The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests This is Sarah Waters’ sixth novel, published in 2014. I have read and enjoyed all of her previous five, but after seeing some very mixed reviews of The Paying Guests around the time of publication, I decided I wasn’t in any hurry to read this one. I knew I would read it eventually, but I wanted to wait until I was in the right mood for it.

This book is set in London in 1922 which I was pleased about as, surprisingly, I have preferred Sarah Waters’ 20th century novels (The Little Stranger and The Night Watch) to the Victorian ones (Fingersmith, Affinity and Tipping the Velvet). I always find the 1920s an interesting decade to read about; it was so soon after the end of the war and, for most people, life would never be the same again.

In The Paying Guests we meet twenty-six-year-old Frances Wray, a young woman whose life has certainly been affected by the war – her two brothers were killed in action and her father died not long after, leaving Frances and her mother alone and struggling financially. Frances is now doing the work that the servants used to do and, to avoid having to sell the house, she and her mother have decided to take in lodgers or ‘paying guests’.

The paying guests are a young married couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, and from the moment of their arrival the atmosphere in the house changes. The Barbers belong to what Frances calls the ‘clerk class’ and they have different views, different attitudes and different ways of living their lives. Sarah Waters captures perfectly what it feels like to suddenly have to share your home with strangers:

Water was run after that, and then another odd noise started, a sort of pulse or quick pant – the meter again, presumably, as the gas ran through it. Mrs Barber must be boiling a kettle. Now her husband had joined her. There was conversation, laughter… Frances caught herself thinking, as she might have done of guests, Well, they’re certainly making themselves at home. Then she took in the implication of the words, and her heart, very slightly, sank.

As Frances gets to know the new lodgers, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Lilian. Having ended an earlier romance with another girl, Christina, for the sake of her family, Frances is determined not to let another chance of happiness slip away. This time, though, she faces not only the disapproval of her mother, but also an even bigger obstacle in the form of Lilian’s husband, Leonard.

The relationship between Frances and Lilian develops slowly throughout the first half of the novel. Although it’s difficult to tell what Lilian is truly thinking or feeling, there’s no doubt about the intensity of Frances’s emotions. While I can’t say that I particularly liked Frances, I did feel worried for her: she had already been through so much in the past and I could sense that there would be more trouble coming her way in the future. And I was right. The tension builds and builds in the Wray household and there is the sense that something big and significant is going to happen. Eventually something does happen (something horrible, dramatic and shocking) and from that point the plot begins to go in a very different direction.

The second half of the book is still interesting and compelling in its own way, but it does feel like an entirely different story and I think I might have been happier if this had continued to be the quiet 1920s domestic novel it seemed to be at the beginning. I did enjoy The Paying Guests, though, and I’m intrigued by the list of books Sarah Waters mentions as her influences; I’m particularly interested now in reading A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse.

My Commonplace Book: March 2016

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.


He had a narrow, swarthy face with a high forehead, so high he had his cropped dark hair brushed forward – he was losing his hair, then. His eyes slanted downward, sensual, melancholic and secretive. Saints in the churches, painted on panels and murals, had halos of light around their heads and bodies; the prince seemed to have a tracing of darkness, as if he was standing in front of a prince-shaped hole that led into something terrible, and you could just catch glimpses of it when he moved…

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas (2014)


Do you keep time in the same place that you save it? If so why is it so difficult to find? It must be in a very safe place.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (1997)


Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847)


Buddhist caves, two hundred and fifty BC…? It was the Emperor Ashoka who had ordered them to be made, he felt almost sure about that. But there was something else, something to do with the shape of the caves, that escaped him. Was it about meditation? He hadn’t been paying close attention, his mind had been preoccupied, and now their purpose remained a mystery – as it seemed so much in this country was destined to, at least for him.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)


The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)


Days lived, whether full or empty, whether busy or serene, are but days gone by, and the ashes of the past weigh the same in every hand.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon (1957)


As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)



Under Dad’s philosophy, books were not shape-shifting constructions of a reader’s imagination. Novels, he said, offered the specific clues, maps and guidelines necessary for their own evaluation. By clues, he did not mean metaphors and he did not mean symbolism. He meant actual clues. To him, every book was its own treasure map. A good novel, he said, left the close reader with a useful souvenir. All you needed to do was learn to see what was right under your nose.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (2016)


“Robert has been led most of his life by his ambition – our family’s ambition – for him to be king. All of us have paid a price, for some the highest price, for him to fulfil that desire, but we have done so because we see in him something that lifts him above most other men; something that makes us hope. He has the iron will of our grandfather and, yes, the hot blood of our father, though he’ll not hear the latter said, but he also has the heart of our mother. It is a true heart. A good heart. You must keep faith, my lady.”

