“Bored by Fear”: Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests

sarahwaters

Once, she never would have thought it possible for a person to be bored by fear. She recalled all the various terrors that had seized and shaken her since the thing had begun: the black panics, the dreads and uncertainties, the physical cavings-in. There hadn’t been a dull moment. But she was almost bored now, she realized. Bored to tears.

It’s not that I was bored by The Paying Guests, exactly — I found it as smoothly readable as all of Waters’s previous novels. Her sentences move with ease across the page, even when (as was certainly the case for long stretches here) the precise and abundant details seem in excess of what is really necessary to convey scene or mood, never mind plot or theme. Waters is a master of meticulous but imperceptible effort: her extensive historical research leads her neither to the dreaded awkward “info-dump” nor to the “fearless pedantry” I admire so much in A. S. Byatt’s ruthless stretches of exposition. How people lived, what they wore, what they ate, how they cleaned or decorated their houses, how they cut and styled their hair — it’s all there, but the artifice of her recreation is so artful it feels completely natural, even while you never forget you’re in 1922, not 2014.

Waters is a consummate story-teller, too, though her love of the long, slow burn was more conspicuous to me this time as a feature of her fiction, rather than a necessity of this fiction. She likes to take her time with her plots, and in The Paying Guests that means we’re 200 pages in before anything decisive happens and another 100 pages along before we reach any kind of crisis. The interest and momentum is sustained during this very gradual ascent to drama because Waters is so good at anticipation — creating it in her characters and also, because of her back catalogue, manipulating it in her readers. In a Sarah Waters novel, we know something more is happening than we can tell at first; we can be sure there is a twist, a surprise, to come, that will reveal what was really going on or how things were really working.

Or, I thought we could be sure of that! It turns out that the big reveal in The Paying Guests is that there is no big revelation. Events just keep on unfolding, until eventually we know what happens and it’s over. For a page-turner, then, it turns out that The Paying Guests actually is kind of boring, or at least anticlimactic. I enjoyed reading it until I realized there wasn’t more to it — that my expectations and speculation had exceeded what Waters was offering — and then I felt disappointed, and my critical curiosity deflated because I couldn’t see what, beyond its impeccable surface, the novel was actually about. Its plot is gripping as far as it goes, but what are its themes? What idea drives it? What does it do with its material, besides tell a story? (If I’m bored by simple suspense, it’s Waters’s own fault for setting the bar so high with Fingersmith.)

And then I read the author’s note, in which Waters lists some of her key sources, and then I felt my curiosity revive a bit. Maybe (no matter whose fault it was) I was reading for the wrong things. Just because it walks like a neo-Gothic or sensational duck and at times quacks like one too, that doesn’t mean The Paying Guests isn’t something else entirely — or a twist on a different form, one I also know a little about. The first book Waters cites, it turns out, is Nicola Humble’s The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, which is one of the sources I drew on myself when thinking and teaching about the Somerville novelists (among others, Humble discusses Dorothy Sayers, Winifred Holtby, and Margaret Kennedy). As Humble explains it, the feminine middle-brow novel “straddles the divide between the trashy romance or thriller on the one hand, and the philosophically or formally challenging novel on the other: offering narrative excitement without guilt, and intellectual stimulation without undue effort.” That sounds quite a bit like The Paying Guests.  The novels I’ve read from this category (such as Holtby’s The Crowded Street or Kennedy’s Together and Apart) also often challenged me by being flatter and more literal than is altogether helpful to the attentive critic. They are intensely domestic; they accept the limitations of personal experience rather than making those limits overt themes or formal problems. In Fingersmith Waters takes over the conventions of sensation fiction for her own purposes. I can see The Paying Guests as her doing something similar with the conventions of domestic realism that belong, themselves, to the period in which she’s set her story: taking them over, infusing them with the desires and frustrations and uncertainties of her characters in a way that modernizes them while still following their more pedestrian processes — the twisty endings I was imagining don’t belong in that genre.

