Sarah Waters | “I did miss writing about desire, romantic and sexual desire, because it’s such a wonderful engine for a narrative”

Sarah Waters | “I did miss writing about desire, romantic and sexual desire, because it’s such a wonderful engine for a narrative”

Every publisher needs a Sarah Waters—an author who has achieved the holy grail of huge sales (1,052,602 copies sold through BookScan to date, which equates to a value of over £7.4m) coupled with almost universal critical acclaim from the tabloids to the broadsheets. Of her five novels to date, three have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006), The Little Stranger (2009)—and, extending her popularity still further, she has had four novels successfully adapted for television.

After three Victorian novels (Affinity, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) and two novels set in the 1940s (The Little Stranger, The Night Watch), Waters now turns to the 1920s. The Paying Guests (Virago, August) is set in London, 1922, a city still overshadowed by the First World War. In a villa in the genteel surrounds of Champion Hill, Camberwell, 26-year-old spinster Frances and her widowed mother Mrs Wray are obliged to take in lodgers in order to make ends meet.

From this premise Waters, indisputably a novelist at the top of her game, spins a gripping tale of class, sex and the consequences of a passionate affair. The second half of the novel is so brilliantly unexpected, and so nerve-shreddingly tense, that it keeps the reader guessing until the very last paragraph. I won’t even allude to the twist here for fear of spoilers.

When the novel opens, the Wrays are struggling financially, along with much of London. Both of Frances’ brothers were killed in the war and, duty-bound to her mother, she lives a restrictive life of small pleasures—the cinema once a week, occasional trips into town —dominated by heavy housework. The family can no longer afford “help” so Frances does the work of a charwoman. Into this tightly contained and constrained world come Len and Lilian Barber, the new lodgers, who Frances sees at first “in purely mercenary terms—as something like two great waddling shillings”. But it soon becomes apparent that, for Mrs Wray and especially Frances, the arrival of “the paying guests” will change things irreparably.

Len and Lilian are described as being of the “clerk class”, part of a new, office-based working class who, Waters explains, were looked down on by the intellectuals of the time when places like Camberwell were regarded as “the epitome of dreary, suburban, conformist living”. But modern married couple Len and Lilian are on the cusp of a different kind of life to that experienced by their solidly working-class parents. Waters says: “I liked that tension between things opening up for people like [Len and Lilian] because of the fact that for people like Frances and her mother, they are closing down. They can’t sustain those houses with servants any more, they’ve lost income and status,” Waters says.

Despite the class difference, or perhaps because of it, Frances and Lilian begin a tentative friendship which blossoms into a crush on Frances’ part and then into a full-blown affair. It transpires Frances has had relationships with women before but for married Lilian it’s a revelation. The affair will have, as Waters puts it “wonderful but terrible consequences for them and the people around them . . . I’ve been saying it’s a lesbian love story that veers into tragedy.”

Playing house

The Camberwell villa is almost a character in its own right: “I tend to write about houses quite a lot,” says Waters. “I’m very interested in the dynamics of relationships [that occur] within houses and it seemed like a bit of a pressure cooker—bringing these two households together with their very different agendas in life and the class tensions between them, and adding this element of desire between the two women and seeing what happened.”

The Paying Guests took “four solid years” to write. “I slowed down a bit because I had to get to know the period and [it] always takes time to feel at home in a period. There was more research than I’d had to do for the last book; I already knew the 1940s quite well. It was a much more challenging book to write than the last one, which was a very straightforward haunted house story. Even though there’s a strong plot to it, it’s quite character-driven.”

Waters was drawn to write about the 1920s because it sits between the Victorian age and the 1940s, or, as she describes it: “the opaque bit in the middle that I thought I’d like to know more about. The only real images I had of it were flappers, the Jazz Age and that sort of thing. I knew there must be more to it than that. I was interested in finding out more about ordinary people . . . than socialites.” She adds: “Class, gender, it was an extraordinary time in all sorts of ways for women, and for class relations, and those sorts of issues always interest me.”

Waters made her name by writing about lesbians—all of her earlier novels, bar The Little Stranger, featured lesbian characters, so The Paying Guests is very much a return to lesbian romance: “I did miss writing about desire, romantic and sexual desire, because it’s such a wonderful engine for a narrative. It’s a nice thing to inhabit and think through, and try and do honestly and authentically. Desire with all its complications and messiness—I always enjoy that.”

“I always enjoy using lesbian desire to sort of upset something that we are familiar with,” she says. “So with the other novels it would be taking a Victorian scenario that has been done to death a million times and putting lesbians into it and seeing what that does to it. With this novel it was a similar adventure.”

Publication 28.08.14
Formats £20 HB/£9.99 EB
ISBN 9780349004365/ 4594
Rights Sold in 11 territories to date including the US (Riverhead)
Editor Lennie Goodings, Virago
Agent Judith Murray, Greene & Heaton

1966 Born in Pembrokeshire, Wales
1987 BA English Literature, University of Kent
1988 MA English Literature, University of Lancaster
1996 Graduated with a PhD in Victorian Literature, Queen Mary, University of London
1998 Debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, published
2002 Wins British Books Awards' Author of the Year for Fingersmith, which is also shortlisted for the Booker and the Orange Prize
2006 The Night Watch is shortlisted for the Booker and the Orange Prize
2009 The Little Stranger is shortlisted for the Booker