Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

by Stephen Tall on May 27, 2015

PayingGuestsThe Paying Guests, Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is my favourite British novelist, even if (maybe because) she’s never quite pulled off the trick of convincing the Lit-Crit Establishment that there’s a whole lot more to her than accomplished Victorian (or in this case Edwardian) pastiche.

Her books are compelling page-turners; not so much for the plot — which, despite its dramatic sensationalism, is almost besides the point in The Paying Guests — but for the detailed rendering of the inextricably intertwined character and place.

Frances and her mother, Mrs Wray, are forced by their genteel penury to take in aspirant ‘clerk class’ lodgers, Lilian and Leonard Barber, to assure their home and pay the bills. As their two worlds collide (or, more accurately, result in awkward, chance encounters on the landing) Frances and Lilian find themselves both pulled together and driven apart.

At heart (and there’s lots of heart, and more besides) this is a story of forbidden and thwarted love. Yet, for all its claustrophobic domesticity, there are far bigger themes foreshadowed here, such as the confident assertion of female equality and the disruptive emergence of the nascent middle class.

All of this against the looming, devastating backdrop of the Great War, which finds allegorical echoes here as a bloodily gruesome tragedy taints all touched by it, leaving little but an empty, lingering mutual suspicion incapable of resolution.