A chilling and vividly rendered ghost story set in postwar Britain, by the bestselling and award-winning author of The Night Watch and Fingersmith.
Sarah Waters’s trilogy of Victorian novels Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith earned her legions of fans around the world, a number of awards, and a reputation as one of today’s most gifted historical novelists. With her most recent book,The Night Watch, Waters turned to the 1940s and delivered a tender and intricate novel of relationships that brought her the greatest success she has achieved so far. With The Little Stranger, Waters revisits the fertile setting of Britain in the 1940s—and gives us a sinister tale of a haunted house, brimming with the rich atmosphere and psychological complexity that have become hallmarks of Waters’s work.
The Little Stranger follows the strange adventures of Dr. Faraday, the son of a maid who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. One dusty postwar summer in his home of rural Warwickshire, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline—its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life? Little does Dr. Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.
Abundantly atmospheric and elegantly told, The Little Stranger is Sarah Waters’s most thrilling and ambitious novel yet.
Sarah Waters, 35, was born in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales, United Kingdom. She studied English Literature at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, at the universities of Kent and Lancaster. As a student she lived for two years in Whitstable, the sea-side town—famous for its oysters—in which her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, is partly set. In 1988 she moved to London; her first full-time job was in an independent bookshop; later she worked in public libraries. In 1991 she decided to return to postgraduate study, and she spent the next three years writing a Ph.D. thesis, on lesbian and gay historical fiction. She developed a daily writing routine, and a passion for language and composition. She had articles on gender, sexuality, and history published in various scholarly journals, including Feminist Review, Journal of the History of Sexuality, and Science as Culture.
But while working on her thesis, and becoming increasingly interested in London life of the nineteenth century, Waters began to conceive the historical novel that would become Tipping the Velvet. With the thesis complete, and supporting herself with bits of teaching and part-time library work, she started to write. The novel was finished in just over a year, and was published in the U.K. by Virago (1998) and in the U.S. by Riverhead (1999). The BBC is in the process of adapting the book into a major series with director Andrew Davies, who also directed the BBC’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.
By 1991, Waters had already begun her second novel, Affinity. This was completed with help from a London Arts Board New London Writers Award, and appeared in the U.K. in 1999 and in the U.S. in 2000. Waters taught for a time for the Open University, a national educational institution offering undergraduate schooling to mature students from a range of social backgrounds. She has also tutored on creative writing programs. She published articles on literature as recently as 1999, but now devotes herself full time to the writing of fiction. Her third novel, Fingersmith, was completed in 2001, and she is currently at work on her next book. She still lives in London, a city she finds endlessly inspiring; but she dreams, too, of returning to a life by the sea.
Sarah Waters made the Granta list for 2003.
Q. You established your literary reputation with a trilogy of novels set in Victorian England – Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith. Your most recent novel, The Night Watch, was set in London during World War II. You’ve set THE LITTLE STRANGER in the British countryside just after the war. Why did you choose that time and place?
Well, each of my Victorian novels sort of grew out of the one before it: every time I finished one, I was still so interested in the nineteenth century I wanted to write another, exploring a slightly different aspect of Victorian life. And something similar has happened to me with the 1940s. Having written The Night Watch, I found that there were lots of features to the period that still really fascinated me – in particular, the class crisis that took place after the war. It’s a period that I think lots of people in the UK are interested in right now, because although it’s still relatively close, it will soon disappear from living memory. Lots of us are belatedly waking up to the fact that our parents and grandparents lived through this absolutely extraordinary time – a time that dramatically shaped our own society and culture.
Q. Why did you decide to write a haunted house story?
I’ve always loved spooky stories. As a child, I never read any of the children’s classics; instead I read ghost stories, and watched horror films. I’m still a fan of the gothic; Affinity and Fingersmith are both very gothic, but even my other novels, I think, have their gothic moments. So it’s been a lingering ambition of mine to embrace the genre and write a really smart ghost story – by which I mean a story that’s both unnerving and convincing; a story of the uncanny which rings psychologically true, and is a good piece of literature in its own right. I hope The Little Stranger is that story – even though, technically, it may not really be a ghost story at all. There’s definitely some kind of haunting going on; the interesting question for me was: what’s at the root of it?
