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


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.