How Sarah Waters Won Over the Reading World

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By Victoria Best

The press release for Sarah Waters’ new novel, The Paying Guests, describes it as ‘the most anticipated book of 2014’ and for once, this feels more like fact than hyperbole. In a mere five books, Sarah Waters has made the transition from what could have been gentle obscurity in the ranks of gay and lesbian writers into one of the most read and admired novelists of our time, a writer who seems not to have put a foot wrong and to have garnered both critical and commercial acclaim. It’s a long way from being an Open University lecturer who believed she had one book in her and felt she should give writing a try.

The reception was almost uniformly ecstatic: The Observer called Waters ‘an extremely confident writer, combining precise, sensuous descriptions with irony and wit in a skilled, multi-layered pastiche of the lesbian historical romance’ whilst Harriet Malinowitz in the Womens’ Review of Books described the book as ‘utterly captivating, high octane narrative’. It was chosen by both The New York Times and The Library Journal as one of their books of the year and won the Lambda literary award and the Betty Trask award. But what really brought the book to the attention of a wider public was the controversial BBC miniseries that was broadcast in 2002. Screenwriter Andrew Davies was widely quoted when he described the adaptation as ‘absolutely filthy’ (Sarah Waters returned the compliment by describing him fondly as an ‘unapologetically dirty old man’) and the thought of graphic scenes of lesbian sex undoubtedly motivated news stories that were alternately enthralled and appalled – a winning combination.

That book was Tipping The Velvet, a ‘lesbo Victorian romp’ in Waters’ own words that grew out of her PhD research on the idea of history in lesbian and gay writing. Describing how she was drawn to the Victorian era, she said ‘I find it a fascinating period because it feels very close to us, and yet in lots of ways it is utterly strange: many of the things we think we know about it are stereotypes, or simply wrong.’ Despite the research she had done, Waters knew that she didn’t have the option of writing something that was authenticated by documentation; same sex relationships were more or less invisible until the start of the 20th century found writers like Rachilde, Colette and Djuna Barnes finally breaking the taboo in delicate, literary ways. But what she did have was a slowly swelling wave of curiosity and acceptance with regard to alternative sexualities in the 1990s. Authors like Ali Smith and Patrick Gale had shown it was possible to write about homosexuality with openness and panache for a mainstream market. Now Sarah Waters put lesbianism front and centre of a picaresque tale about music halls and brothels that was infused by their flamboyant spirit.

In an interview in 2002 in The Guardian, Waters said that ‘it just gave me a real kick to see the conventions of BBC period drama – carriages, corsets, lads bowling hoops in the street, etc – being hijacked for a thoroughly lesbian story.’ In the same paper in 2006 she said of the series ‘It got my mother using the word dildo, which I think has to be a bit of a victory. She’s not really a reader – TV is her thing. So once I’d been associated with TV, I’d made it on my mum’s terms.’ She had made it on anyone’s terms at that point; her third novel, Fingersmith, having been shortlisted for both the Booker and the Orange prize shortly before the series was broadcast.

Fingersmith was a perfect novel to be promoting at the same time because it was both similar and different. Readers and viewers who had enjoyed that vividly-evoked Victorian setting could easily relate to the world of Fingersmith, which had broadened its vision from the theatrical hi-jinks of Tipping the Velvet to encompass both the lowlifes of London’s criminal underclass and the educated, uptight, respectable elite. Once again burgeoning lesbian desire played a vital role, but if that surprise had worn off, Waters now had a wonderfully tricky, twisty plot to offer her fans. In interview she described how ‘Fingersmith is a pastiche of the whole sensation genre, a Gothic melodrama like Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – fantastic novels that spiral out of control and are often quite transgressive, if only in the way they destabilize the reader.’ Here was the beating heart of Waters’ capacity to thrill – she took readers where they were not supposed to be, to experience situations and circumstances that gave them a frisson of literary voyeurism within a reading experience that was continually new and surprising and yet also based on historical tropes that were comfortingly familiar. It was a splendid exotic cocktail.

The torrent of publicity that surrounded Sarah Waters’ work around this time gave her a moment’s pause. The new novel she was planning took place in a different era and did not contain her winning combination of corruption, repression and the discovery of a forbidden sexuality. At the time she said ‘I want to write about older, more established lesbians… older dykes who’ve had relationships with women and are just getting on with things.’ It seemed to indicate a shift into a new maturity that mirrored the progression of her readership. They, too, had thrilled to the awakening of her heroines’ sexuality, had watched fledgling relationships blossom and fail, and were ready to experience a new stage of lesbian development. The Night Watch was a departure from Waters’ older works in other ways, too, a character-driven novel with a deeply melancholic atmosphere that featured heterosexual as well as homosexual couples. It also employed the startling device of backward narration, beginning in the aftermath of the Second World War and travelling back in time to uncover the origins of her characters’ malaise. She took four years over the writing, declaring this to be the novel she had needed to rewrite more than any other. She needn’t have worried. Published in 2006 to glowing reviews, the novel was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Orange again, and Sarah Waters had proved she possessed exciting scope and range in her storytelling.

In an interview in Time Out, Waters admitted that ‘I’ve always worked hard to capture idiom and tone, and I’ve got a slight anxiety that all I can do as a writer is ventriloquise’ – though for most of us reading, that’s what you’d call an advantage for satisfying historical fiction. Waters’ ventriloquism was beautifully displayed in her next novel, The Little Stranger, which drew on the perenially popular tropes of the country house novel and the ghost story. It painted a wonderfully authentic portrait of 1940s post-war austerity whilst engaging with the fascinating breakdown of class that typified the era. Her narrator this time was a middle-aged man, the creepy doctor, Faraday, whose hidden agenda and lack of self-awareness made him an unsettling and unreliable viewpoint for the reader to inhabit. Once again Waters found herself on the Booker shortlist in acknowledgement of a subtle and clever combination of themes, brought together to create something unusual and yet finely wrought. This was what drew her to historical fiction, she said in interview in 2010, a ‘big attraction of the genre for me – taking on stereotypes of the past and finding ways to revive them, or to overturn them altogether.’

Is this the key to Sarah Waters’ enormous success, then? The clever and innovative collision of hauntingly popular tropes from the past, in such a way that something new and quietly modern emerges? It will be fascinating to read The Paying Guests and to see what she does next.

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Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.

Read Harriet’s review of The Paying Guests here: ‘This is her first venture into the 1920s and it seems to me faultless’

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