Deep Waters: Sally Zigmond Explores the Work of Sarah Waters

Sally Zigmond

The Paying GuestsBy 2002, Sarah Waters had published three excellent historical novels, but it wasn’t until then that Andrew Davies’s infamous BBC TV adaptation of her 1998 novel, Tipping the Velvet, brought her to wide public attention with what she called “a kind of romp,” thus belying all her deep research.

Sarah Waters makes no secret of her lesbianism. She does not dwell on it. “That’s how it is in my life, and that’s how it is, really, for most lesbian and gay people, isn’t it? It’s sort of just there in your life.”

Her latest novel, The Paying Guests, was published by Virago in August 2014 in the UK, and by Riverhead a month later in the US. It was reviewed here in the United Kingdom in The Financial Times, The Times, The Guardian, and The Sunday Times, which, incidentally, also featured a rare and pleasing interview with this reclusive author.

The reviews were, on the whole, favourable, especially that from Charlotte Mendelson in the Financial Times, whom I believe understood the novel far better than the others. She wrote: “I have tried and failed to find a single negative thing to say about it.” Most of the other reviewers, female as well as male, made much of what I consider lesbian prurience.

That The Paying Guests has, at its heart, a passionate lesbian love affair is less important to me than its study of social class. Like it or not, class distinction remains present in Britain, even though it is increasingly blurred. The title itself is steeped in social nuance. Mrs Wray considers herself far too gentile to say ‘tenants’ or, worst of all, ‘lodgers’ when she and her unmarried daughter, Frances, are forced to rent out rooms — not just because of the state of the British economy following World War One, but due to the recently-deceased Mr Wray’s bad financial mismanagement.

So, into their home bursts the vibrant young couple Leonard and Lillian Barber, who turn their lives upside down. A passionate love affair, a murder, and its ensuing trial complete with unexpected outcome brings the novel to a gripping conclusion. To me, The Paying Guests brings Waters to the height of her powers with a stunning depiction of England at a pivotal period in its history.

That Waters is sidelined by the literary intelligentsia (she rarely appears on the Man Booker long-lists, let alone the final six and The Paying Guests even failed to appear at all this year) is, I believe, because her novels sell in huge quantities and top the best-sellers, unlike those of Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, for example.

I also have another theory. In Louise Wise’s Sunday Times interview, Waters says, “I’m fine with middlebrow … it’s a more old-fashioned way of writing, which is probably why it lends itself to adaptation.” She continues, “they’re not about literary experimentation.”

Or as Rachel Cusk, in her Guardian review, puts it: “This [the 1920s] was a period in which a new kind of literary realism was born, in particular a female style, as a result of the loss of men and male authority and values. Writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor could use the domestic novel to grapple with the intricacies of a broken civilization and the reconfiguring of gender and social roles it entailed. This style might be described as the attempt to depict the loss of property while remaining proper, and the result was some exquisitely tortured and distinctive prose that did not age well and consequently has been undervalued – though never entirely neglected.”​

Waters does not aim for a complex, difficult read or any experiment in style or tone. That she is thought of highly by a large, mainly female readership, whether heterosexual or lesbian, should not deter her position as one of today’s finest novelists.

About the contributor: Sally’s Victorian novel, Hope Against Hope (2011), is published by Myrmidon Books. She is currently working on a 14th century novel set in a small women’s priory in a remote Yorkshire moorland dale. For more information, check out her blog at


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 70, November 2014

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