The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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This is the latest novel from prize winning Sarah Waters. A taut and nail biting thriller it explores the effect that the arrival of two paying guests, Leonard and Lily Barber, have on the household of Frances Wray and her mother. it is 1922 and ,reeling from the after effects of World War One, the upper-middle class Wrays find themselves in reduced circumstances and forced to take in lodgers ‘ from the clerk class’.

The novel was published on 28th August and the Stylist magazine hosted a special book club event with Sarah Waters to discuss the book. At the outset Waters conceded that this was a very difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers and so ,rather than a  book review  , I have decided to post a review of that evening in which she talked about her influences and her writing process.


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The event was held at the very upmarket Rosewood hotel in Holborn , central London. In fact, by coincidence, this building used to be the Pearl Assurance offices, which is where Leonard Barber goes to work each day and Waters also explained that right next door at that time was the Holborn Music Hall where Frances and her friend Christina go for a night out during the course of the story.

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Waters explained that she is interested in London’s history and enjoys walking through the city looking at buildings and landmarks. In fact, the characters she feels closest too in her books are those who walk around London on routes she takes and notice what she notices. She has always been fascinated by Champion Hill in Camberwell, where Frances and her mother live ,as it is a little island of upper-middle class gentility in a predominantly working class sea.

 She chose the early Twenties to set the novel as this was a particularly fascinating period in which society was still very much living in the shadow of WW1. There were a lot of challenges to the structure of everyday life, particularly for women. She is also interested in the ability in families not to say things to each other and to ignore or talk round difficult subjects.

In order to start thinking herself into the period she read the novelists of the day – Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. These helped her to get a sense of period but all these writers chose more upper class and bohemian  characters  whilst she knew she wanted to write about ordinary peoples lives. The best window into the every day lives at this time, she found, were the celebrated murder trials of the day. In particular Notable British Trials contains court transcripts in which you can hear the commonplace voices of the time and get an idea of how regular households were arranged.

Next she came up with the house, which is almost a character in itself,and then used  the classic scenario of a stranger arriving to upset things. She read newspapers from that period as well as cookery books and fashion magazines to get a sense of the smells and the sounds of the times. The way that people negotiate personal space and how that has changed over time has always fascinated her. In The Paying Guests there are a lot of half heard conversations through walls and chance meetings on the stairs.

The first half of the book crackles with unresolved feelings . Waters explained rather self-mockingly  that she had always thought the URST ( unresolved sexual tension) of romance fiction was not a device she would employ. She then read us an extract starting at p191 in the novel in which the URST positively leapt off the page. In the second part of the novel, however, there is a change of mood when duty and guilt begin to complicate passion and Waters found herself searching for new ways to describe fear.

Waters was asked to name her top three books. Firstly she chose Anna Karenina which figures in her novel as both Lily and Frances become fascinated with the story. In Waters view this is often pigeon-holed as a difficult book when in fact it is more of a soap opera, funny and tragic at the same time. Next she recommended Virginia Woolf’s diaries. These are very witty and insightful, they were very much on her mind when writing The Paying Guests. Finally she chose Katherine Mansfield’s letters. She thought the letters were in fact better then Mansfield’s fiction which, in her view , is a little uneven. They provide an intimate look at the fascinating life of an unusual personality.

As a writer, Waters is extremely disciplined. She aims to write 1,000 words per day and she always makes herself do it. Until the run up to publication, she approaches her writing as a job and works from about 8.30 am to 4.00pm Monday to Friday. Some of that time will be writing and some will be research which can just be reading a novel from the period or a newspaper. Towards the end of a book, however, the writing becomes all consuming. At the end of this novel she found all she was doing was writing and watching episodes of Breaking Bad ! She is now on a writing break and taking the time she read, think and go to the theatre and exhibitions.

Her advice to any aspiring writers in the audience was simple………..just do it! Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you must carve out a space for it. Whilst a first novel is often a labour of love you have to approach continuing like a job. She revealed that she always feels awful on a Monday morning and has long period of agony and frustration.

She was asked about her favourite of her own novels. She found that a very difficult question to answer . Tipping The Velvet had been very good for her and she enjoyed the TV adaptation in which she appeared as an extra. She re read it recently, the only one of her books she has re read , and found it to be ‘ a complete mess’.Perhaps her favourite is The Paying Guests because she found it more difficult to write than any of the others . In fact the first half was rewritten countless times. There were several scenes that caused particular difficulty, some were excluded altogether in the final draft and some although kept she still does not feel entirely happy with. In the original draft, she revealed, there was lots more sex but this she found slowed the narrative down. Its important to her for a novel to tell a story and her very favourite writers are ones that can create suspense and intrigue with a serious agenda……Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith came to mind.

This a was a fantastic evening. Sarah Water was an engaging and witty guest. In my own view The Paying Guests is her best novel yet full of suspense and surprises.

My thanks to Susan de Soissons and Virago for the advance copy.

 

Testament Of Youth and Grey Ghosts And Voices

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In the lead up to the centenary of  the start to WW1 I agreed to (re) read A Testament Of Youth along  with some other bookish Tweeters.

