Frontlist: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Backlist: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
It’s hard to believe that it was once illegal in nations like our own for consenting adults to engage in same-sex lovemaking. Thank goodness, too, that writers like England’s Sarah Waters are here to remind us of what it was like in more ignorant times when two women could not so much as go out on a date, let alone allow anyone to see them hold hands.
Waters has elegantly and eloquently mined her country’s past for historical interstices that highlight how legislation, culture, class, and fashion have affected lesbians of different ages, stations, occupations, and temperaments. In Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, Waters created atmospheres of lush Victorian desire, while The Night Watch took place during World War II’s Battle of Britain. The Little Stranger, her bestselling 2010 novel, was a book less about sexuality than suspense, but now, with The Paying Guests, the author returns to her theme of love thwarted by mores and manners.
It’s 1922, and post-World-War-One London is a city on edge as people try to cope with losses of fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles, while at the same time dealing with servicemen returned from the conflict with all manner of injuries. Many families, shorn of male relatives, find their finances in dire straits, and that’s what happens to Frances Wray and her mother, who are forced to take in lodgers, or “paying guests.” When Leonard and Lillian Barber take over the large upstairs bedroom, more than the household order is upset — Frances and Lillian fall in love. As the people around them grow uncomfortable and anxious with their interactions, something happens that turns this passionate romance into a court procedural — and the fact that Waters handles both sides of this fascinating, suspenseful read equally well shows you why it’s already wound up on England’s Man Book Prize shortlist.
Although Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth was not a historical novel when she wrote it in 1905, it now provides readers with a portrait of fin-de-siecle New York City that is as carefully and delicately constructed as a piece of lace — or a spider’s web. The vice, this time around, is not illegal sex, but drug addiction: After failing to secure a good marriage, Lily Bart falls further and further down the rungs of Manhattan society, finally succumbing to an overdose of the sleeping draught she’s been taking to cope with her anxieties and deprivations. If you’ve never read this classic, consider it, like The Paying Guests, a reminder of how tenuous women’s positions can be when they are not allowed to love, live, and work as the equals of men.