The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Reviewed by Becky Benoit

The year is 1922, and for Frances Wray, life should be good. World War I, a terrible cataclysm which irrevocably scarred England and robbed the Wray family, along with so many others of their sons, is finally over. The veterans have returned home to nurse their wounds, both physical and emotional, and the dead have been buried and mourned. With an end to hostilities and battles, life in London should be returning to the pre-war optimism and the long-established patterns of life which have held sway in England for generations.

But life is not as it should be, especially for Frances. Single and facing spinsterhood, Frances lives with her aging mother in a once-grand house in the upscale neighbourhood of Champion Hill. With the death of Frances’ father, the family’s finances took a definitive turn for the worst, and following the deaths of both Wray sons in the War, the two women have been forced to sell off the best of their possessions and finally, to take in lodgers.

For Frances herself, while the idea of taking “paying guests” is difficult to come to terms with, the arrival of newcomers in the dusty, silent house represents a new start. Frances has been sitting in limbo since the war ended. For Frances, the obvious alternative of finding a husband and settling down is more difficult than it is for most – Frances is a lesbian, a status considered highly shameful in England even in the post-War era, and her once-passionate relationship with her lover Christina has flamed out following its discovery by Frances’ mother. Frances’ life has narrowed to the daily drudgery of housework, the occasional trip to the movies with her mother, and painful monthly visits with Christina, who has been relegated to mere friendship status and has found a new partner.

When a young couple, the Barbers, take up residence in the house on Champion Hill, Frances is both discomfited and excited by their presence. Lilian Barber, the lively and beautiful wife, draws Frances to her like a moth to a flame, while her husband Leonard makes her uneasy with his overly familiar manner. The house is large, but not so large that the paying guests don’t make their presence known with every creak of the stair and visit to the outdoor lavatory. Inexorably, Frances finds herself drawn closer and closer to Lilian, despite the many barriers of class and culture between the two women.

After weeks of flirtation and tension, the friendship between Lilian and Frances flares into a passionate affair, carried on in the brief moments when Mrs. Wray and Leonard are away from the house. Made all the more exciting by its clandestine nature, the affair provides a lifeline of hope and excitement for the two women, who are locked into their domestic roles by the expectations of society and accidents of fate.

The affair is destined to be discovered, however, resulting in a shocking and terrible tragedy. What follows is a gripping courtroom drama that keeps the reader flipping pages (and there are quite a few to flip, it’s a pretty long book). Waters does an admirable job of exploring the shifting tides of 1920s society which still held tightly to old-fashioned Victorian mores and values, while embracing a new era of feminine freedom and quality. At the same time, she delivers a plot packed with twists and turns, expertly paced and delivered with excellent timing.

A warning: this novel is a bit slow out of the gate, but if you can get through the first quarter of the novel, the remainder more than makes up for the slow start. As a testament to this, I was able to read this book while nursing my newborn at 3 am, which says something about the plot and eminent readability of Waters’ latest.


4 teacups