The Little Stranger Sarah Waters

Virago, pp.501, 16.99

There are more lesbians in fiction than you could shake a stick at, of course. Graham Robb, writing about late 19th-century fict- ional lesbians, has observed that

the fin-de-siècle lesbian was educated at a boarding school or a convent. She was frighteningly self-possessed, wore dark colours, read novels, smoked cigars, injected morphine or inhaled ether, suffered from excess hair except on the head, spent too much time in conditions suitable for tropical plants, and was prone to horrible diseases.

She was such a common figure that historians are able to make generalisations about the usual descriptors.

Still, when Sarah Waters started her delectable career with three novels about lesbians in the belle époque, one had the sense of a gap being filled. These novels told of an aspect of 19th-century human behaviour which the 19th-century novel never found a way fully to encompass. Still more enchanting was her wartime and postwar novel, The Night Watch, which thought its way very thoroughly into a social milieu only narrowly rendered by novelists of the time. The butch dyke who was accepted by society during the war, when in uniform, and afterwards retreating to be an object of ridicule was that rare thing, an entirely original fictional type.

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Her fifth novel is going to be fallen on by legions of fans, of which I happily declare myself to be one. I don’t know how to break this, though: there are no lesbians in it. Not one. Brixton, Hackney and Hebden Bridge are bereft. How could she! She has taken the opportunity to tease her devoted readers with one of her main characters, Caroline, who has

mismatched masculine features … with some sort of commission in the Wrens …. I’d heard her referred to locally as ‘rather hearty’, a ‘natural spinster’ … she had the worst dress sense of any woman I ever knew.

The reader who is waiting for Caroline’s secret to come out as soon as the narrator mentions her ‘boyish flat sandals’ is going to be disappointed, however. She is just a girl with horrible clothes. Sarah Waters is amusing herself by toying with us.

This lesbian-less outbreak offers a good opportunity, however, to define a novelist not by her subject matter, but by her style and procedures. I think Waters is a novelist who finds her way to deep feeling through exploration of the most extravagant and artificial literary forms. The monstrous plot in Fingersmith — the twist-in-the-tail that no one ever forgets — somehow illuminates, despite its fantastic quality, the ordinary life of ordinary misfits. The backwards construction of The Night Watch might appear to make a mystery out of ordinary consequence, but found another way thereby to explore the secrecy and oppression of gay people’s lives in the period.

And this one is that most artificial and alluring of all literary forms, the ghost story. Ghost stories are on the whole only to be advised for the most technically competent of novelists. They are almost invariably studies in crescendo, and make demands on control and revelation at which many writers fail dismally. Few have sought to innovate in the form — added to The Turn of the Screw and The Jolly Corner’s variations, there is really only the ghost’s-point-of-view narrative. In Henry James, E. F. Benson, M. R. James, Susan Hill’s wonderful The Woman in Black and Penelope Fitzgerald, we mostly find the mastery of a form perfect in itself, not requiring modish variation.

The narrator here — I am sorry to break the news to Hebden Bridge — is a man, Faraday. He is a doctor of the approved type for narrators of ghost stories, awkward and emotionally rather inadequate. He is called to a decrepit country house where his mother, long ago, was a nursemaid, and gets drawn into the sad world of the Ayres family. A grand and somewhat frightening mother, a plain daughter and a son damaged both physically and emotionally live out their days as the house falls about them. There is some talk of a young daughter, dead long ago. The setting is immediately postwar, and the impoverished family are just letting the house go to the dogs — the taxation levels, it is clear, are punitive and painful. (The Ayres either haven’t heard of the National Trust’s Historic Houses scheme or, we are to assume, Hundreds Hall is just not good enough to draw the interest of the young James Lees-Milne). But do the building’s structural failings quite explain the odd noises upstairs? Or the terror of the young housemaid at being left alone at night? Or the inexplicable appearance of ill-written letter S’s on the wall — a wonderfully sinister M. R. James phrase — ‘under the paint’. Or — on a rare evening with guests — the way in which an elderly and placid labrador suddenly turns on a child and rips half her face off?

The horrors are brilliantly orchestrated, and rise effortlessly in scale and explicitness. The climax of the book, in which the mother is locked in the upstairs nursery while the poltergeist paces the corridor outside, dragging its fingernails across the panel, has all the mesmerising fury of M. R. James at his best. In some ways, however, the ghost story is not a classically orchestrated one. It becomes clear that we are not talking about a single revenant, but something more fragmented. In unorthodox fashion, too, the ghostly climax comes some way before the end of the story: the final act of violence happens mutedly, off-stage, in narration.

Waters knows what she is about, and the novel’s interests are only partly in the supernatural and the ghost story. Another strong presence is that lovely minor classic of the period, Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. As in her other novels, Waters has used the formal and conventional tactics of fiction — the stiffer, the better — to examine a real human situation. In The Little Stranger the conventionally emotionless narrator is pulled under the microscope; to the supernatural horrors are added the natural horrors of a cold and somewhat woman-hating nature. And, among other things, we start to consider whether his poor mother’s spirit might be playing some kind of part in these events.

I love a classical ghost story so much that I always regret any kind of departure from the genre’s beautiful conventions — I can’t help feeling that the threat of a poltergeist is dissipated if it isn’t one malevolent nature. (And Caroline’s final cry of recognition remains mysterious, seeming to rule her sister out, dead before Caroline was born, as the principal source of the violence). The fascination of The Little Stranger lies in its unerring evocation of place and time. It is a beautiful and expert divertissement, less deeply felt than Waters’s superb The Night Watch, but no less admirable for all that. This is going to be a career to look back on with great interest and admiration.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated