I came across Sarah Waters’ novel The Paying Guests a few months ago when browsing the Kirkus Reviews list of the best literary fiction published in 2014; I was a little disappointed in myself that I hadn’t read any of the books on the list so I immediately put three or four of them on hold.
The Paying Guests was the first one to arrive (and the only one from the list that I’ve read so far). It was a bit slow paced to begin with, but I immediately loved it for its rich characterizations and well drawn historical details.
The setting is London, in 1922. Frances Wray and her mother are upper class women struggling to maintain a large household after having been left with no men to support them. Frances’s two brothers have died in the First World War and her father has also recently died of disease, leaving behind an unexpected number of debts. They have already let go all their servants and Frances has taken over all the day-to-day chores; in order to keep their home they resort to renting out part of the house. The book begins as their new “paying guests” are moving into the upper rooms of the house. The tenants are Leonard and Lillian Barber, a respectable but lower class young couple who Frances finds at once repellent and fascinating.
Lillian is very kind but definitely not the sort of person Frances would normally associate with, yet in spite of their differences they form first a friendship, then a clandestine romantic relationship. Near the mid point of the book a crime takes place, and the remainder of the book is filled with a great deal of dread and suspense as the two women attempt to keep their new relationship alive under difficult circumstances.
Frances is initially presented as a somewhat prim character, living the life of a dutiful caretaker and looking disapprovingly at others. She is slowly revealed to be someone who is intrinsically unconventional but who has allowed herself to be boxed in by family obligations and societal expectations. Her friendship with Lillian becomes for her a last chance to escape the prison of her expected role.
The shadow of the first world war looms large in this book, and Waters manages to capture both the lingering pain of wartime loss and the beginnings of change in women’s roles that the war brings about. The Paying Guests is beautiful, challenging, and sensual, a great read for those who enjoy literary fiction and historical settings.
Fingersmith, a twisting suspense story set in Victorian London, is her most well known work, and was adapted into an acclaimed BBC film in 2005.
For more thought provoking historical fiction about female friendship try
Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask.