The Paying Guests–Sarah Waters (2014)

Just so you know, I reveal details of the plot here, so maybe bookmark this for later if you’re planning to read the book anytime soon.

Near the beginning of The Paying Guests, Frances Wray, the novel’s protagonist, looks in on her mother before going to bed. Mrs. Wray is sitting up in bed with “a book in her lap, a little railway thing called Puzzles and Conundrums: she had been trying out answers to an acrostic.” Near the end of the book, after dramatic events that Frances has kept secret, she feverishly speculates that her mother has guessed part of what has happened: “But how long before she worked out more? How long before the whole thing knitted itself together, like one of her wretched acrostics?”

These references are quite disparaging (“a little railway thing,” “wretched”), which is surprising, since, on the face of it at least, The Paying Guests is greatly interested in puzzles, mysteries, enigmas, and the like. In the great tradition of Golden Age British crime fiction, these mysteries concern unlikely protagonists. The Paying Guests’s Wrays live in a respectable London suburb. The Great War has been over for four years but its effects persist, not least in their household. Frances’s two brothers died in the fighting, and her father of ill health and grief soon after, leaving behind an unpleasant surprise: his investments turn out to be nearly worthless. Mother and daughter live on in the family home, a home that is too big for them, and too expensive. They have long since let the servants go; now the only solution to their financial straits is to let part of the house to strangers.

The novel begins with the arrival of the lodgers, the Barbers. (Mrs. Wray calls them “paying guests,” in keeping with her willingness to delude herself about anything she doesn’t want to face.) Leonard and Lilian are a young lower-middle class couple: he works as an insurance agent, she looks after their home and dreams of art school. They are the novel’s first puzzle: we share in the Wrays’ half-horrified, half-fascinated efforts to figure them out. Their manner of speaking, their gramophone, their rooms decorated in garish bohemianism: all set them apart from the fastidious, self-regarding, and yet increasingly threadbare world of their landladies (a term Frances uses to shock her mother).

Frances is a character we’ve come to know from some of Waters’s other books, especially The Night Watch (2006): the melancholic lesbian. Much of the great sadness of the Wray household arises from her thwarted hopes. We learn of her pacifist and suffragist activism during the war years (she was briefly arrested for throwing a shoe at an MP), and the woman, Christina, she met and fell in love with during that time. Later we learn of the crisis when Christina asks her to live with her and Frances bows to her sense of family obligation and breaks the relationship off. Frances cares for her mother and the household, she manages the finances as best she can. The book is a study in the exhaustion that comes from making small economies at a time when the daily business of keeping up a household was much more labour intensive than it is now. Waters describes the housework in detail: the fires to be made and kept up, the dusting and sweeping, the scrubbing by hand of the tiles, twice, first with vinegar to remove the dirt, then again with water to get a shine (which of course soon fades). Bathwater must be heated; the WC is across the yard. Even going to bed is “a round of chores—the gatherings, the turnings-down, the cushion-plumpings and the lockings-up.”

Frances, though a puzzle to her family (her mother in particular effects not to know about her daughter’s sexual orientation, holding out hope that she will find a man, and therefore a purpose to her life), isn’t one to herself. She knows the solution to her ennui (meaningful work, recognition, a room of her own, love, life) but can’t imagine where it might come from. To her surprise—but not to ours, at least not to those of us who have read Waters before—the solution turns out to be right in front of her, right under her roof in fact.

Frances and Lilian, who are often alone in the house together, slowly become friendly, their relationship characterized, on Frances’s part at least, by a muted gallantry that is part of the way she keeps all the important things about herself in check, hidden from everyone, even, almost, herself. Eventually Frances outs herself to Lilian, telling her about Christina. Lilian’s responds with wary reserve; Frances curses herself for saying too much; the intimacy dies as quickly as it had flared. But one night everything suddenly changes, Lilian’s reserve is revealed to have been fear of her feelings, and the two fall headlong into a charged relationship that consists, like the experience of being closeted, of hiding in plain sight: they steal moments together whenever they can, even under the very noses of Leonard and Mrs. Wray.

Then a lot of things happen at once. Lilian reveals she is pregnant and asks Frances to administer some pills she has purchased illegally from a shady chemist’s. The night she induces a miscarriage is the same night Leonard comes home early from a business meeting. He assumes the child is a sign that Lilian has been involved with another man. When he threatens Lilian, Frances tells him the truth. Leonard attacks her in a rage; a desperate Lilian beats him off with an ashtray, the first thing that comes to hand; the blow to the back of the head kills him.

