As The Paying Guests opens, its heroine, Frances Wray, is trying to slow the alarming rate at which her standard of living is declining. Her disagreeable father has died of apoplexy; both of her brothers were killed in World War I; and without the financial support of male relatives and the help of servants, the home she shares with her mother in a London suburb has become increasingly difficult to maintain.
Neither the onerous burden of housework that Frances has assumed, nor her skill at tenderizing the cheaper cuts of meat, nor the forbearance of local merchants who extend her credit can disguise the fact that Frances and her mother have fallen on hard times. Four years have passed since the end of the war, and the Wrays—like the wounded veterans they see in the streets—are still shell-shocked, aware that an old order has crumbled and uncertain of how they will survive in the complex and chaotic new world that appears to have taken its place.
The only solution that presents itself is to take in boarders, and in the early pages of Sarah Waters’s novel, Frances watches in dismay as a boisterous young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, move their possessions—overstuffed suitcases, a standing ashtray, a wicker birdcage, and, most distressingly, a portable gramophone—into the rooms that once belonged to her brothers. One might imagine that Frances would welcome a bit of distraction to enliven the gloom and the tedium of life with mother, but at twenty-six, she has more or less resigned herself to a dull and lonely existence. The Barbers not only represent an affront to her pride but threaten to rob her of her few consolations, modest pleasures that include hand-rolled cigarettes, clandestine smoking in the garden, trips into London, Wednesdays at the cinema, and masturbation:
There were longings, there were desires…. But they were physical matters mostly, and she had no last-century inhibitions about dealing with that sort of thing. It was amazing, in fact, she reflected, as she repositioned her mat and bucket and started on a new stretch of tile, it was astonishing how satisfactorily the business could be taken care of, even in the middle of the day, even with her mother in the house, simply by slipping up to her bedroom for an odd few minutes, perhaps as a break between peeling parsnips or while waiting for dough to rise—
Gradually, Frances learns to accept the indignities of enforced intimacy with her tenants (“the lavatory seat forever left in the upright position…the clatter of a spoon in a glass as Mr. Barber mixed himself an indigestion powder, followed a few seconds later by the little report of his belch”). She even begins to grow fond of—or at least curious about—the attractive, dreamy, and understandably bored Lilian Barber, who spends her idle hours reading Anna Karenina, decorating her apartment with lace and ostrich feathers, and getting herself up in a “gipsyish” outfit, complete with a fringed skirt, Turkish slippers, and a beribboned tambourine. Frances is put off and then intrigued by Lilian’s mother and sisters, whose unruly children and crude talk of physical ailments make it clear that Lilian comes from a less genteel background than does Frances—an even lower social class than the odious Leonard, whose family thinks that he has married beneath him.
Soon after the Barbers’ arrival, Frances goes to London to see her friend Christina:
The two of them had known each other since the mid-point of the War. With the coming of Peace, perversely, they had parted on bad terms, but fate had brought them back together—fate, or chance, or whatever it was.
This reconciliation had occurred when Frances, seeking shelter from a rainstorm in the National Gallery, had accidentally run into Christina:
After the first awkwardness, the more-than-coincidence of it had been impossible to resist, and now they saw each other two or three times a month. Their friendship sometimes struck Frances as being like a piece of soap—like a piece of ancient kitchen soap that had got worn to the shape of her hand, but which had been dropped to the floor so many times it was never quite free of its bits of cinder.
Readers familiar with Waters’s previous novels—among them Tipping the Velvet (1998) and Fingersmith (2002), which feature lesbian characters—may guess that Frances and Christina have shared something more than friendship; this seems more likely when we meet Stevie, Christina’s short-haired, boyishly dressed, dashing female roommate, a ceramicist with “the air…of not caring if the world admired her or thought her an oddity.” A stronger clue is given us when Frances remembers her impassioned response to seeing a rip in Christina’s glove the first time they met.
But Christina is never described as anything other than a friend until quite a bit later, when Frances has fallen in love with Lilian Barber and is moved to tell the truth, in stages. First she admits that she has had a love affair “with a girl…. I’d like to be able to say it was terribly pure and innocent, and all that. It—well, it wasn’t.” Still more time elapses before Frances explains that she’d been in love with Christina, with whom she’d dreamed of sharing a life:
It was a thing of the heart and the head and the body. A real, true thing, grown-up…. Christina and I talked as though we were part of a new society! Everything was changing. Why shouldn’t we change too?
But those plans were foiled when Mrs. Wray discovered the affair and shamed her daughter into giving up Christina.
None of this would be a problem were the novel not written in close third person, a point of view that makes the reader privy to the character’s thoughts, and that, in theory, precludes the withholding of information by giving us a partial picture of that character’s consciousness. In fact the narrative here conceals all or part of the truth until its revelation can take place at a more dramatic point in the book. Frances gets through a visit with Christina (and a shorter time with Stevie) with the reader having only minimal awareness of the fact that Frances and Christina had been lovers and that Stevie has taken her place in Christina’s affections. Is the transition from passion to friendship ever so smooth and complete that we have almost no memories of an affair until a new love makes us confront the past?
