Each Sarah Waters novel seems to bring new ideas and facets of her writing to the fore. In everything I’ve read so far, though, I’ve found historical accuracy, earthy (but not porny) physicality, and a keen eye for social class and societal transformation. The Paying Guests is no exception.
The setting is London between the wars. Her father and brothers dead, Frances Wray and her mother take in Leonard and Lillian Barber as lodgers to make ends meet in their formerly-grand house. These “paying guests” – confessing to being a landlady with tenants seems shameful at first – are “of the clerk class,” but despite initial reservations Frances strikes up a friendship with Lillian Barber. And then a little more than a friendship. And then a lot more.
Trapped between the residue of the last century’s impossible Victorian morality, struggling to survive in a society shattered by war and upheaval, Frances and Lillian’s love affair seems to them like the only possible joy in the world. Its course drags them across almost every social obstacle in London, banging them against class barriers and social taboos, shady doctors and courtrooms, and chasms of inequality, as well as the common troubles of families throughout.
Some of Waters’ earlier novels have gotten described with words like “rollicking” and “lighthearted romp.” The Paying Guests is fun, but it won’t see that kind of faint praise. This is a truly well-rounded novel, with characters of great emotional depth, thoroughly-researched historical detail, nuanced social critique, and a satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion.