Sarah Waters on her Man Booker-nominated haunted house mystery and the waning of the aristocracy - Waterstones Quarterly
For just over a year now, home for Sarah Waters has been an 18th-century townhouse in south London. It’s exactly the place fans of her books would expect her to live: grand but comfortable, with a tidy balance of original features and modern embellishments, such as the bright, book-lined attic conversion she uses as an office. Some old houses shed their identities over time. But hers glows with history to the point where it evokes, somehow, all the people who have ever lived here.
This may be a significant number. Sipping tea at the kitchen table, Waters points out that London’s Georgian squares, so romanticised by us today, were originally designed to cram in as many tenants as possible. The sense Londoners can’t help having of what she calls ‘the density of lived lives’ is one of the things she loves about the city.
A youthful 42, Waters has an infectious intellectual enthusiasm and the unnerving habit of discussing her novels like the Open University English lecturer she once was – with rigorous, clinical detachment. Only when she breaks off every so often to worry that some aspect of her work might have disappointed readers does she seem to remember that she wrote them.
Waters found success early in her career with the books she calls, with characteristic self-deprecation, ‘lesbian Victorian romps’ – Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith – then changed gear for The Night Watch in 2006. Starting in 1947 and working backwards to 1941, The Night Watch was sedate and interiorised where its predecessors had been frantic and flashy.
More concerned with character than switchback plotting, and with the sense of claustrophobia that comes with long-term relationships than the thrill of sexual discovery, it was also the first Sarah Waters novel to do without the ironising, distancing gloss of genre. (The books to which it did refer, wartime classics such as Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, resist being corralled into a neat category.) This may be why it felt so dark – dark enough for Waters to promise one interviewer that her next book would be ‘more upbeat’. But upbeat isn’t quite the right word for The Little Stranger, is it?
Waters laughs. ‘Well, it’s not downbeat in the way that The Night Watch was. That was about disappointed, unhappy people. The Little Stranger is more about trapped people.’ This is true. It’s also something of a return to genre: a country-house ghost story, although one where there’s so much else going on that the ghost story becomes both central and oddly incidental.
The Little Stranger is set in 1947 in a small Warwickshire village and narrated by a doctor called Faraday, a diligent, upright man. He is a bachelor, frustrated with his lot in life, whose dull round is shaken up when he is summoned to one of the local ‘big houses’, Hundreds Hall, to attend their one remaining maid, Betty, who complains of stomach pains. On the strength of this and subsequent visits, Faraday becomes friendly with the Hall’s owners, the Ayres family: regal Mrs Ayres; her son Roderick, a former fighter pilot badly injured during the war; and her daughter Caroline, renowned locally for her cleverness – and her plain looks.
They are, of course, Faraday’s social superiors. But they’re also anachronisms whose way of life is dying out. Hundreds Hall was once magnificent (Faraday remembers, as a child, attending a lavish party given by the Ayres to celebrate Empire Day) but now it’s falling apart, like so many other grand houses. Most of its land has been sold off to developers. And, to cap it all, it’s almost impossible, in this postwar world, to recruit the servants who once ran it so efficiently. One of these servants, the nurserymaid, was Faraday’s own mother, which both cements and complicates his friendship with the Ayres. It means he’s in a dual position when the house is plagued by a series of terrifying, inexplicable events: insider and outsider, observer and participant.
The Little Stranger had a less agonised gestation than The Night Watch, which took four years to write, but grew out of the research work Waters did for that earlier novel. ‘I kept seeing again and again in novels and diaries this sense that, just after the war, class was in crisis as far as middle-class people were concerned. You had a Labour government, suburbia starting to encroach on the countryside, working-class people preferring to work in factories than go into service. Between 1940 and 1960 was the period when the majority of country houses were given up by their owners and either demolished or turned into hotels or teacher training colleges. Their land was sold off for council houses.’