Q. Who are the members of the Ayres family, and what situation do they find themselves in two years after the end of the war?
The Ayreses are a mother, a daughter, and a son. They’re an old gentry family, living in a rather splendid Georgian country house called Hundreds Hall, but like lots of gentry and aristocratic families in Britain just after the war, they are struggling to maintain their old way of life. Their income has dried up, and the house is falling to bits around them. Mrs. Ayres is living on her memories of grander days; her plain daughter Caroline is lonely and frustrated, but doing what she can to keep things going; Roderick, the heir, has returned from war with physical and psychological scars. Crucially, the family are unable to find servants; working-class people now have more independence, and are finding better jobs elsewhere. When the novel opens, the Ayreses are making do with a single housemaid, Betty – a fourteen year-old with an unhappy home life, who’s effectively as trapped in the house as her employers. So there are lots of tensions and frustrations, all bubbling away under the surface…
Q. What is Dr. Faraday’s connection to Hundreds Hall?
Dr. Faraday begins to get to know the family one summer, when he is called out to the Hall to treat Betty for a minor ailment. But his relationship with Hundreds predates that visit: his mother was once a servant there, and he has vivid memories of seeing the Hall as a ten year-old boy, when the house and its gardens were still glorious. So he is appalled at the place’s decline, and keen to do what he can to ease the Ayreses’ various burdens. His friendship with the family is complicated, however, by his lingering class resentments, by his growing attraction to Caroline – and more importantly, by the oddness and drama of events that begin to occur in the house as the hot summer gives way to a dark and gloomy winter.
Q. What happens at Hundreds Hall that makes some of the characters believe it is haunted? And without giving away too many surprises, what effect does it have on the family?
The family is left in a demoralized state after a shocking incident at a party. Roderick seems particularly badly affected, becoming anxious and secretive, and while Dr. Faraday believes his behaviour to have its roots in nervous exhaustion, there are hints that there may be something odder at work – possibly something supernatural. Betty, the maid, believes the house to be haunted; Caroline is uneasy; Mrs. Ayres is troubled with memories of her first child, Susan – a daughter who died many years before. Soon Roderick’s behaviour tips over into something more alarming, and, with the appearance of strange sounds and manifestation, the house begins almost to take on a life of its own. At last even Dr. Faraday’s scientific assurances are challenged, as he begins to wonder whether Hundreds might actually be haunted – and if so, by what?
Q. Britain was undergoing great social and political change in the postwar period, which you connect to the difficulties of the Ayres family. What was happening in British society at this time?
It was a time of real transformation. The Second World War was a national trauma, but it was also in many ways fantastically liberating. In The Night Watch I looked at the freedoms gained in wartime by women and by gay people; The Little Stranger is more about class. During the war, the British class structure got a bit of a shake up. The return to peacetime saw ordinary people wanting a better deal for themselves and their families: decent housing, education, and health care. Men and women who might once have gone into domestic service were now able to find better-paid jobs, and more independence, in new post-war industries. They were supported by the Labour party, which came to power on the back of an astonishing landslide victory in 1945. For the upper classes, an old way of life had disappeared: the world seemed to be sliding into chaos. Novels and diaries of the period are full of angst about the situation – an angst which unfortunately often manifests itself as snobbery, as a fear and loathing of working-class people. In The Little Stranger, I suppose I’ve pushed this angst to its logical conclusion: I have a gentry family in violent decline, being terrorized by forces they don’t understand and can’t control.
Q. Medicine is changing as well, as Britain moves to establish a National Health Service for the first time. How does this affect Dr. Faraday?
Yes, this was one of the great successes of the post-war Labour government: the granting of free medical treatment, by right, to every British citizen. Until then, doctors had had to run their practices as businesses, in competition with local rivals. Dr. Faraday is struggling to make a profit from his, but at the same time he’s suspicious of the forthcoming Health Service – as most GPs of the period were – because he fears he’ll lose control of his work and income. So he has ambivalent feelings about all the social changes, just as the Ayreses have.
Q. What role does social class play in this novel, particularly in the relationship between Dr. Faraday and Caroline Ayres?
