Rachel Cusk recently reviewed this novel in the Guardian, and, to put it mildly, I did not think she did it justice. She wrote: ‘this novel’s descent into melodrama as a murder is committed… turns this engaging literary endeavour into a tiresome soap opera. Waters’ unusual gift for drama and for social satire is squandered on the production of middlebrow entertainment’. Given Cusk’s track record of character-driven, deeply observational novels such as Arlington Park, these comments obviously relate to the type of fiction she enjoys writing and reading. However, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t surprising – and in the words of a Guardian reader, commenting on the original review, ‘made my blood boil’. What is ‘middlebrow’ fiction, and why does the introduction of the dreaded ‘plot’ lower these imaginary brows? (Which summons up a brilliant mental image of the Bloomsbury group frowning increasingly fiercely over trashy 1920s novels…)
Frances and her mother have fallen upon hard times after the First World War. After the death of Frances’s father, who left considerable debts behind him, they have been forced to take in ‘paying guests’ – i.e., lodgers – to pay their bills, to the pity of their genteel middle-class acquaintances. The Barbers are certainly very different from Frances’s normal social circle. Epitomising the twentieth-century expansion of the middle classes, they hail from firmly working-class backgrounds but are on their way up in the world, with Len Barber holding a well-paid position as a clerk. Waters is brilliant on the tiny details that frame Frances’s initial introduction to the Barbers; to Lilian Barber’s carefulness as she walks across a newly-polished floor in her stockinged feet, to Frances and her mother’s horror as the Barbers briefly play loud gramophone music. She efficiently conveys the tiny awkwardnesses and discomforts of having strangers in the intensely private space of the inter-war, middle-class household for the first time. In other ways, too, Frances is struggling to meet the expectations of her class, doing all the household chores herself because they cannot afford a servant – although she does the heaviest work out of her mother’s sight, so as not to upset her. Frances, who was briefly radical and liberated during the war, has returned firmly to domesticity – although without a man to perform this role for. As we swiftly discover, she was in love with another woman during the war, but that relationship has ended.
For anyone who knows Sarah Waters’s work, the next twist in the story will be unsurprising. And indeed – I was re-reading Affinity recently – there are surface similarities between Frances and some of Waters’ earlier heroines, especially Margaret Prior, in that novel. They share an outward – and to an extent, inward – commitment to convention with a brittleness and bitterness that stems from the totally unconventional experiences that shaped their earlier lives. However, I’d go as far as to say that Frances is Waters’ most convincing creation to date. We feel that we thoroughly get to know her throughout the novel, and that all her apparently contradictory and confusing behaviour stems logically from her character and her experiences. It’s also the first time I’ve been completely convinced by a love affair in a Waters novel, with perhaps the exception of the very different obsession that develops in Affinity. In The Night Watch, for example, Kay is so fantastically written that Helen seems shallow beside her. In The Paying Guests, Waters makes both participants utterly real – although Frances will always seem the more complex, because we’re inside her head.
Cusk’s review emphasises that this is a novel of two parts, and I don’t think anyone would disagree. The first half of the novel is a careful build-up; the second half is a helter-skelter unravelling. I would also tentatively agree that the first half of the novel is better-written than the second; although this is something that is incredibly difficult to judge on a first reading, because I read the second half twice as quickly, and wouldn’t be surprised if I’d missed the fine nuances that Waters is so good at. However, I cannot agree that this means that the first half is a success, and the second half, a failure. What does Cusk mean when she suggests that the novel becomes both ‘middlebrow’ and ‘melodramatic’? Firstly, I find these comments ironic when it seems to me that Waters is deliberately playing with inter-war ideas of melodramatic, middlebrow fiction. The novel is overtly based on a famous court case of the time, and recalls much of the crime fiction of the era – although this would surely be ‘lowbrow’ rather than ‘middlebrow’ reading. Secondly, if she means ‘middlebrow’ in the inter-war, Bloomsbury group sense – the idea that middlebrow fiction convinces not-so-bright readers that they are reading something truly literary, when in fact it’s not – it seems to me that Waters is doing entirely the opposite in The Paying Guests. By daring to make such a gripping plot central to her novel, she is flouting the conventions of some literary fiction and risking falling out of the ‘literary’ category altogether. (The novel does seem to have suffered from this type of judgment. It wasn’t even longlisted for the Booker – which given the quality of most of this year’s shortlist is appalling).
Most of all, however, I object to Cusk’s statements because they suggest that if your readers want to read on, you must be doing something wrong. Waters’ novel is not melodramatic. In fact, it’s the opposite – she gives us the time and space to become deeply engaged with her characters before we are called upon to sympathise with them in more extreme situations. Nor is it middlebrow – a word that I’m not sure is very useful at all. I can understand why the two very different halves of the novel wouldn’t appeal to all readers, especially if you want a strong plot throughout, or prefer something totally character-driven. Personally, I loved it.