Kingdom by Robyn Young (2014)


Sitting at her bureau a short time before, Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)


“I think you’ll find most women in pursuit of a husband share an interest in appearing less educated than they really are,” said Beatrice. “It is why I have a low opinion of them.”

“Of women, miss?” said Abigail.

“No, of husbands,” said Beatrice.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)


Knighthood’s not for the likes of these people; for Madame Perrers’ brood. He thought she knew her place. But she’s overreached herself; she’s as grasping as the rest of them, after all. Do these people think they can buy or steal everything?

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett (2010)


Favourite books this month: The Red Lily Crown and The Summer Before the War.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Over the last few years I’ve been slowly working through Sarah Waters’ novels, beginning with Affinity, then moving on to Fingersmith, The Little Stranger and The Night Watch, all of which I’ve enjoyed. Her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, was the only one I still hadn’t read so I was pleased to have the chance to read it as part of the Virago Book Club.

Tipping the Velvet is narrated by Nancy Astley, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her parents and sister in Whitstable, an English seaside town famous for its oysters. During the day Nancy works hard in her family’s oyster parlour but she also has a passion for the music hall and enjoys visiting the Canterbury Palace of Varieties to watch the dancers, acrobats and magicians. Nancy’s life changes forever one night in 1888 when she sees a new act at the Palace: a female singer, Kitty Butler, who dresses as a boy. Nancy is fascinated and decides Kitty is the ‘most marvellous girl’ she’s ever seen. She returns night after night to watch her performances, until eventually Kitty notices her.

The two become friends and travel to London together where Nancy joins Kitty on stage as part of her act and is transformed from Nancy Astley, oyster girl, into Nan King, music hall star. As the days go by, Nan finds her feelings for Kitty developing into love and at first it seems that Kitty might feel the same way about her. But soon Nan’s happiness is destroyed and having lost everything she sets out to start a new life, doing whatever she needs to do to survive.

As in her two later novels also set in the 19th century (Fingersmith and Affinity), Sarah Waters has created a wonderfully vivid and believable Victorian world, from the descriptions of the music halls – the songs, the costumes, the colourful characters – to the slang used on the streets of London and the portrayal of the Victorian gay and lesbian scenes. As a fan of historical fiction, every time I read one of Waters’ novels I’m impressed by the way she always includes enough historical detail to perfectly evoke the atmosphere of the period she is writing about (whether it’s the 1890s or the 1940s), while still keeping the focus on the story and the characters.

Tipping the Velvet describes a side of Victorian society that you would be unlikely to read about in the contemporary fiction of the period and explores themes such as sexuality, gender, lesbianism and prostitution. I should probably warn you that the sex scenes are very explicit – and there are a lot of them (a few too many for me, though I’m probably just a prude!) Having said that, these scenes never feel gratuitous; they are an important part of Nan’s story and add to our picture of who she is and what her life is like. Although she can sometimes be frustrating, Nan is an engaging narrator and her emotions are very real – we follow her through all her highs and lows, we experience her joy at falling in love and we feel her pain when her heart is broken. I didn’t always agree with the choices she made but I could admire her ability to completely rebuild her life over and over again in the hope of finally finding the true love and happiness she deserves.

I have now read all five of Sarah Waters’ novels and although I did enjoy this one, I think it suffered from being read last. As a debut novel it is mature and well-written and does compare well to her later work, but the others had plots that were more interesting to me personally which is why this one is probably my least favourite.

Tipping the Velvet is the latest Virago Book Club choice. I received a copy from Virago for review.

Review: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch follows the lives of four very different people during and after World War II. There’s Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war, but now, in 1947, there’s something missing from her life and she wanders the streets of London on her own, a lost and lonely figure. There’s Helen, who is feeling insecure in her relationship with the sophisticated Julia. Then there’s Viv, having problems of her own with her boyfriend Reggie, an ex-soldier. And finally, we meet Viv’s brother Duncan, who was in prison during the war and is still haunted by events in his past.