Dr. Faraday is a working-class boy who has been put through medical school on grants and scholarships. He has worked hard to get where he is, and is still ambitious, but he has a residual sense of inferiority and class resentment. So his relationship with Caroline is a complicated one. She’s a rather plain young woman, disadvantaged by the gender mores of the time, and well on her way to becoming a spinster; he is drawn to her liveliness and wit, but also attracted to her because of what she represents – class, and status. He sees her as a way into a kind of life he has always admired; she feels stifled by that life, and perhaps sees him as a way out of it… But they’re also genuinely fond of each other, and I found their relationship one of the most interesting aspects of the novel to write. I hadn’t planned it; it developed by itself. That’s always a nice experience for an author.
Q. We never learn Dr. Faraday’s first name. Why?
As it happens, that wasn’t something I intended at the start. But everyone in the novel calls him by his title, and I got so used to calling him ‘Doctor’, too, that I soon realized I didn’t actually know what his first name was. Then I saw that that made sense: he’s a man who to a certain extent has problems with intimacy; he’s someone who has struggled so hard to attain a professional middle-class identity, he can’t really shake that identity off. He’s the novel’s narrator; he observes and reports; but he never quite sees into his own depths – and, except for odd glimpses, neither do we. By contrast, Betty, the put-upon Hundreds servant, has no surname. She’s someone who exists for the other characters purely in terms of her social function, too.
Q. The Little Stranger is your first book with a male narrator. Why?
Well, I needed a narrator who was mobile, in both a geographical and a social sense – someone who could become a frequent visitor to Hundreds Hall, who could discover the family’s secrets and vulnerabilities; someone who could report on their sometimes terrifying experiences with a sense of caution and distance. … A doctor seemed perfect. And though there were plenty of female doctors in the period, they were still unusual enough to cause tension, especially in rural communities, and I wanted the main conflicts here to be about class rather than gender. I was slightly nervous of the male voice at first; I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it ring true. But I got to really enjoy ‘inhabiting’ Dr. Faraday. I found myself responding differently to the other characters through him. It made writing about desire, for example, very different. In my earlier book, my female narrators necessarily experience their desire for other women in rather furtive, troubled ways. Dr. Faraday’s desire for Caroline, by contrast, has a weight of entitlement and male privilege behind it – and that was quite liberating.
Q. Also, this is your first novel that does not include major lesbian and gay characters. Was there any particular significance to that decision?
No – it just turned out that way. It has always felt right and important to me to write about gay characters, and I’ve no doubt at all that I’ll return to lesbian themes in future books. But this story just came along and took hold of my imagination, and it was very clearly not a story with a lesbian element. I wouldn’t call it a heterosexual story, either, though it does have a romance in it. I actually think it’s quite a ‘queer’ novel, in all sorts of ways. Caroline is not your average feminine woman; Roderick, in a sense, is more feminised than she is; and Dr. Faraday’s desires are pretty complicated…
Q. Do you believe in ghosts?
Well, I’m just not sure. I find it hard to believe that spirits are floating around in some sort of afterlife, but I think it’s possible that people can leave an impression in the world, some charge or energy, that lingers on after they die… I was recently invited to spend the night in a country house with some paranormal researchers, and I realised almost as soon as we turned off the lights that I really, really didn’t want anything supernatural to happen – I was quite freaked out by the possibility. I like the idea of it, in other words – but not the reality. If there is some sort of membrane between our world and the world of spirits, I don’t want to pierce it, for fear of what might come tumbling through…
Q. Dr. Faraday mentions the superstitions of many of the poor people he treats – beliefs that seem outlandish to us today. How does this environment affect his reaction to what is happening at Hundreds Hall?
He’s a man of science, but he has his roots in a more traditional rural way of life, so his frustration with his superstitious patients is perhaps all the stronger because he recognizes a sort of affinity with them; it’s partly a frustration with himself. I think at heart he feels that, as a professional man, he’s a bit of an impostor. Things at the Hall get weirder and weirder, but he insists on maintaining a rational explanation: he can’t put the science aside, because he’s afraid that, without it, he’ll be exposed as a fraud.
