Trapped in genteel poverty

Republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

When we chose the second title for the Shiny Book Club, we wanted something totally different to the first (The Bees, which I reviewed here). It had to fit our criteria of being a Shiny New Book available in paperback in the UK. The obvious choice was Sarah Waters’ most recent novel, which came out in paperback in early summer. I’d bought the hardback last year, and very much enjoyed reading it, although holding it open (I don’t care to crack spines), made my wrist ache in bed!

A very quick synopsis of the basic plot. It’s 1922 and Frances Wray lives in genteel poverty with her mother in Champion Hill, the posh bit of Camberwell, South London. Her two brothers were killed in WWI. After that her father died, leaving them short of cash, they had to let their servants go, and Frances has taken on all aspects of running the house, being careful to keep up appearances for her mother’s sake. However, austerity is not enough, and reluctantly they decide to take in lodgers. Enter a young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, who will take the upstairs rooms (excepting Frances’ bedroom). They will have to share the outside lav though.  After their visit to view, Frances is discussing them with her mother:

‘One good thing, I suppose, about their being so young: they’ve only his parents to compare us with. They won’t know that we really haven’t a clue what we’re doing. So long as we act the part of landladies with enough gusto, then landladies is what we will be.’
Her mother looked pained. ‘How baldly you put it! you might be Mrs Seaview, of Worthing.’
‘Well, there’s no shame in being a landlady; not these days. I for one aim to enjoy landladying.’
‘If you would only stop saying the word.’

And so it is that upper middle class Frances and her mother, become landladies to a working class couple on their way up. Quite a reversal.

Frances initially finds it difficult having a man in the house again, with his ‘jaunty whistling’ and ‘loud masculine sneezes’.  Len also has a habit of going out into the yard for a fag late in the evening, and stopping to talk to Frances on his way back through the kitchen.  He asks her about the garden and volunteers to help, telling her about his guvnor’s garden:

‘He even has cucumbers in a frame. Beauties, they are – this long!’ He held his hands apart, to show her. ‘Ever thought of cucumbers, Miss Wray?’
‘Well-‘
‘Growing them, I mean?’
Was there some sort of innuendo there? She could hardly believe that there was. But his gaze was lively, as it had been the night before, and , just as something about his manner then had discomposed her, so, now, she had the feeling that he was poking fun at her, perhaps attempting to make her blush.

Everyone settles down; Lilian puts her personal touch on their rooms with shawls and ornaments; Len goes out to work. Lilian gives Frances the rent money, and Mrs Wray gets hopeful about it:

‘I did just wonder, Frances, whether we mightn’t be able to afford a servant again.’

It is clear that there are tensions in Lil and Len’s relationship. This is obvious to Frances, who had begun to strike up a friendship with her lodger.  Then, one day, Frances lets out her big secret – she’d had a relationship with another woman, Chrissy, and was found out as the two of them had planned to set up home together. Far from scaring off Lilian, it switches something on in her and the pair become intimate, starting a secret affair.  Things soon come to a head though. It’s deeply stressful for all concerned in every which way. What happens next?  There are shocks and twists aplenty, but I’m not going to get more spoilery here. If you have read the book though, the discussion at Shiny Book Club does go into detail.

I thought that Waters nailed the situation of Frances and her mother in their enforced austerity perfectly. Mrs Wray was obviously perpetually mortified by it, and hated the idea that anyone might spot Frances cleaning the front doorstep or the like. Frances is hemmed in by it all, but throws herself into the chores to escape from her mother, except on those days she has trips into London to see her old flame Christina which is her only real relief from drudgery and the spinster life she has had to settle for.

Lilian at first appears flighty with Frances the dominant one, but as the novel progresses there is rather a role reversal. Frances falls so hard for Lilian it unnerves her, whereas Lilian gets strength from her large supportive family (who never find out all the secrets). Frances has been hardened by what happened before and regrets losing Christina, she thinks she’ll never find another lover and can’t believe it when Lilian reciprocates.  Their secret relationship is so intense and claustrophobic. At the beginning of the novel I really felt for Frances; I know she couldn’t help it, but the pressure she put on Lilian made me feel less for her and more for her partner in crime.

Topping just  over 560 pages in hardback, I did find this novel hard to put down, reading it in three long sessions. Once you get towards the closing stages, there is no way you’ll want to stop reading if you don’t have to, it’s so intense and gripping.  It feels very real in its post-WWI world (as The Night Watch did with WWII). It’s the 1920s, but there’s not a flapper in sight, this is suburban South London (and believe me it doesn’t change much!)

The Night Watch
 remains my favourite Waters novel, but I preferred The Paying Guests to the slower-burning The Little Stranger (review here). The Paying Guests pulls you into its world right from the start. It is a complex morality tale that I enjoyed reading very much.

See also Harriet’s review and Simon’s at Vulpes Libris.


Source: Own copy.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Virago, paperback, 608 pages.

One thought on “Trapped in genteel poverty

  1. I’m with you on The Night Watch being the best – I thought the structure of the book really added a lot to it. I know a lot of people enjoyed Fingersmith best, but I prefer books set in the early 20th century, and I do love books set in London in the Blitz (I can’t recommend Cathi Unsworth’s Without The Moon highly enough if you like that era too!) I loved The Paying Guests too, especially Frances. Affinity is the only one I’ve still to read, but I’m saving it for a treat, as goodness knows when we’ll get another! Fantastic author. And I’m with you on the spines – save our book spines!

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