Sarah Waters, The little stranger
I’m not quite sure I know where to start with this one – the ghost story that isn’t. Or is it? The little stranger is my second Sarah Waters’ novel. I found The night watch riveting, and I did see and enjoy (but not read) her very Dickensian Fingersmith.
Like The night watch, The little stranger was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize. It’s an easy read, and rather a page-turner, but by the end I have to say that I felt a little unsure about what I’d read. In one of those interesting bits of reading synchronicity, I recently read Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s last stand. It is very different to this one, and is set a few decades later, but they both deal with the loss of “old families” and the breaking up of their estates. Waters, though, is the far superior writer.
So, what is the plot of The little stranger? Its first person narrator, Dr Faraday, was born to the working class but, through family sacrifice, has pulled himself up into the professional middle class. After a brief flashback to a childhood memory of Hundreds Hall, where his mother had worked as a housemaid, he proceeds to chronicle the relationship he develops with the Hall’s family when he is in his late 30s and practising in the nearby town as a GP. The family comprises the mother, Mrs Ayres, and her adult children, Caroline and Roderick. The book is set soon after World War 2, and the story he tells occurs over the period of about a year, but is told from the vantage point of some three years later.
Waters is best in her vivid description of the house, its inhabitants and its increasing dilapidation. I’m tempted to read the house as a metaphor for the society it represents – for the days of elegance and upstairs-downstairs that are now on the way out. And, extending this idea, “the little stranger” (or “dark germ”) that seems hell-bent on bringing about the house’s destruction could then be seen as a metaphor for the rapid modernisation that was occurring in post-war England and that was pushing the old families to the brink of economic and, thereby, social ruin. After all, servant Mrs Bazeley reassures the young servant girl Betty that “it” is not interested in them.
To support this way of looking at the novel, here is Dr Faraday early-ish in the novel:
But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkish carpets worn to the weave…
And here is Dr Seeley (to whom he later goes for advice):
The Ayreses’ problem … is that they can’t or won’t adapt … Class-wise they’ve had their chips. Nerve-wise, perhaps they’ve run their course.
Quotes like these support a social change interpretation. And yet, perhaps it is more psychological? Dr Seeley suggests that part of one’s psychology, one’s dream-self , can break loose and become some sort of “psychic force”:
The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop – to grow … What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps a Caliban, a Mr Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice and frustration…
Somewhat supporting this interpretation is Caroline’s report of her mother as saying:
the house knows all our weaknesses, and is testing them one by one.
And so what do you think? Psychological/psychic or social? Or perhaps bit of both? That is, the arrogant upper class family out of touch and unable to adapt (social) releasing all its weaknesses (psychic). I’m not sure that Waters makes the case clearly enough – partly I think due to the ambiguity posed by the narrator.
Her characterisation is in fact coherent and convincing, except for the narrator. How are we to read him? Is he genuine – does he really care for the family? Does he genuinely care for the house and its history? Or, is he a social climber who wants his way into the house any way he can. I must say I couldn’t fully work him out. Is he reliable? The tone is quite reminiscent of that in Ishiguro’s wonderful Remains of the day. Like Ishiguro’s butler, Dr Faraday tells the story from some time after the events, and he peppers his account with such words as “recall”, “I think I noticed”, “must have”, words that suggest that all may not be as he sees it. And in some ways it isn’t, but there is no intriguing twist, neither is there a traditional resolution. As I read I wondered whether he was stringing me along, whether he was the cause of the malevolence. He did after all chip away a decorative acorn from the house on his youthful visit:
I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.
If he was the malevolence, there is no evidence to suggest it is anything other than unconscious. And further, if he was, it certainly makes the whole class divide story more complex – and, more interesting.
Regardless, though, of how the end comes about, of “who” (one? many? none?) is responsible, it is pretty clear that the winners – if there can be such things in the messy game of life – are the old underclass. Hundreds was, in Dr Seeley’s view, “defeated by history, destroyed by its own failure to keep pace with a rapidly changing world”. It is not surprising, I suppose, that by the end the narrator is both “baffled and longing”. Social change never has been easy!
The little stranger
London: Virago, 2009