Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Sex and survival in The Paying Guests

The new Sarah Waters novel is a thrilling tale of class struggle, lesbian love and murder

If any writer can pull off a story that combines elements of historical literary fiction, social realism, courtroom drama and lesbian pulp, it’s Sarah Waters.

Britain between the world wars was an unsettled place: the social order was topsy-turvy, hundreds of thousands were dead from battle and the Spanish flu, and the government was grappling with mass unemployment and inflation. In The Paying Guests, novelist Sarah Waters delves into the era’s complexities and contradictions by narrowing in on one particular household in suburban London, which in its own peculiar way stands in for the chaos and upheaval of the country as a whole.

The upper-class Wrays have fallen on hard times. The two sons have been killed in the war and the father has died, too, leaving behind a collection of bad investments and overdue debts. The survivors are Frances, a 26-year-old spinster, and her sensitive, ineffectual mother. To economize, the servants have been let go, lamps are left unlit, and cheap cuts of meat have replaced lavish dinners.

These are not Frances’s only sacrifices. When she was younger, she had been a suffragette and involved in the war effort; she had also had a love affair with a female friend. That independence and romantic pleasure have long since been abandoned, in order for her to struggle to keep up appearances and maintain the family home.

And yet even as Frances uncomplainingly scrubs floors, cooks dreary meals and empties chamber pots, she is aware that her step down in life makes others uneasy. Neighbours, tradesmen and her mother’s friends, she observes, “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.” Frances’s meagre rewards are occasional trips to the cinema with her mother, bittersweet visits to her ex-girlfriend, who has moved on with a new woman, and a solitary nightly cigarette.

Enter Len and Lilian Barber, a somewhat tacky young couple from the striving working class — he’s a cocky insurance clerk, she’s a sweet-tempered bohemian housewife with artistic pretensions — who move into the Wrays’ house as lodgers. Despite a few early class-based missteps, within a matter of weeks, Frances and Lilian have fallen into a scorching, clandestine affair, complete with mash notes, midnight grapplings in the kitchen and plots to run away together. But before the romance-drunk couple can come to anything approaching their senses, they are involved in a murder and are pulled into its tense investigation and aftermath.

If any writer can pull off a story that combines elements of historical literary fiction, social realism, courtroom drama and lesbian pulp, it’s Waters. Her 1998 debut, Tipping the Velvet, was a confident and sexy page-turner about a Victorian-era genderbending lesbian theatre artist — its title was a reference to old-time slang for cunnilingus. Her subsequent novels — all doorstopper-thick historical dramas — are Dickensian in character and plotting, high in emotion (whether lust or suspense or both) and infused with a gothic sensibility. She renders her settings in bewitching detail, often depicting the lives of marginalized figures at moments of social tumult and transformation. Fingersmith told the story of a clan of Victorian pickpockets, for instance, while The Little Stranger was a shivery ghost story set in a crumbling post–WWII manor house.

With The Paying Guests, Waters skillfully uses the central lesbian affair as complicating spoiler to dig at the general mood of social change and unease. Lilian’s husband, Len, comes across as a boor at times but also as bright and ambitious, eager to take advantage of loosening class structure to get ahead. He’s a rival to Frances romantically, but he also represents the demise of the former privileges of her class. Meanwhile, a posh young man whom Frances is set up with proves to be unattractive to her, not only because he is a man, but because the war has left him languid and disillusioned (and possibly, through the lens of a modern prospective, suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder). As he tells her about his experiences since the armistice — he’s bored, aimless and unemployed — Frances is “struck by the absolute lack of rancour in his manner; by the absence of any sort of passion in him.”

But, even as she uses the lesbian affair for these expositionary ends, Waters does not for a moment short-change her readers on the sexual front. The build of the growing attraction between Frances and Lilian is an act of seduction in itself. At first, Frances finds Lilian a little silly and vulgar but then takes notice of her prettiness and sensuality. Lilian “was all colour and curve,” thinks Frances. “How well she filled her own skin! She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle.” An erotic game of Snakes and Ladders between Lilian, Len and Frances could be its own separate novella: it’s a masterful set piece that is at once sexy and menacing, ugly and ridiculous. When Frances and Lilian finally do consummate their attraction, Waters paints in every part, without blushing or coy hesitation.

She spares no details, either, when it comes to the gruesome. A painful, prolonged abortion is graphically, bloodily horrifying. And the violent death that provides the novel’s turn from romance to murder mystery is equally grisly. Their forbidden relationship carries its own undercurrent of the sinister: its star-crossed quality fuels its passion and its sense of doom. Waters gives the affair a sense of being a little unhinged, which makes a far more complicated union than if it were purely idealized or romanticized. As compelling and rich as the storytelling, at more than 500 pages, fatigue sets in at points. This is a palpably physical and closely observed story, and it can make for a claustrophobic reading experience — Waters spares no minutiae, no passing thought, no small piece setting or passing emotion. And yet, when she finds her momentum, she is unmatchable. She breathes, cries, exults, lusts and fears right alongside her characters, just as she compels her reader to do so, too.