But putting her aesthetic choices into that context didn’t end up making The Paying Guests itself more exciting to me. I don’t want to undersell it: it’s still a good novel (for elegant account of its strengths, see Alex’s post at Thinking in Fragments, all of which I agree with — except of course I think she missed a bet in not finishing the second half of Fingersmith — or Teresa’s at Shelf Love, which wisely and rightly notes that “The mysteries and tensions that drive the book are those of the human heart”). I just wish Waters had done more with her materials. Vera Brittain also figures in her sources — Testament of Youth as well as Chronicle of Youth — and, drawing on these, Waters develops a very believable picture of the grief and dislocation of families who have lost all their young men in the war; she also picks up on the double-edged gift of autonomy and ambition the war had made to women But since we can read Brittain, or other contemporary sources, for first-hand accounts of these moods and experiences, and since Waters has shown she can layer her novels in such thought-provoking ways, The Paying Guests seems a bit thin. There wasn’t a dull moment in it, but in the end I was almost bored by it.

Incalculably Diffusive? The Impact of the Humanities

From the Novel Readings archives, a response to early reports on the UK’s “Research Excellence Framework.” Collini’s critique (and this post) came out in November 2009 (sadly his piece now appears to be behind a paywall). UK academics can no doubt update us on how far his concerns have proven justified.

BalliolAt the TLS, Stefan Collini has a trenchant critique of the British government’s “Research Excellence Framework” for research funding in the universities. A key factor will the assessment of “impact”:

approximately 25 per cent of the rating (the exact proportion is yet to be confirmed) will be allocated for “impact”. The premiss is that research must “achieve demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society”. The guidelines make clear that “impact” does not include “intellectual influence” on the work of other scholars and does not include influence on the “content” of teaching. It has to be impact which is “outside” academia, on other “research users” (and assessment panels will now include, alongside senior academics, “a wider range of users”). Moreover, this impact must be the outcome of a university department’s own “efforts to exploit or apply the research findings”: it cannot claim credit for the ways other people may happen to have made use of those “findings”.

Collini’s main interest is in the “potentially disastrous impact of the ‘impact’ requirement on the humanities”:

the guidelines explicitly exclude the kinds of impact generally considered of most immediate relevance to work in the humanities – namely, influence on the work of other scholars and influence on the content of teaching

Collini points out a number of profound “conceptual flaws” in the proposed process, among them the assumption that all disciplines across the university can and should be assessed in the same way, and the pressure on researchers to devote their time not to the “impact”-free zones of writing and teaching in their areas of specialization (because influence on work in your field, for instance, does not count as “impact”) but on marketing. His concluding peroration:

Instead of letting this drivel become the only vocabulary for public discussion of these matters, it is worth insisting that what we call “the humanities” are a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity. To attempt to deepen our understanding of this or that aspect of that activity is a purposeful expression of human curiosity and is – insofar as the expression makes any sense in this context – an end in itself. Unless these guidelines are modified, scholars in British universities will devote less time and energy to this attempt, and more to becoming door-to-door salesmen for vulgarized versions of their increasingly market-oriented “products”. It may not be too late to try to prevent this outcome.

Though I agree it is essential to make the argument about the intrinsic value of “the humanities,” it seems at least as important to challenge (as he does) the mechanisms for measuring impact, because the “end in itself” argument risks perpetuating popular misconceptions about the insularity of humanities research, when in fact it is quite possible to argue that our impact on the wider world (particularly, but not by any means exclusively, the cultural world) is already substantial, but probably too diffuse to be measured even by the “thirty-seven bullet points” comprising the “menu” of “impact indicators.” Two academic articles I read recently provide some supporting evidence for this claim.

fingersmithHere’s Cora Kaplan, for instance, in a recent essay in The Journal of Victorian Culture:

Sarah Waters has a PhD in literature . . . ; she has said that her research on lesbian historical fiction suggested to her the potential of an underdeveloped genre. In its citation and imitation of their work, Fingersmith paid generous tribute to Victorian novelists; it also has a considerable indebtedness to feminist, gay, lesbian and queer critics and social and cultural historians of Victorian Britain. It would not be too frivolous to see Fingersmith – together with other examples of fictional Victoriana – in their synthesis of the detail and insights of several decades of new research on the Victorian world and its culture as one measure of the ways in which Victorian Studies has developed over the last half century. (JVC 13:1, 42)