Q. Does the name Hundreds Hall have a special significance?
I spent quite a while trying to find a name for the Hall. Literature is full of gothic houses with names that seem perfect – like Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Satis House in Dickens’s Great Expectations – and I wanted it to feel absolutely right. Then I thought of ‘Hundreds’. A ‘hundred’ is a traditional English term for a subdivision of a county, and even though I never make this explicit in the book, I always imagined that the Hall was located on the border of two of them. So the name made geographical sense – but, more than that, it had the right kind of resonance, with its suggestions of size, of age, and of obsolescence. That seemed perfect for a grand, melancholy house that’s teetering on the edge of ruin.
Q. Is the Hall based on a real house, or is it purely a product of your imagination?
It isn’t based on any actual house, but while I was writing the book I spent a lot of time looking at eighteenth-century country houses, and I suppose Hundreds Hall is a sort of composite of all of them. I borrowed bits I liked – such as the octagonal drawing-room, which is the sort of room you might easily find in a house of that age. But I also took some liberties! – giving the Hall an unusual, double-storey staircase, for example, simply because I liked the image. Ultimately, Hundreds is like all the houses of gothic fiction: a psychological structure as well as a bricks-and-mortar one; a place of secrets, half-memories, and lurking threats.
Q. How did you research this novel?
Well, I had already done a lot of research into 1940s’ life for The Night Watch, so I had a very good grounding in the period – in its artefacts, its manners, its idiom. The biggest challenge was the setting. All my books before this one were set in London, which I know very well. The Little Stranger has a rural setting, and though I grew up in the country, I soon realized that I had a very dim grasp on how the countryside looks and feels at different times of the year! So I looked at histories of rural life, and I read Warwickshire newspapers of the time, to see what the preoccupations of the area would have been. I also listened to sound recordings of Warwickshire voices: the British Library in London, luckily, has a great collection of oral histories on tape. I did some research into country houses, too – finding ones that resembled my fictional Hundreds Hall and, if I could, visiting them. I also, of course, read books about the paranormal – about ghosts and poltergeists. That was fun, if a little spooky. After a while I began to fear that I was thinking so hard about supernatural manifestations, I would actually conjure one up…
Q. Are the events in the story based in any way on actual events?
Not really. I tried to make the odd events at the Hall resemble the sort of paranormal experiences I found recounted in reports and studies of hauntings – though the Hundreds ‘ghost’ is probably a bit more malevolent than you would find in real life, since most recorded ghosts and poltergeists have seemed simply to want to make a bit of a racket, throw the furniture around, things like that. People in haunted houses have rarely ended up badly hurt – though there was of course John Bell, who was persecuted and supposedly murdered by the ‘Bell Witch’ in Tennessee, in the early nineteenth century… Actually the Bell Witch case was a fascinating one for me, since the haunting seems so obviously to have been a sort of acting-out of submerged family aggressions. That’s the aspect of the supernatural that compels me most. What’s going on for the people involved? Why are the weird events centered on them? What repressions and conflicts are being brought to the surface? Questions like that are at the heart of The Little Stranger.
Q. Were there any particular works of literature that influenced you as you wrote this book?
I read lots of post-war British novels as part of my research, and I was struck by how many of them are preoccupied with the social changes of the day, even if on the surface they are quite other sorts of books – crime novels or romances or stories of family life. Two writers who had a particular influence on me are Angela Thirkell and Josephine Tey. Thirkell wrote a long series of novels based in the fictional county of Barsetshire: they’re effectively mild social comedies, a sort of super-light Jane Austen, insanely readable and engaging – but also ferociously snobbish. With The Little Stranger, I wanted to take on that cosy, bigoted British landscape and, by injecting something dark and dangerous into it, sort of watch it self-destruct… Jospehine Tey was a crime writer – again, amazingly readable and a great story-teller, but thoroughly conservative. My starting-point for The Little Stranger was her 1948 novel The Franchise Affair, in which a working-class teenage girl accuses a reclusive middle-class mother and daughter of having abducted and imprisoned her. It’s a brilliant novel in a way, but it’s marred by Tey’s inability to shake off the prejudices of her day. I tried to address some of the issues it raises by telling a different sort of story in a similar setting – and so The Little Stranger itself is a kind of haunted house, with faint echoes of Tey’s book in the text, alongside the echoes of more obviously gothic writers like Dickens, du Maurier, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Q. What kind of experience do you hope readers have in reading this novel?
I hope they’ll be compelled by the story and absorbed by the world of the book, stimulated by the ideas – and perhaps a bit spooked, too.