I first read the book in 1979 ( I know, say nothing!) following the fabulous BBC adaptation which was a huge hit at the time.

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As a young woman hoping to go to University myself ( the first in my family), Vera’s story really spoke to me.

Testament Of Youth is a reminiscence written in 1933 by Vera Brittain, the mother of the politician Shirley Williams. It tells the story of Vera’s wartime service during World War 1 and the tragic fate of her generation.

The book opens before the start of the War and we find Vera desperate to get an education and attend university. She has encountered hostility to this from her parents although it is naturally assumed that her younger brother, Edward, will of course be sent away to school and then go to Oxford.

Vera was an early feminist and a socialist and she vividly recounts the stifling atmosphere of middle class life in Buxton where the family lived.

‘To me provincialism stood, and stands,for the sum-total of all false values; it is the estimation of people for what they have, or pretend to have, and not for what they are. Artificial classifications, rigid lines of demarcation that bear no relation whatsoever to intrinsic merit, seem to belong to its very essence, while contempt for intelligence, suspicion and fear of independent thought, appear to be necessary passports to provincial popularity.’

She longs for an education and to become involved in intellectual and political life but finds that for women society allows very few options.

‘ It feels sad to be a woman!’ I wrote in March 1913 -the very month in which the Cat And Mouse Act was first introduced for the ingenious torture of militants.’Men seem to have so much more choice as to what they are intended for.’

Vera achieves her dream and goes up to Oxford in October 1914. Over the summer she had fully expected to be there at the same time as her brother, Edward, and his friend ,Roland Leighton ,with whom she has a growing romance. At the outbreak of war both Edward and Roland sign up and so Vera goes to Oxford alone.

With all those dear to her away serving, academic life seems seems increasingly irrelevant to her and in 1915 she defers her studies to become a VAD or volunteer nurse seeing service in London, Malta and France.

Vera and Edward in Uniform

Vera and Edward in Uniform

At the end of the war, Vera returns to Oxford only to find that her once cherished ambitions feel empty to her now and she has little in common with her fellow students who have not experienced war service. She find she is also one of the ‘surplus’ women for whom no husbands or work can now be found in Britain. She reads a newspaper article that suggests such women should seek work abroad to better their prospects and writes to a friend ;

Personally I haven’t the least objection to being superfluous as long as I am allowed to be useful, and though I shall be delighted for any work I may do to take me abroad, it will not be because I shall thereby be enabled the better to capture the elusive male.

Vera finds solace through her work lecturing for the League of Nations and in her friendship with the novelist Winifred Holtby.

The book is divided into three parts with each section beginning with a contemporary poem or quote. Part Two opens with an extract from a poem by May Wedderburn Cannan which reminded me that at about the same time as I read Testament Of Youth I had come across May Cannan’s memoir in our local library.

Grey Ghosts and Voices has long been out of print but I managed to track down a second hand copy and read it as a companion piece  to Vera Brittain.

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May Wedderburn Cannan came from a similarly middle class home to Vera. Her family was , however, a more intellectual one. Her father was head of the Oxford University Press and a close friend of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the novelist and academic.

May’s education was as intermittent and slapdash as Vera’s but she is less of a feminist and more accepting of the status quo.

WW1 offers May an opportunity to enter the world of work that was previously denied her. She serves as a Red Cross volunteer nurse and works briefly at a canteen for the troops in France behind the front-line . She then starts to work for her father at OUP to take the place of male employees now called up to fight.

As the war runs on she longs to get back to France and she ends the war in Paris using her office skills to work for British Intelligence.She relishes the freedom that working gives her and enjoys earning her own living.

Just as the war ends, Bevil Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur’s son, arrives in Paris to propose to her. They had known each other from childhood but their whirlwind romance in Paris really captured my teenage imagination. May returns to England to prepare for her marriage.

Sadly May’s wedding never takes place. Weakened by four years in the trenches, Bevil dies of pneumonia in February 1919 leaving May staring into a future that seems void.

Her postwar years are very close to Vera’s. She struggles to find a meaning to her life and also feels alienated from the younger generation who did not experience the war.

She too suffers the stigma of being one of the ‘surplus’ women but is determined to stay in work and earn her living. During one interview she is asked rather snootily if she has a degree :

I thought, ”Well, I’ve lost it”‘ and I thought “surplus two million”; and I collected my bag and my gloves and I looked at them all sitting round that long table and I said “If I had got a Degree it would have been between 1914 and 1918 and I preferred to be elsewhere. And what is more Gentlemen” – I got up now and I pushed back my chair and made them a little bow-“I still prefer to have been elsewhere”

She gets the job!

May’s story is perhaps more conventional than Vera’s but it was great to reconnect with it after all this time. The title of the book is a quote from one of her moving poems summing up her feelings as the war ends and she finds herself alone :

Now we must go again back into our world

 

 Full of grey ghosts and voices of men dying,

And in the rain the sounding of Last Posts,

And Lovers’ crying;

Back to the old, back to the empty world  

 

This First World War reading was an emotional journey but one I am glad I made both books are well worth the effort and the tissues. Thank you to Claire from claire.thinking.blogspot.co.uk for coming up with the idea.