And here are Patricia Badir and Sandra Tomc responding, in English Studies in Canada, to calls to take the humanities “beyond academia.” Offering a polemical summary of “what the humanities in general, fueled by highly esoteric post-structural theory, have accomplished in the way of widespread social and cultural contributions over the last twenty years,” they begin with the premise that poststructuralism began as a “theory propounded by a tiny priesthood of high intellectuals”:

But this priesthood had acolytes–graduate students at first, then, by the mid-1980s as “theory” inevitably made its way into the classrooms of ivy league professors, undergraduates. The undergraduates . . . did not uniformly move into Ph.D. programs, thereby assuring theory’s continued enclosure in a specialized community. They moved into a variety of illustrious professions and industries, including, most significantly, America’s powerful and ubiquitous culture industries. . . . [T]he Hollywood of today is ruled by ivy league degrees, most of them earned in the 1980s or 1990s, and most of them . . . heavily larded with humanities courses–courses in English, film studies, American studies, gender studies, history. These people were taught by their professors to value certain kinds of aesthetic objects. As they assumed positions of authority in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they began to patronize films and filmmakers that meshed with what they had been taught was cutting-edge culture. The signature films of the early 1990s . . . featured the “politically correct” identity issues and self-referential formal experimentation lauded in the postmodern classroom: Thelma and LouisePhiladelphiaThe Crying GamePriscilla, Queen of the DesertThe PianoPulp FictionThe English Patient. In television, . . . the transformation to postmodern forms has been even more radical: Buffy, the Vampire SlayerThe X-FilesAlias. . .

“One could make the same argument,” they go on, “for the field of journalism,” and they go on to do so, and to the “massive industry” in “‘literary’ objects” including not just books but adaptations. To calls that the humanities address the interests of “civil society,” they reply that “the humanities have, in a large measure, already shaped contemporary civil society”: “the fashions we are being asked to follow are our own.” (ESC 29:1-2, 13-15). I’m sure it’s easy to argue about which are the “signature films” of the 1990s, but the general case that specialist research in the humanities makes its way into the wider world by way of our classrooms seems presumptively strong–but that is just the kind of “impact” apparently discounted by the Research Excellence Framework.

I’m sure more (and perhaps more concrete) examples could be provided by most academics looking at intersections between their own fields of specialization and the world “outside” the academy. A concerted campaign to demonstrate the “impact” of humanities research might do as much good as insisting also that, whatever its “impact,” the work is valuable in itself. And it should probably be carried on not (just), as with my two examples, in the pages of academic journals, but as publicly as possible–in the TLS, but also through blogs, letters to the editor, talking to our neighbours–you name it. Many thousands of our students are out there somewhere, too, who could surely testify to the “impact” of our work, not just on their cinematic tastes, but on their thinking, reading, and voting lives. After all, the REF may be specific to the UK, but the narrow version of utilitarianism it represents is not.*


*Narrower than J. S. Mill’s, certainly: “Next to selfishness, the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory is want of mental cultivation. A cultivated mind – I do not mean that of a philosopher, but any mind to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties- finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects in the future. It is possible, indeed, to become indifferent to all this, and that too without having exhausted a thousandth part of it; but only when one has had from the beginning no moral or human interest in these things, and has sought in them only the gratification of curiosity.”

Recent Reading: Ghosts (or Not)

It was an interesting experience reading Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry one after the other. Both are well-written, original books by consummate story-tellers. Both invite us to imagine a lot of “what if” questions about our world, particularly about whether there’s more to it than we can see, whether we (at least some of us) live in it longer than our physical bodies do, and whether those remnants (call them supernatural, or spiritual, or perhaps metaphysical), if they are around us, might be trying to tell us something. Both seem self-conscious about their Gothic inheritance; both treat that legacy somewhat playfully, Waters, as in Fingersmith, showing herself especially deft at the evocative use of intertextuality (of course the peeling wallpaper in the house is yellow, for instance). The similarities seem to me to end there, however, except that in my estimation at least, both books also have in common that they are good but not great.