The story quickly becomes so complex and involved that it would be difficult to tell you any more about the plot without spoiling it. What I can tell you about though, is the structure of the book, which was very unusual. The story begins by introducing us to the characters in 1947, after the war has ended, then moves back in time to 1944, and then in the final section goes back further still to 1941. I both liked this structure and disliked it.

I liked it because of the way it led to some surprising revelations about the characters and their histories. I disliked it because so many storylines were left unresolved. I wanted to know what happened; I wanted to know whether Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan would find happiness. I think this is probably the first Sarah Waters book I’ve read where I really loved and cared about the characters – they all felt so real and believable. But while the book answered some of the questions about the characters’ pasts, I was left with a lot of unanswered questions about their futures.

In comparison to Sarah Waters’ other books, this one feels much more subdued and quiet, with an overall mood of sadness. Apart from relating some of the obvious horrors of war which affected society as a whole, there are some heartbreaking moments in the personal stories of all four main characters (the story that affected me the most was probably Viv’s). I also found it interesting to read about the various jobs that were available to women during the war. With so many of the men away fighting, this was a time when it was deemed acceptable for women to do jobs that would previously have been done by the men. Kay, as I mentioned, was an ambulance driver, and there were other women also doing the same work. Helen and Viv were employed in more conventional office jobs, but were still contributing to the war effort with Helen providing support for people who had lost their homes or were in financial difficulties, and Viv working as a typist for the Ministry of Food.

As I’ve come to expect from Sarah Waters’ books, The Night Watch is both well written and well researched. She manages to incorporate an incredible amount of detail into the book, but the detail never overwhelms the story. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys reading about life during World War II and the effects of the war on the lives of ordinary people. But if you loved Fingersmith and are looking for more of the same, I should warn you that this book is about as different from Fingersmith as you could imagine!


Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

This is the third Sarah Waters book I’ve read this year, the other two being Affinity and Fingersmith, and I think this one is my favourite. I seem to be in the minority though, as I’ve seen some very mixed reviews of this book.

The Little Stranger is set in Warwickshire just after the end of World War II. When Dr Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall, home of the Ayres family, to treat their young maid, he can’t help noticing that the house has deteriorated since he was last there as a boy. Striking up a friendship with Mrs Ayres and her daughter Caroline, Dr Faraday begins to spend more and more time at Hundreds – and becomes involved in a series of increasingly strange and terrifying events.

This is a typical haunted house story, yet it was psychologically fascinating, very suspenseful – and genuinely spooky. I always find poltergeist-type phenomena very disturbing to read about and there’s plenty of that in this book, from moving furniture and inexplicable fires, to tapping noises, ringing telephones and mysterious handwriting that appears on the walls. I had to avoid reading this book late at night because I knew it would scare me if I did!

I have said before that I think one area where Sarah Waters really excels is in creating believable and vivid settings for her stories. She has done this to perfection in the two Victorian novels that I’ve read, and does it again here with her portrayal of life in post-war Britain – the class system, the economy, housing, medical care and the introduction of the NHS.

Another thing I loved about this book is that it’s not immediately obvious what’s going on, which allows the reader to be a detective. Is Hundreds Hall really haunted? Is there a rational explanation for the supernatural occurrences? Or is someone playing a cruel trick? And if it is a trick, who is responsible for it? I think I suspected every character at some point in the novel! Then there’s Hundreds itself, which is almost a character in its own right – perhaps the most important ‘character’ in the book. It seems to be symbolic that as the house falls further into neglect and disrepair, the Ayres family themselves begin to fall apart one by one.

I was hoping that by the end of the story everything would become clear. However, after finishing the book I am still no closer to knowing exactly what had happened at Hundreds than I was at the beginning. The final few chapters of the book are very ambiguous and leave the story open to interpretation. It was slightly frustrating not to be given all the answers, but in the end it didn’t really matter because the story was wonderful anyway – and even a few days later I’m still thinking about it and wondering whether I’ve interpreted things correctly.

Unless you really don’t like ghost stories, I would recommend The Little Stranger as a great, spooky read, perfect for the RIP challenge or for Halloween.

Review: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I’ve had a copy of this book on my shelf for a few months now but I kept putting off reading it because, after seeing so many glowing reviews, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. Eventually I decided I would have to just get on with it, before I really was the only person left on earth who still hadn’t read it!