The women subside in relief that quickly turns to shock. Lilian convinces Frances not to call a doctor or the police. Instead they manage to remove the body—Waters is great on the physicality of bodies, especially as revealed through sex, work, and death: the scene in which they desperately drag the corpse downstairs, out through the garden, and into the lane behind the house, before Frances’s mother comes home from her bridge night is a marvel of suspense and horror—and erase the signs of the struggle. Here the descriptions of cleaning that earlier seemed only to remind us of the emptiness of Frances’s life take on new urgency; so too do the earlier meditations on its futility (everything fades, everything decays: the porcelain collection always collects new dust, the freshly scrubbed floor always attracts someone’s muddy boots) take on new irony: some traces of the crime (bloodstains on the carpet, for example) simply can’t be expunged.

Murder, it seems, will out. The police become increasingly suspicious about the crime. It seems inevitable that the women will be found out. Their actions drive a wedge between them: they are physically separated, Lilian’s family takes her to stay with them, and emotionally separated, caught in a series of emotional upheavals ranging between fear of getting caught, elation at how everything seems to be breaking their way, paranoia that the authorities know more than they’re letting on, shame at having their comfortable lives mixed up in murder, and guilt at the idea that someone else might be held accountable for their actions.

Yet whenever the book seems to become conventional, it shrugs its shoulders, reveals conventionality to have been a red herring. Take for example its decision to limit its narration closely to Frances. We only really know how Frances is feeling. Lilian remains much more shadowy. Thus we too become suspicious of her motivations, her loyalties, her responses. We share in Frances’s suspicions. Did Lilian know, for example, about the large life insurance policy Leonard had taken out on himself only a few months before his death? Does Lilian love her—she’s never been with a woman before, after all—or is she taking advantage of her?

Lilian is the novel’s greatest enigma. We always have to read her through others’ perceptions. Even her most direct utterance—a love letter she sends Frances when away on holiday with Leonard—turns out to be open to more sinister interpretations. Added to this inscrutability are the facts that come to light about Leonard after his death. He turns out to have been having a long-standing affair with another woman, Billie, whose sometime boyfriend/fiancée, Spencer, had beaten him savagely several months earlier. Leonard’s best friend Charlie, meanwhile, was involved with Billie’s sister, which explains why he maintained to the police that he and Leonard were together on the night of his death: he was with that girl and didn’t want his fiancée to know about it. (Are you keeping up with all this? It gets a bit complicated, though Waters is admirably lucid with her details.)

The book’s most interesting surprises have to do with the ease with which the women get away with their crime. No one notices those bloodstains on the carpets, especially after Lilian’s family and the police trample over the Barbers’ rooms. It rains heavily the night of the murder, washing away evidence and ensuring that the only possible witnesses (a spooning couple) couldn’t see anything. Suspicion, which had first fallen on Charlie, comes, after the revelations about Leonard’s affair, to rest on Spencer, a young tough with a record of assault. He admits to the earlier attack on Leonard and relishes, at least at first, being accused of a crime he insists he didn’t commit but which he is glad about. Even when the boy goes on trial for murder, prompting the women to agonize over their responsibility in letting an innocent man be accused, this problem too goes away: a new witness, a fellow lodger of Spencer and his mother—they let rooms in a house much shabbier than the Wrays’—comes forward at the trial to confirm that Spencer had been at home the night of the murder. This man—a war veteran who loses his sales job by testifying (he was meant to have been in Leeds on business)—is the most admirable character, the only one we can unreservedly sympathize with.

Significantly, the man is never named, and so stands, not as a British Everyman, but as a symbol of the possible integrity that might remain in a society that has been thoroughly transformed by war, no matter how people like Mrs. Wray try to pretend it hasn’t. Like so many other veterans, various examples of which flit through the novel, the man is scraping to make ends meet, trying out all sorts of odd jobs. To lose this one is a hardship: doing so reinforces his bitterness at the society that fails to acknowledge the things he went through on its behalf.

Unacknowledged sacrifices are everywhere in the book. These losses are as much of people as of ideals, most obviously of sons and brothers, but also of lovers, especially same-sex ones. They are losses of expectation and hope. Is this, various characters ask, what we fought the war for? In this regard, the paying guests of the title might be everyone in England, or almost everyone. Certain no one seems at home in the new order, and everyone has had to pay.