The Little Stranger is certainly the more ambitious of the two novels. Like Waters’s other period pieces, it is conspicuously researched without being tediously expository; she has the enviable knack of weaving in historical details (in this case, about life in Britain in the post-war years) as if they belong to the immediate perspective of the characters rather than the retrospective discovery of the author (or reader). She’s also extraordinarily sure-footed with dialogue, not just in creating voices for her characters but, again, in sustaining a faintly outdated tone that nonetheless feels completely modern: yes, people use words like “bloke” and “chum,” but not too often, and often enough with their own sense of irony at play, so that we can sustain our connection with them without losing our self-conscious historical distance. I’ve read a couple of historical novels recently that I thought really struggled with how to make their people sound. I think Waters grasps the important principle that people who might have spoken in what, to us, would be an archaic idiom, in their own moment were wholly contemporary and idiomatic, and she avoids the hazard of attempting versions of Olde Englishe or, equally annoying, having everyone speak with extreme formality, as if slang hadn’t been invented yet and wearing corsets (or the post-war equivalents) meant you actually were uptight all the time. She’s an excellent plotter, of course, too, and The Little Stranger is suspenseful without relying on cheap thrills. I think one way in which her expertise in 19th-century fiction has influenced her as a novelist is in convincing her that a good story can be the basis for a serious, intelligent, and subtle novel–can be literary, in other words.

So for all those reasons, I enjoyed The Little Stranger. But . . . I was also a bit disappointed in it by the end. It is not quite as well written as Fingersmith or The Night Watch, for one thing. It’s a bit prosy at times; the energy flags–or at least mine did, reading along (the long saga of the man with the burst appendix near the end, for instance). Of more significance, though (because after all, my own favourite novelist is extremely vulnerable to just that charge), is that I felt the novel did not exploit its ingredients as fully as Fingersmith does. There’s Dr. Faraday, for instance. As the novel went along I began really hoping there was more to him than there seemed to be. I could imagine a few pretty cool twists, either involving him more directly in the uncanny events at Hundreds Hall, or, from a more metafictional perspective, undermining our trust in his narration. The ambiguity or uncertainy on which the story turns–is it, can it be, a ghost, or at least some kind of a haunting, something “spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house itself,” causing all the upsets, or do they all exist in the minds of the characters, or in his mind?–is not resolved, which is fine (that’s how uncanny things stay uncanny, right?). But our inability to know for sure ought to have mattered more: think The Turn of the Screw. Or his inability to know for sure should have been more of a problem. Instead, unless I missed some crucial detail, he is, throughout, the perfect foil for the more psychologically susceptible Ayres family, a medical man, a man of science, always ready with the skeptical explanation, always taking the practical steps. At the end he admits to being “troubled” by the details he couldn’t explain away, but there’s no weight to his wavering, though surely there should be: if he can even entertain the supernatural explanation, where are we left, in the battle between rational and irrational, natural and supernatural?

The other interpretive option, of course, is symbolic, and here’s where the book is at once smartest and dullest. Throughout, it’s made clear that Hundreds Hall represents a decaying way of life, one out of step with modernity and under threat from all sides as the estate loses money and the house quite literally falls apart. This is a fight the family cannot win, unless it can adapt, and under the pressure of time, or history, the Ayreses prove maladaptive. Faraday sees the family with a real, if faintly bitter, nostalgia, due in part to family connections (his mother was ‘in service’ at Hundreds Hall) and in part to his own consciousness of the changing times. He loves the house first, and the family, including his eventual fiancee, as much because of their home as for themselves, as Caroline protests at one point. He is in an interestingly conflicted position, then, representing, as a doctor, the forces of progress, but as a man, regret for the erosion of a certain idea of England. So far, great: we have everything we need to grasp that the mysterious events at Hundreds Hall, and their catastrophic consequences, are heavily freighted thematically. Why doesn’t Waters trust us enough to bring things to a crisis without then laying out our options, as she does at the very end? Faraday’s colleague Seeley offers the “defeated by history” theory; Faraday rehearses the “other, odder theory”; and then he concludes with his own perplexity, and the possibility that all he really saw in the old Hall was his own reflection–his desires, his longings. All of those options are activated effectively enough in the telling that it seemed inept to sum them up in this way. At the same time, though, I didn’t feel the novel had shown me clearly enough what difference it would make which option I (or Faraday) ultimately believed. What are the stakes in this interpretive decision, or indecision? (Also, how much cooler would it have been if Faraday turned out to have been scheming all along to somehow get the house for himself? I was really hoping–half expecting–that he would turn out to be quite, if not wholly, unreliable.)

