The Paying Guests

Written by Sarah Waters
Review by Douglas Kemp

Frances Wray, in her mid-twenties, lives in genteel poverty with her widowed mother in a large house in Camberwell, London. It is 1922, just four years after the end of the Great War which killed both of Florence’s brothers and also contributed to the death of her father. In order to ease their straightened financial circumstances, they decide to take in lodgers – a young married couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber. Their arrival in the house takes a lot of adjustment for the Wrays. Frances, we soon learn, has a past, with a former lesbian relationship that she had to end in order to look after her mother. Her new household duties as cleaner, cook and so on, now that they can no longer afford servants, grates upon Frances and the limited life she feels constrained by. But once more her life is transformed when she starts a secret love affair with her new paying guest, Lilian. And there the trouble begins, for an unconsidered act by Lilian plunges both into an unforeseen crisis that threatens their relationship and their very lives.

As one would expect with Sarah Waters, this is a superbly narrated and observed novel. It is an in-depth study of a love affair between women at a time when such relations were taboo amongst both polite and working-class society. The tension of the plot carries the reader forward, eager to find out how the cast of characters react to the challenging circumstances. The author’s previous highly successful novels have been historical, and this is a fine study of the manners, mores and times of England in the early 1920s, a country trying to begin to repair the damage done by the War. Such is one’s engagement with Frances and Lilian that a sequel is really required by the reader.