Everyone except, suddenly, Frances & Lilian. The jury is convinced by the ex-serviceman’s testimony and finds Spenser not guilty. Leonard’s death is destined to remain unsolved. The women are free, their consciousnesses mostly assuaged. And just when it seems as though none of those things are enough to overcome the harm that’s come to their relationship, just when Frances has contemplated suicide from the Battersea bridge (but, in her sensible way, quickly rejected it), at that very moment Lilian breathlessly arrives and the novel concludes by intimating a new beginning for the two of them.

In this way, The Paying Guests uses its crime story framework to ask the question, what would happen if you got what you wanted, if all the obstacles to your desire melted away? One answer is that there’s no such thing: there are always obstacles, we never get what we want. That’s the lesson of most crime stories, from Macbeth to Patricia Highsmith.

But the novel’s more interesting answer is that this crime does pay, because of the desire that motivates it. The most ingenious thing Waters has done here is to use the conventions of crime fiction to make her point about the invisibleness of same-sex, especially lesbian desire. Although Waters creates a lot of suspense as to whether suspicion will fall on Frances and Lilian, ultimately, she suggests, that suspense is beside the point. The law—exclusively, even obstreperously male here—simply cannot imagine Frances and Lilian as co-perpetrators, as co- anything. The police are no different from Leonard, who assumes his wife must have been with another man. We can imagine that, had the women confessed, the police would have been as unforgiving as Leonard was. But they’ll never get there on their own. Only other women—Lilian’s sisters in particular—can even begin to imagine the truth—not about the murder, but about the nature of Frances and Lilian’s relationship. But that “knowledge” can’t extend beyond an inarticulate suspicion of something queer.

Waters is too attuned to historical reality to paint too optimistic a picture of the possibilities enabled by the invisibility of lesbian desire. After all, the relationship between Frances’s former lover, Christa, and her artist friend Stevie appears only at the margins of the story: their life together seems precarious. And Waters doesn’t show us what Frances and Lilian’s life together looks like. But the absence of robust, open, healthy lesbian relationships isn’t just an acknowledgement of history. It’s also, more interestingly, a function of the book’s narrative form.

Waters hasn’t always handled similar material in the same way. The Night Watch, for example, is another story of war and homosexuality. There too, forms of life, expressions of desire, that are possible in wartime (in this case, WWII) become much more difficult afterwards. But that novel qualified its narrative of the rise of peacetime conventionality by telling its events in reverse (that was the source of much of its power), so that the narrative of the book countered the narrative of history.

By contrast, the conventional structure of The Paying Guests left me unsatisfied. Although suspenseful, it more often feels inert, as if it were leading to something it chooses not to develop. It’s not just my naïve desire to know whether things turn out happily ever after that was disappointed by the ending. I wanted the book to take on the challenge of imagining what Frances and Lilian’s life would look like, as two women living together, let alone two women who bore the burden of the secret of their responsibility in a crime.

I think the book is aware of this failure, if not in terms of its characters then in terms of its form. Remember those references to acrostics I started with. Although it’s helpful of Waters to use the second reference to remind us of the first, there’s an obviousness here—aren’t we supposed to make the connection between the daughter’s situation and the mother’s puzzles?—that makes me think about what kind of book The Paying Guests wants to be. For not all books are supposed to be puzzles. In this regard, the part of these passages that seems the most important is nothing to do with puzzles per se but rather with the kind of book the puzzles are in: “a little railway thing.” The dismissal is Frances’s, though it might equally be her echo of Mrs. Wray’s sensibility: its snobbishness disguised as self-deprecation suits her to a tee. It doesn’t really matter, since, at the beginning of the book, mother and daughter quite agree, at least on matters of social class.

But does Waters agree? I don’t think so. I think she wants to write “a little railway thing”—though, to be sure, and this is a significant difference, a queer one. Waters has always loved popular late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literary forms (sensation fiction, detective fiction, gothic fiction, suffragette memoirs). But her desire to re-write them from a queer perspective means she can never inhabit them fully. In her past work, this has felt like an enlivening tension. But here the ambivalence comes across as more uncertain. One way to take the measure of that uncertainty is to consider the novel’s allusions to canonical literary modernism, a movement that prided itself on being puzzling.

The opening line—“The Barbers had said they would arrive by three”—feels like a flat echo of the one that famously begins Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Frances’s meditation on her neighbourhood’s seclusion—“you’d never guess that a mile or two further north lay London, life, glamour, all that”—sounds like a drier, less rhapsodic version of Clarissa’s hymn to “what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.” (Waters’s book, by contrast, begins on “a wet April evening.”) But when Frances does slip into the city, she sounds like the much-wealthier Clarissa:

She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged… It was like being a string, and being plucked, giving out the single, pure note that on was made for. How odd, that no one else could hear it!