Her Fearful Symmetry is a lighter book, morbid, perhaps, in its fascination with death and cemeteries, but not scary or even really poignant. It too is meticulously researched: one of my favourite aspects of it was all the lore about Highgate Cemetery. I had hoped to get out there on my recent trip to London and didn’t; next time, for sure. While Waters is working with the uncanny possibility that there are forces beyond our senses (or our control), Niffenegger takes a resolutely literal and definite stance on ghosts: there are such, and they ‘live’ (exist? operate?) according to fairly specific constraints and possibilities, which you have to accept without too much quibbling or you might as well stop reading. (One of my problems with this book, much as I enjoyed it, was that it kept reminding me of Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze struggles mightily to move pennies and so forth but somehow never, say, falls right through the floor. Niffenegger’s ghost also spends a lot of time learning how to concentrate her “energy” enough to have an impact on the material world. In case you’re wondering, her big breakthrough is discovering that dust is light enough for her to move. Fortunately, the piano is dusty so she can write messages there! For some reason, she can fit in a drawer or pass through walls but not leave the flat. No quibbles. Just accept it.)

I liked that Niffenegger is not sentimental, about either death or ghosts. There’s a bit of a twist near the end, for instance, that I really appreciated because it kept the ghost consistent with the highly imperfect and self-serving character she was when alive. There’s no heaven in this novel, no angels, no starry reunions with loved ones, no catering to wishful thinking about everything being all right at the, or past the, end (The Lovely Bones, anyone?). Even love is not treated sentimentally here. A couple of the most intense loving relationships are claustrophobic for those in them, one, in fact, literally so, as the wife of a man with severe OCD chafes against living with the windows papered over and most of the contents of their flat in boxes. Life, we come to see, is not always all it’s cracked up to be–not, that is, if death is a viable option. But death, too, has its drawbacks: it’s cold, and you can’t smell people, or feel them. The novel’s climax is built around a quirky version of a sensational plot involving switching identities (with two sets of twins in the case, I kind of saw that coming, though I admit I hadn’t anticipated quite how it would resolve) and body-snatching (sort of). Here too, as with The Little Stranger, I wanted people to be more devious than they turned out to be: as I’m trying not to give too much away, I’ll just say that I wish the whole thing had been planned more or less from the get-go. But I liked that Niffenegger avoids the saccharine ending that would justify all the cliches about loves that endure past death. Perhaps she wanted to write a kind of antidote to The Time-Traveller’s Wife.

So where’s the problem with this one? Well, basically, I thought it lacked ideas. My dissatisfaction with The Little Stranger was that, good as it was, I thought it could have been even better, because it was smart enough to do so much already. In this case, the story really is all. I realize that in some quarters it is considered ‘middlebrow’ to expect a novel to be about something. I’m not altogether afraid of being middlebrow, but I should be clear that I’m not regretting the lack of a didactic moral or a message. It’s just that there don’t seem to be any ideas under all the activity in the novel, except maybe that love is unpredictable and potentially dangerous, and that dead people can be selfish too (does that count as an idea if it deals with something as hypothetical as the emotional status of the dead?). Here Niffenegger has taken as her setting a site filled, literally, with many great literary figures, many of whom write with great creativity and insight about love and death. But Her Fearful Symmetry doesn’t raise questions about, for instance, who framed that symmetry and what intention or design we might thus infer from it. It doesn’t exploit the irony that sisterhood can be as constricting as saving, which it might have illustrated with some lines from “Goblin Market.” It doesn’t put up an idea about how death is constructed today to put up against its evocation of Victorian death, which it deals with so engagingly through its account of the development of Highgate Cemetery. It takes us to a wonderful little park full of plaques commemorating acts of ordinary heroism, but this illuminates (at most) our sense of the character who loved to picnic there, not a commitment to “unhistoric acts” as the real foundation of life after death, when we join “the choir invisible.” What, ultimately, is this book about, then? It’s about an inventive cast of characters (and I definitely give Niffenegger credit for making them interesting and vivid) and a “what if” scenario: what if, after death, your opportunities to interfere in the lives of others turns out not to be over? It’s very clever, but that’s not really enough.

