Wednesday 17 September 2014

Sarah Waters - The Paying Guests

“The rest of us become narrow and mean when we live falsely. I'm sick to death of living falsely. I've been doing it for years.” 
Both main characters of Sarah Waters‘ The Paying Guests are painfully aware that they are living false lives, because both of them think back to the moment where they could have taken a different path, made a different choice. Frances, the centre of the story, who dictates the perspective that we it through, was once in love with another girl and had the prospect of living a simple but bohemian life, away from the boundaries that her upper class parents set for her; instead she chose to stay with her mother after the tragic death of both her brothers in the war and the shameful demise of her father, who turns out to have made only reckless investments that have left them lacking the means to keep up the lifestyle they are expected to meet. Frances, dreaming of the life she could have had, only making visits now to a former girlfriend who is with someone else, doing what she was meant to do, tries to paint over the cracks in the large family mansion that her mother is no longer able to afford to keep up; she takes all the positions that have previously been held by now too expensive staff, she alone keeps up the pretence of both of them still belonging to a social class that is no longer within their financial reach. It’s all about keeping up appearances: cleaning the house while it falls apart around them, cooking meals while unpayable bills collect, making do with old unfashionable clothes. 
At the beginning of the novel, Frances and her mother have already had to make one essential concession to their predicament: they have taken in lodgers to haunt the rooms that have been empty since the death of all the male members of the family. Kindly referred to as “paying guests” to mask the fact that they are in desperate need of the money that comes in that way, Frances realizes what it means to allow strangers to move in to what she has turned into a castle to protect against any thought of the life she has left behind: she can no longer hide from the outer world, she is no longer able to forget herself in the endless list of tasks that she needs to perform, the housework, the meals, all the things that have turned her into a spinster in the eyes of a world that expects a 26-year-old woman to be married with children, or to at least have prospects. Suddenly, her quiet is disturbed by a young, middle class family, taking up space that was previously hers, watching her. The ways their lives suddenly and unavoidably mingle is a perfect metaphor for a strictly stratified society suddenly finding itself torn to parts by a war and by modernity. 
Leonard and Lilian are the lodgers that Frances and her mother have taken in, and they are perfect examples of the new world emerging after the war. Leonard works in the city but like his wife, his background is humble. They have the financial means to live where previously only the upper class has lived, but the space they are moving into is closed, clings to traditions and the idea that the different classes should not meet socially, much less live together so intimately. And yet, at the same time, it proves to be impossible not to be curious about these people now that they are so close: Lilian especially, with her passion of collecting strange artefacts and decorating their rooms with them, a clear and present desire for adventure that the life that her husband provides for her doesn’t offer, just as much as Frances’ life no longer has any possibilities beyond just struggling to survive and keep up appearances. The two women become fast friends in their respective isolation, and then lovers, as the true extent of Lilian’s alienation from her husband emerges, and the fact that hers is a very unhappy marriage, one that only came into existence because she was expecting a child that she later lost. Both of them possibly lead lives that they aren’t meant to have, trapped and victims of their circumstances and violently unhappy because of it; expect sadly, the very structure of The Paying Guests makes it rather impossible to truly ever get under Lilian’s skin. She remains remote, an interesting oddity haunting the mansion, the person that Frances falls in love with but never truly knows, with so many questions unanswered that the second half of the book thrives on the lack of trust and intimacy between them. 
They fall in love, but the world that both of them live in makes it impossible to be together, ironically, Lilian’s more than Frances’. Frances is already an alien, a spinster, someone who chose not to do what she was meant to, but Lilian has a husband, whose career dictates that he must be conventionally married, regardless of how profoundly unhappy he is in that marriage, how much he rages against the constraints of it (Leonard, much like Lilian, remains remote, but there are hints that he is just as trapped as she is, even if society affords him more options than his wife). Plans are made, some of the m more devious than others. In a moment of crisis, being trapped results in the ultimate tragedy, and Leonard dies – still unquestioningly in love, the two women decide to cover it up to the best of their ability, to make a run for their freedom, but the cost of it is almost unbearable, a constant panic that they might be found out, endless guilt when someone else whom they know is innocent of that particular crime is blamed and put on trial. The limits of their intimacy become clear almost immediately – as much as Frances loves Lilian, she doesn’t truly trust her and know her enough to rule out that she isn’t being played by a woman simply wanting money and freedom, and the book’s perspective dictates that we, the readers, aren’t certain either, as Frances drifts further and further into paranoid suspicion. Perhaps one of the strengths of the novel is that it doesn’t become obvious until the very end what kind of novel it is, especially if the you’ve read Waters’ other stories – if Lilian is setting Frances up for the fall, if everyone involved is just willing to sacrifice anything to save their own skin, or if this is a truly romantic story with a murder that is more of a misadventure than anything else. On the other hand, remembering Waters’ other novels also makes this one a bit frustrating: Fingersmith does a brilliant job of providing both perspectives, mapping out two rich inner lives, two struggles for freedom, and is perhaps her best attempt at capturing women trapped in a time that does not afford them the liberty to choose their own path, and the rage that comes with it. Lilian, sadly, in all her colourfulness, remains distant and elusive, and so the ending of the novel is not truly satisfying. This is a brilliant and detailed portrayal of a society that is fundamentally changing, and the effect this has the women and man who are part of it, but it is also not an entirely successful story about two people who are in love and want nothing more than to have a safe space all to themselves – and the fact that this simple, comforting dream can sometimes have violent consequences if an entire value system is geared against women who love other women. 

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