The rush of metaphors, the sensual attunement to the world, the exclamatory free indirect discourse: why, Frances here almost makes herself into the peals of Big Ben that boom and dissolve across Woolf’s novel.

As I read on, I kept finding other modernist references: the flower-seller Frances dashes over to as she accompanies Christina reminded me of the destination of Clarissa’s initial errand. Other references seemed more overt. The description of a sudden, pregnant silence—“She was aware of rain, in a sudden shower”—echoes the line from “The Waste Land” about the summer that surprises “in a shower of rain.” Frances’s hysterical vision, as she waits for Lilia not return from the chemist’s with the abortifacients, of a London overrun with infants—“Everywhere she looked she saw prams, she saw babies with pink, alive faces”—echoes Vivienne Eliot’s similar yet much more horrified vision in a letter to her husband. And Lilian’s exclamation about a poor world reminded me of Stevie’s heartfelt cry in The Secret Agent, “Bad world for poor people!”

At times I thought Waters might be thinking of her own novel as a kind of dialogue with that earlier novel, Conrad’s own remarkable exploration of the uses that genre fiction (spy stories, detective fiction) might be put to. I haven’t the energy to check if I’ve remembered this correctly, but Leonard stays in my mind as fleshly, rather like Conrad’s Verloc, and there is, of course, the similarity between the novels of a murder committed from outraged despair at the thought that the person one most loves might be threatened. Conrad subordinates genre convention to modernist imperative much more than Waters; and his book is much more pessimistic, even deterministic. So I don’t want to suggest they’re in any way the same book. I’m similarly willing to admit that I may be finding these allusions where they don’t really exist. (Did anyone else notice them?) But they struck me as signs of Waters’s own uncertainty about what kind of a book she’d written: a conventionally, if carefully structured crime story that might while away a railway journey that sometimes willfully disdains the more experimental literature of the period in which it is set yet which sometimes yearns for, even needs that very experimentalism as a way to be able to tell what, in the actual genre fiction of the period, would have been an untellable story. (Again, maybe I’m wrong. There might be a ton of Golden Age lesbian crime fiction that I don’t know about. If so, please enlighten me!)

I certainly don’t regret reading The Paying Guests (it’s long, probably too long, but a quick read). I’ll read anything Waters writes. But I don’t think this one quite came off. Perhaps we might think of it as a bit of a paying guest amongst the more established instances of her impressive body of work.


2 thoughts on “The Paying Guests–Sarah Waters (2014)

  1. A few weeks ago, I went on a camping trip. While everyone else in my party went on a hike for the better part of the day, I stationed myself in a hammock and plowed through this novel. I agree that I do not “regret” reading the book, but I admit that when I finished it a few days later I was a tad… underwhelmed. I wondered if I had read so much Sarah Waters in such a short time (Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet AND Affinity are all on my comps list for neo-Victorian literature) that she was simply unable to surprise me any longer. Because while I enjoyed reading the book tremendously, I was not struck as I have been in the past.

    I think that the comparisons that you draw between this novel and Mrs. Dalloway are really interesting. I had picked up on the striking relation between the two first lines, as well as between Clarissa’s and Frances’s love of the feeling of walking through inter-war London. I, too, thought that that was perhaps just me being a die-hard lover of Mrs. Dalloway… but you bring up an interesting point. Could the lack of experimentation in a novel set during the peak of Modernism be in itself an experimentally non-modernist neo-modernist novel? The extraordinarily ordinary drudgery of housework might speak in some ways to the project of creating an archive of the everyday and supposedly unheroic, but when the plot thickens by becoming–well, a plot–it ceases in that endeavor completely.

    I’m not sure. I think, though, that you speak to the invisibility of the two women’s romance very eloquently. To think that lesbianism was so invisible that two lovers could essentially get away with murder (even an accidental one!) is quite poignant. But I have to admit that I enjoyed reading the novel more before the murder took place. Once the murder occurred, Frances’s obsession with the sensationalism of the ways it was portrayed in the paper felt to me like sensationalism in itself–and, like you say, the novel was perhaps too long. I don’t know if I have drawn any conclusions that might answer any of your questions, but I offer my jumbled thoughts after a long day of taking down quotes from CBS’ “Elementary.”

    • Thanks, LNR. I appreciate your response very much. I’m especial intrigued by the “non-modernist neo-modernist novel” which strikes me as a pretty good description of the book. What exactly is the force of the “neo”? Why do writers want to approximate these earlier forms? Are these the kinds of questions you’re working on these days?

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