Written by Sarah Waters
Published by Riverhead
Review by Michelle Pretorius
In the tradition of her earlier historical works, such as Tipping the Velvet and The Night Watch, Sarah Waters’s latest novel, The Paying Guests, scrutinizes the British class system and the treatment and restrictions placed on women, especially lesbians. Waters gives the reader a claustrophobic view of daily life in 1922 London, a city whose population is still reeling from the devastating effects of World War I. We experience this world through the eyes of Frances Wray, a twenty-six-year-old “upper-class” spinster. Frances and her mother are left almost penniless after the death of her father, who had made a number of ill-advised investments, and are forced to take in lodgers, referred to as paying guests, in order to make ends meet.
A section of the house is converted into an apartment and a working-class couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber, move into the Wray home. Frances and her mother are painfully aware of the Barbers’ presence, noting every creak and social taboo, seeing it as an invasion they must endure in order to survive. Waters humorously conveys the discomfort of both classes in their confined environment while highlighting the superficial deference that the status of the upper class confers. The characters are grounded in the period by vivid details and nuanced speech patterns, with which Waters expertly illuminates their different experiences in British society.
A friendship develops between Frances and Lillian. The two women spend time together during the day while Leonard, a clerk, is at work and Mrs. Wray volunteers at church. Lillian and Leonard’s marriage is not a happy one, and the cracks soon become visible to Frances. She is also aware of her growing physical attraction to Lillian. It is only after Frances reveals her past love affair with a woman that Lillian reciprocates these feelings. Waters is known for her frank portrayal of lesbian sex, but, far from being gratuitous, the explicit scenes in The Paying Guests aid in the depiction of two people who are in love and who face overwhelming odds because of their gender and sexual orientation.
Lillian discovers she is pregnant just as the two lovers decide to break away from their constrictive circumstances to start a life together. The pregnancy sets a chain of events in motion, culminating in a trial that puts the two women’s continued relationship in doubt. Through the descriptions of the criminal investigation and court proceedings, Waters holds a mirror up to current sensationalism while delivering an engrossing glimpse into the machinations of the criminal justice system in Britain at the time.
Waters mercilessly tightens the screws on her two main characters at every turn, placing the implications of their love in this time period under a magnifying glass. The Paying Guests is an engrossing read that makes us conscious of how far the equal rights movement has come and of the freedoms we too often take for granted.
Michelle Pretorius was born and raised in South Africa and has lived in London, New York and the Midwest. She holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Ohio University.