Happily, The Paying Guests has enough momentum to carry us past these initial misgivings as we witness the growing intensity of Frances and Lilian’s attraction. Their romance is accelerated by fantasies of “round flesh, crimsoning in the heat,” by accidental meetings on the staircase, and by an amusing if unlikely scene in which the Barbers and Frances play a drunken game of strip Snakes and Ladders, which ends after Lilian has forfeited both stockings. As their secret affair heats up, we are drawn into the atmosphere of conspiracy and danger that simultaneously excites them and makes them despair of being able to find anything resembling domestic contentment. Will they be discovered by Mrs. Wray, who always seems to be returning home at the most awkward moments? And what will happen if Leonard finds out?
The early chapters of the novel are clearly and straightforwardly written, but when Frances and Lilian begin sneaking off for trysts in the scullery and the bedroom, the prose—which combines the graphic and the euphemistic, the lyrical and the super-soft-core—takes on the excesses of the bodice ripper and succumbs to the challenge of writing well about sex:
With only the nightdress and wrapper on her Lilian might almost have been naked, and the push and press of her breasts and hips, combined with the yield and wetness of her mouth, gave the embrace a sway, a persuasion…. It was like nothing Frances had ever known. She seemed to have lost a layer of skin, to be kissing not simply with her lips but with her nerves, her muscles, her blood. It was nearly too much. They pulled apart, breathing hard, their hearts thumping.
Despite such florid accounts of their ecstasies, Waters wins our sympathy for the lovers. We’re touched by the affecting scene in which, wishing to find some way of showing their affection in public, they discover the joys of roller-skating. They can hold hands and circle the rink arm-in-arm without exciting suspicion. And we understand the impatience, jealousy, and pain that Frances feels when Lilian is compelled to accompany her boorish husband on a brief vacation.
Though the couple longs to be as brave as Christina and Stevie, to throw off convention and live together openly, it seems unlikely that this will happen. Our doubts are intensified by the references to Anna Karenina scattered throughout the book, and by the fact that Lilian—somewhat hubristically, we may feel—compares herself and Frances to Anna and Vronsky. That this hubris might be the author’s is another distraction, along with our growing sense of how neatly the novel could be divided into the Masterpiece Theatre episodes for which it seems ideally suited.
Frances cannot abandon her mother; nor does Lilian have the strength of will to leave Leonard. We may worry that the lovers will come to grief, but not even the most pessimistic reader can foresee the catastrophic turn that their story will take in the final third of the novel. This last section is the strongest and most engrossing, though the least plausible. Even as we are reading briskly along to find out what happens next, we must ignore or navigate around holes in the plot, a route that is impossible to chart without “spoilers.”
No sooner do the couple decide to “be brave” and strike out on their own than Lilian discovers that she is carrying Leonard’s child and decides to terminate her pregnancy:
Isn’t it awful to think of that little egg inside me, doing its best to stay in there while I’m doing everything I can to get it out? Come on, little egg…. Fly away to some poor woman who wants a baby and can’t have one. Fly away! Now!
Only in a novel, we might think, would a woman talk like that to her “egg,” or have so much faith in the efficacy of an over-the-counter abortifacient and so little fear of its toxicity. “When it’s only just started there are pills you can take to put yourself right….They do work, if you get the right ones, and you take them at just the right time.”
When Lilian brings home a packet of Dr. Ridley’s Pills, for the Treatment of Female Irregularities, Frances can
hardly believe that such a thing was for sale in a West-End Chemist’s, in 1922. It looked like something that belonged in a museum of medical curiosities alongside a two-headed baby and a leech jar. The pills themselves, she discovered when Lilian discreetly exposed them, were hard and fibrous, and smelt pungent, like a bad sort of mint.
The image on the label, never described, must be extraordinary to make Frances think of two-headed babies and leeches, but Lilian is determined and takes the pills. She begins losing great quantities of blood, experiences agonizing pain, and becomes extremely sick. Only her timing is off. Leonard returns home early from an evening out with a friend and discovers his wife on the couch and his landlady carrying off a bowl of blood. During the argument that ensues, Lilian asks for a separation, Frances tells Leonard that she and Lilian are in love, and Leonard attacks her. Defending Frances, Lilian whacks her husband over the head with the standing ashtray and kills him.
What’s most remarkable about this scene and those that follow is the ease with which fictional narratives (in works that range from Crime and Punishment to The Wire) can recalibrate our moral compass so that we find ourselves hoping that the guilty will get away with murder. We know the women killed Leonard, but it was an accident. Lilian was protecting Frances from Leonard, who might have killed her. We’re on Frances and Lilian’s side, and we understand that no one would ever believe their version of events. How little it takes to make us understand and feel compassion for an invented character who commits a violent crime, and how rarely this happens in life.