This Week in My Classes (November 25, 2009)

In Nineteenth-Century Fiction it’s time for Jude the Obscure. It always strikes me as a fairly gloomy way to wrap up the term, but there’s not much I can do in a course that’s supposed to cover “Dickens to Hardy”! Maybe because of the time I’ve been spending this week thinking about the “impact of the humanities,” I have more sympathy for Jude on this re-read than I sometimes do: the folly (Fawley!) and the collapse of his dream of scholarship and learning has poignancy precisely because (despite his later conclusions) there is value in that ideal, however imperfectly it is realized within the walls of the colleges that shut Jude out so pitilessly. Where would be the tragedy, after all, if it were otherwise? In the context of our readings this term, Jude fits easily into a long line of foolish dreamers, especially Pip (though his dream of becoming a “gentleman” is as foolish but less ennobling) and Dorothea. But he seems also to have something in common with both Casaubon and Lydgate, whose failures are touched with pathos because they, like Jude, can perceive the worth of what lies outside their grasp. This is my first time through the novel since actually being in Oxford this summer; not least because of the novel’s own attentiveness to the physicality of the city–its stones and walls and cobbles and spires and arches–I appreciate being able to picture it more fully in my own mind as I read. Jude is a novel that would lend itself well to a hypertext edition that would somehow activate both its literary and its visual references.

We’re discussing Fingersmith in Victorian Sensations. It really is the perfect book for this course, not only because its details hum with significance thanks to all the reading we’ve done in and about sensation fiction, but because Waters plays with the tropes and conventions of her Victorian predecessors in ways that involve us also with questions about how we (and our own critical and reading predecessors) have worked with that material. For instance, the biggest twist in the novel works–surprises us–partly because up until that moment we have seen just what we expected to see (notice how carefully I’m avoiding spoiling just what that twist is!). In fact, several features of the novel strike me as deliberately using our expectations of Victorian fiction as well as of Victorian characters against us. The most obvious thing Waters does is break apart the line between proper and improper fiction–a line already blurred or crossed, as we’ve discussed all term, by the sensation novels we’ve read, but trampled in her version. Not only does she include Victorian pornography (and the active trade in it) as a plot element, which could (but doesn’t) read as an almost patronizing move to expose the repressed other side of Victorianism, but she studies the (often unexpected, always disruptive) effects of desire on her characters in ways that make you reflect on the more oblique representations of similarly disruptive forces in mainstream Victorian novels. Desire is everywhere in Victorian novels: why is it so easy to mistake and condemn these novels as somehow repressed, and what advantage do we imagine is gained by being more explicit–particularly for women? Maud envies Sue her illiteracy; through her reading, she has become, perversely, disembodied, unsexed. The challenge, of course, is to write desire differently, and thus Fingersmith itself ultimately stands as a kind of counter-example to, say, The Lustful Turk and the rest of Mr. Lilly’s collection.

Summer Re-Run: Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

My new reading right now is mostly samples of the books I’m considering for my Mystery and Detective Fiction course, and I don’t have much to say about them at this point, so I thought that over the next couple of weeks I’d re-post and lightly update a couple of earlier things that otherwise would just be languishing in my archives. I have a few more regular readers now than I once did (hey, any number is greater than zero, right?), so, as the networks say, some of them may be “new to you.” I’ll write new posts too, of course.

Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

(originally posted March 5, 2007)

I’ve been eagerly waiting for the paperback edition of this novel, as I am a big fan of Fingersmith (such a smart novel, artistically and intellectually) and was thoroughly entertained by Tipping the Velvet. The Night Watch too was easily readable, deceptively so, I’ve ended up thinking, as I moved through it smoothly only to arrive at the end feeling quite dissatisfied with how I had read it. The backwards chronological structure, for instance, seemed an artificial device, until on a bit of reflection and then with some help from some of the novel’s reviewers, I began to think more about ways it suits the kind of character development Waters seems to be engaged in: it’s a kind of up-ended Bildungsroman in which rather than seeing people growing into themselves, we peel back the layers of their past experience to see what lies beneath the people they have become. Now I wonder if there isn’t a way in which Waters’s approach has, perversely almost, a strong forward momentum for the characters, as we realize how complex and contingent their ‘current’ identities are and how much they (or their situations) have changed over time: instead of seeing them as having arrived, we see them as poised just ahead of their next transformation: their next relationship, their next disappointment or tragedy, their next moment of hope. At the same time, the glimpses of beauty and hope (such as Helen’s face at the end/beginning) are so overlayed with our knowledge of change and (usually) destruction that the overall effect seems more disheartening than otherwise: it’s too bad, I kept thinking, that this moment here had to turn out the way I already know it did. One reviewer commented that the novel needed to be read twice, and I certainly expect it will seem quite different on a second reading, as the characters’ experiences that are presented so elliptically in the first section will feel much more concrete. I like the simplicity of Waters’s prose–also deceptive, as the novel is clearly the result of much research and is effortlessly laden (if that’s not oxymoronic) with period details. But I would also appreciate some exposition, a thicker layer of narrative commentary, even some philosophizing! Waters’s touch is so light that I find it hard to be sure what she thinks is important about the moment she has chosen, or why she develops the kinds of characters and linkages she does. Why write about the 1940s now, for instance? ‘Showing’ is all very well, but (and perhaps this is just the Victorianist in me) I like the author to collaborate more actively with me on these questions; otherwise I have the sensation of having seen or felt a series of images and moments, but I have not grasped a strong idea. For this, a little ‘telling’ would be in order.

Update: Having recently read Affinity, I’m all caught up on Waters now.

Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

I’ve been eagerly waiting for the paperback edition of this novel, as I am a big fan of Fingersmith (such a smart novel, artistically and intellectually) and was thoroughly entertained by Tipping the Velvet. The Night Watch too was easily readable, deceptively so, I’ve ended up thinking, as I moved through it smoothly only to arrive at the end feeling quite dissatisfied with how I had read it. The backwards chronological structure, for instance, seemed an artificial device, until on a bit of reflection and then with some help from some of the novel’s reviewers, I began to think more about ways it suits the kind of character development Waters seems to be engaged in: it’s a kind of up-ended Bildungsroman in which rather than seeing people growing into themselves, we peel back the layers of their past experience to see what lies beneath the people they have become. Now I wonder if there isn’t a way in which Waters’s approach has, perversely almost, a strong forward momentum for the characters, as we realize how complex and contingent their ‘current’ identities are and how much they (or their situations) have changed over time: instead of seeing them as having arrived, we see them as poised just ahead of their next transformation: their next relationship, their next disappointment or tragedy, their next moment of hope. At the same time, the glimpses of beauty and hope (such as Helen’s face at the end/beginning) are so overlayed with our knowledge of change and (usually) destruction that the overall effect seems more disheartening than otherwise: it’s too bad, I kept thinking, that this moment here had to turn out the way I already know it did. One reviewer commented that the novel needed to be read twice, and I certainly expect it will seem quite different on a second reading, as the characters’ experiences that are presented so elliptically in the first section will feel much more concrete. I like the simplicity of Waters’s prose–also deceptive, as the novel is clearly the result of much research and is effortlessly laden (if that’s not oxymoronic) with period details. But I would also appreciate some exposition, a thicker layer of narrative commentary, even some philosophizing! Waters’s touch is so light that I find it hard to be sure what she thinks is important about the moment she has chosen, or why she develops the kinds of characters and linkages she does. Why write about the 1940s now, for instance? ‘Showing’ is all very well, but (and perhaps this is just the Victorianist in me) I like the author to collaborate more actively with me on these questions; otherwise I have the sensation of having seen or felt a series of images and moments, but I have not grasped a strong idea. For this, a little ‘telling’ would be in order.

I’ll just add that as historical fiction, The Night Watch struck me as wholly convincing.