‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters
by Kit van Cleave
Much has been written about the British schizophrenia about homosexuality, which has been both ignored and criminalized by the state. It has a long history among young men in public universities, e.g. Oxford, producing iconic books about male lovers who met at school. Yet the 1895 sodomy trial of Oscar Wilde, one of England’s most glittering literary idols, was the talk of turn-of-century Europe. Everyone was suitably scandalized, while tickets for his plays continued to sell out.
British writer Radclyffe Hall’s first novel (The Well of Loneliness, 1928) was banned in both the U.S. and U.K. for many years, despite its grim warning about engaging in same-sex love or hoping for any kind of long-term relationships. The tortured public romances of author Vita Sackville-West and Violet Treyfusis (who escaped their husbands and eloped to Paris)—and also Sackville-West and more famous British writer Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own, 1928)—were held up as cautionary tales for a younger generation. The Well of Loneliness was only allowed to be openly distributed in 1948, after Hall’s death. Wilde and Hall both paid mightily for their open lives.
But England has produced many out lesbian writers in recent years. Best known in America are Emma Donohue, Sarah Waters, and Jeanette Winterson, all of whom are critically admired and popular with the reading public. Less well-known but fine writers are Clare Ashton, H.P. Munro, crime novelist Val McDermid, and Jackie Kay.
Winterson’s first novel (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, 1985) won her almost instant celebrity and a shelf of awards, including an OBE. Donohue writes great fiction for both a general audience and gay women, but her overview of lesbian writing over the centuries (Inseparable: Literature between Women, 2010) is a must-read.
Sarah Waters’ first novel, Tipping the Velvet, was both a shocker and a great work in 1998. The title refers to a Victorian pornographic name for cunnilingus, so it was clear from the beginning that this book was going to be both romantic and erotic. Moreover, the BBC made a film from the book, which followed closely the adventure of young Nan, who fell in love with a male impersonator, Kitty, and followed her to London. Later Nan becomes a male impersonator herself, in an act with Kitty, to bond the couple closer together.
From the oeuvres of Donohue, Waters, and Winterson, Americans have learned more about the fluidity of female sexual identity and gender, which has existed for centuries in Europe and the U.K. What had been largely ignored is the lesbian love affair, which has never received the kind of literary acceptance like male classics such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.
Now Waters’ newest novel, The Paying Guests, has again been praised by critics, and named an Amazon Best Book of 2014 and a top book by Barnes and Noble. It reflects a prominent historical time, 1922, between the two World Wars, when England was suffering the loss of many of its young men, and in anticipation of yet another war with Germany. Yet because of Waters’ skill and detail, the novel is achingly contemporary.
Mrs. Wray and her daughter, Frances, 26, live together in reduced circumstances after the death of their husband and father, who left a nasty pile of debts. To make ends meet, they agree to rent part of their large family home to a married couple of lower class. (Class, lesbian sexuality, and the place of women in the U.K. through the years are all familiar Waters themes.) So Leonard and Lilian Barbour move in with the Wrays. The small rent the Barbours pay is enough to relax the Wrays about their debts and to keep their home.
Frances has been aware of her lesbianism for some time; she had a romance with Christina, but they remained friends after an embarrassing end to their affair (discovery, drama, separation). Her solution is to be celibate and work hard within the family home, doing all those tasks once done by servants when the Wrays were more financially secure.
While Leonard is at work, Lilian reads, smokes, pampers herself, and rearranges furniture. Obviously, she is bored. What interrupts her ennui is one of the most earth-shaking events she could have imagined—a deep passion she had never anticipated, which cannot be denied. Frances is equally surprised, fascinated, and then lost in the tsunami. All of this leads to a tragedy (two, some readers would say) and twist after twist in this romance-as-mystery novel.
Here’s an example of what’s waiting on the page: Waters foreshadows the explosion of desire by comparing it with the shelling of a boiled egg on a picnic planned by Lilian and Frances on their first day together, as “…the eggs gave up their shells as if shrugging off cumbersome coats.” Elegant bodice-ripping and skirt-lifting follow the shrugging.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media. She reviewed Inseparable in the February 2012 issue of OutSmart magazine; see archives.