Readers may admire the skill with which Waters has put in place elements that now become important. Didn’t we notice that ashtray among the items that the Barbers moved into their rooms as the book opened? And how will the fact that Leonard has previously been attacked just outside the Wrays’ house affect the investigation? Some may feel that things have been somewhat heavy-handedly arranged—especially when so many unlikely events follow the murder. Are we persuaded that these two women, one of whom has just suffered a depleting and painful miscarriage, can drag a man’s corpse down the stairs, out of the house, across the garden, and into a nearby lane—without dropping it?
With a tearing of muscles [Frances] heaved Leonard up, fought for and maintained a better grip on him, and then, feeling Lilian raise his ankles, she stepped backward and they were off. The soles of their shoes seemed loud on the path, and their breaths instantly grew laboured and noisy, but they went more swiftly than Frances had hoped for—imperiled in part by the weight of their burden, but more by the prick of their own fear.
Knowing how bloody head wounds are, are we to believe that Frances could so rapidly and thoroughly scour the house that her mother, returning home from a neighbor’s, doesn’t notice that she has walked into a grisly crime scene?
The cleaning-cloths went on to the fire, to steam and sizzle with everything else. The ashtray, the hideous ashtray, made [Frances’s] stomach heave again: there was a scrap of something pale, with hairs attached, clinging to its base. She plunged it into the coals, turning it to scorch and cleanse it; then, with a shudder, she wiped it and stuck it behind the sofa.
And are the police who arrive to investigate so dim and unobservant they overlook the bloodstains, mistake Lilian’s panic for grief, and fail to notice the inconsistencies and gaps in the women’s stories?
Perhaps Waters trusts that her readers, along with the many fans of BBC detective procedurals, will be so thrilled to see Divisional Detective Inspector Kemp—“neat, un-uniformed, clean-shaven, slightly tubby, with the watch-chain and round steel spectacles of a senior bank clerk”—standing in the Wrays’ doorway that they’ll willingly suspend their disbelief. Under the direction of Detective Kemp, the investigation proceeds: Frances and Lilian must identify Leonard’s body at the morgue, attend the coroner’s inquest, endure Leonard’s funeral, and submit to a series of interrogations during which the police keep coming close to discovering what really happened—then veering away from the truth.
How lucky for the two women that Leonard’s friend and coworker Charlie, with whom he spent the evening of the murder, turns out to be hiding something. How fortunate that Leonard and Charlie turn out to have been having affairs with two rather promiscuous girls. How convenient that Leonard’s mistress turns out to have a violent boyfriend named Spencer Ward, who not only knows that she has been cheating on him but who (we now find out) is the one who assaulted Leonard earlier in the novel. What a fabulous bit of luck that, when Spencer is arrested for the murder, he turns out to be too thick-headed, churlish, and arrogant to bother putting up much of a defense.
That an innocent man is on trial for a crime they have committed naturally poses something of a moral dilemma for the women, and at various junctures they turn against each other. In the courtroom, Frances finds herself resenting Lilian for having implicated her in this sordid situation, even though she has promised herself she would never blame her lover:
She gazed across at Lilian’s profile, and for a moment, just a moment, she felt a burst of resentment towards her so violent that it could only be called hatred. How could you do it? she wanted to cry at her. How could you involve me in all this? How could you have brought me to this place, this horrible room, with its beastly people…?
Eventually, Frances begins to suspect that Lilian has calculatedly engineered all this from the beginning, and the reader may briefly wonder if she is right.
Frances’s contempt for Spencer Ward, the accused and innocent man, is tempered only when she realizes that Spencer is a victim of the same historical forces that have killed her brothers, ruined her hopes, and reduced her to being an unpaid servant in her childhood home:
“He’s a thug,” said Frances bluntly. “But who turned him into one? The rest of us did. The War. Poverty…. He comes from a world where killing a man is something to boast about. Can you blame him? A few years ago, they were doling out medals for the same thing.”
Once again, fate—or the novelist—intervenes. A witness comes forward at the last minute to corroborate Spencer’s alibi, and, though the police are convinced of his guilt, the hapless punk is acquitted. Frances feels relieved of the terrible weight of anxiety:
They were all safe now, she supposed: she, Lilian, the boy. For, having once been cleared of the murder, he couldn’t be rearrested for it, and if the police truly believed him guilty then the case, perhaps, would languish…. Or perhaps it wouldn’t.
Despite the good news, or relatively good news, Frances sinks into despair and contemplates jumping from Blackfriars Bridge, until, in one last opportune plot turn, Lilian finds her. And there they are, on the bridge, together. Frances, who seems not to have read her Chaucer—the pardoner’s warning that murder will out—wonders if she and Lilian might still be happy. “Didn’t they almost have a duty—to make one small brave thing happen at last?”
Sarah Waters, three of whose novels have been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, has been widely praised for the depth of her research and her convincing use of historical detail. But isn’t the point of such detail to persuade us that what happens in a “realistic” historical novel could actually have occurred? Much of The Paying Guests provides the fun and suspense of a romantic thriller. But research can’t compensate for overwriting, nor can period detail convince the reader that this particular woman is urging her egg to fly away and, having lost huge amounts of blood, will rise from her sickbed to lug a corpse across the garden.