Somehow I had managed to avoid coming across any spoilers (and hadn’t seen the TV adaptation either) so was able to go into Fingersmith knowing almost nothing about the plot. As I don’t want to spoil the book for any of you who haven’t read it yet, all I will tell you is that Fingersmith is the story of Sue Trinder, an orphan raised by Mrs Sucksby in a den of thieves in Victorian London, and Maud Lilly, a young heiress who lives with her uncle at their country house, Briar. When an acquaintance of Mrs Sucksby’s, known as ‘Gentleman’, comes up with a plan to cheat Maud of her inheritance, Sue agrees to pose as a lady’s maid and help him with his scheme. And that’s all I’m going to say about it!

I was expecting a complex plot with lots of twists, and that was what I got. Unfortunately, I guessed what the first big plot twist was going to be! I was disappointed because I would have loved to have been shocked by it. (Actually, I think if only I’d read this a few years ago before I started reading so many Victorian sensation novels, it probably would have come as a shock.) I’m envious of those of you who didn’t see the twist coming because I can imagine it must have been stunning. Although this did have a slight impact on my enjoyment of the book, luckily there were plenty of other things that I did enjoy!

As I’ve probably mentioned before, the 19th century is one of my favourite periods to read about. I love the original Victorian classics and I love Victorian historical fiction too. Having read both this book and Affinity now, I can say that Sarah Waters has a real talent for portraying the atmosphere of Victorian London: the dark alleys, the narrow streets, the fog, the Thames. The locksmith’s shop at Lant Street, where Sue lives, is described particularly vividly.

Although I thought many of the characters in the book were very unlikeable, I could still find every one of them interesting, which must be a testament to Sarah Waters’ skills as a writer. I thought Gentleman was fascinating (funny how the word gentleman can be made to sound so sinister!). I liked the relationship between Sue and Maud too and the way the book switches perspective between the two girls, giving us an insight into each of their emotions, thoughts and motives, and allowing us to sympathise with them both.

I was really hoping I’d be able to gush about how much I loved this book, like the majority of people have. However, although I did enjoy it and couldn’t put it down at times (it didn’t feel like a 550 page book at all – I got through it in half the time it would normally take me to read a book this length), I don’t think it’s going to be one of my top reads of the year. Maybe it’s just that my expectations were a bit too high, which is not the fault of the book. Having enjoyed this one and Affinity, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Sarah Waters’ books, starting with The Little Stranger for the RIP challenge.

Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

This is the story of two women, both prisoners in their own different ways and drawn together by a special bond – their ‘affinity’.

Margaret Prior is a single woman of twenty nine who, following the death of her father, begins visiting London’s Millbank Prison as a Lady Visitor. Lady Visitors were women who voluntarily visited prisoners with the aim of befriending them and giving them comfort during the time of their imprisonment. However, Margaret is in need of some friendship and comfort herself. From her very first visit, she finds herself strangely drawn to Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist imprisoned for assault after one of her spiritualism sessions goes badly wrong, leaving a woman dead and a girl traumatised.  Selina blames her ‘control spirit’, Peter Quick, for what happened, but is she telling the truth?

The book is told in the form of diary entries – Margaret’s longer sections being interspersed with Selina’s shorter ones. Margaret’s diary entries are very bleak and miserable, as she is trying to cope not only with the loss of her father, but also with her feelings for both Selina and her sister-in-law Helen, the expectations of her domineering mother, and the sense of being ‘left behind’ that she experiences when her younger sister gets married and leaves home. Although I found it difficult to like Margaret, I did have a lot of sympathy for her – she had been labelled a ‘spinster’ and was bound by the conventions of the time, preventing her from studying and leading the kind of life she wanted to lead.  I really wanted her to find happiness with Selina.

Selina’s sections of the story are very vague and confusing and I didn’t fully understand them until I went back and read them again after reaching the end of the book. Her entries chronicle the events leading up to the death of Mrs Brink at the seance, and allow us to watch the development of Selina’s spiritualist abilities and the first appearances of the spirit Peter Quick.  Throughout the story, the reader is made to wonder whether Selina really has the powers she claims to have or if Margaret is the victim of an elaborate hoax.

I enjoyed learning about life in a Victorian prison, as it’s not something I’ve read about in so much detail before. Waters does a wonderful job of conveying the oppressive atmosphere of Millbank, with its labyrinthine corridors and gloomy wards.

I haven’t read all of Sarah Waters’ books yet so I can’t really say where Affinity stands in comparison to her others, but I thought it was an excellent book – suspenseful, moving and with some passages that were genuinely spooky.