – to the expertly drawn: hesitant Frances, the quietly vivacious Lilian and the odious Leonard.

Nor is the new angle to be found in the setting, although Waters takes us to parts of rain-soaked and dirty London we’ve not been before with her: hints of the fashionable Bloomsbury set are provided by Frances’ “willfully eccentric” friend Christina whilst the raucous, irreverent world of a newly empowered working class is glimpsed at a carpets-rolled-back, squidged-on-sofas party at Lilian’s family home.

The dilapidated family home seems a standard device of Waters, and it’s a mark of what a good writer she is that she can get away with reusing it.

The years following the First World War, and the momentous change in class and gender structures they saw haven’t been tackled by Waters before, but they’re not the new ground either: her previous novels have all been set against a backdrop of upended structures: theatre, prison, criminal gangs, haunted mansions.

What gives the sense of a new style to this work is the mix of all of the above: the characters, the setting and the time period which gives The Paying Guests an atmosphere of, above all, possibility.

The glimpse of enlightened Bloomsbury, the background of change, and Frances’ ability to provide comfortably for both herself and a lover all combine to make her relationship with Lilian (come on guys, that’s not a spoiler, you know what – and who – was coming) far closer to what modern lesbian couples might experience today. It’s entirely possible they might be happy and relatively accepted together.

They have a future, and being able to write a relationship like that gives Waters free rein to explore other aspects of love other than of forbidden emotions which she’s arguably been unable to fully focus on in previous works.

When Lilian and Frances find their world and relationship turned upside down, the novel calls into question how we can truly trust one another, to what ends we will go to find love, and explores how an oppressive society creates further oppression, all through the most sharply cut and precise dissections of a relationship Waters has ever crafted.

The Paying Guests isn’t perfect. The “vintage” elements of Waters are beginning to blur slightly into predictability and the last section loses some pacing. But it’s powerful, and Waters’ plunging of new depths in her characters’ relationships is a welcome refreshment: something any author who’s reached the “vintage” stage of their career surely needs to provide.