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19 June 2009

Seduced but Not Abandoned: Sarah Waters and Other Notes from the House of Genre

Can you remember how a favorite book seduced you?

There are lots of ways, of course, but I prefer public and shameless -- in the aisles of a bookstore when you can't bear to stop reading. You pay for the thing as you finish page two or three or four; you hold your place with your finger as you flee to the coffee house down the block.

Anyway, that's how I found myself in thrall, perhaps a decade ago, to Sarah Waters' first smart, sexy historical novel, Tipping the Velvet, from its very first page, my reader self helpless not to follow a disembodied narrative voice into a late 19th century oyster-parlor, in Whitstable, Kent, in a...

... narrow, weather-boarded house, painted a flaking blue, half-way between the High Street and the harbor...

... through the front door to the dim, low-ceilinged, fragrant room... the bill of fare chalked on a board -- the spirit lamps, the sweating slabs of butter...

... thence to take a peek where the kitchen door [...swings] to and fro...

... to see the lady frowning into the clouds of steam that rose from a pan...

... and next to her a slender, white-faced unremarkable-looking girl...

The girl as unremarkable and also as real as myself, from the moment Tipping the Velvet's heroine Nancy Astley claims her voice, from the center of the house where she grew up.

I won't deny it was the voice that got me first, but its siren call to read my way through rooms and doors and halls is one of my happiest memories of a book having its way with me.

Because fictional houses can be seductive. When Lizzy Bennet teases her sister Jane by saying she must date her love for Darcy from first "seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley," we smile but we also note the truth that glimmers through the mockery. Because we know that Lizzy has learned a lot about the house's owner from the house itself.

In popular romance fiction, we know that a great house that spans generations can function as...

-- an element of a hero or heroine's personality

-- a set of constraints on privacy or expression

-- an ensemble of tradition, responsibility, and sense of self

-- a fantasyland of escapist luxury

-- a precious hoard of knowledge from the fascinating past.


I found all of the above and more, in earlier Hoyden posts where writers confided their fascination with the historic houses they love to visit, research, and understand. And I also found (in one of my own posts) some remarks about great houses as an indispensable element in a sister fictional genre, the detective story -- at least in its venerable Country House variant.

But the house as primary fictional element is even more important in another member of the family of popular genres. I mean of course the horror story, ghost story, or gothic, where the weight of the past can be oppressive enough to threaten the house's owners or inhabitants.

Difficult, though, to put an airtight chronology to these family inheritances on the tree of genres. Jane Austen distilled the elements of modern romance novel from gothic pastiche in her early Northanger Abbey. But this shouldn't lead us to forget that the romantic adventure novel (a pair of lovers separated by abductions, pirates, wars) is the world's oldest prose fiction, dating back to second century AD Greece. (Nor to ignore the other sibling genre -- the bratty little brother sci fi, which the critic Northrop Frye calls the inheritor of the romantic tradition, perhaps because of all those space operas with their starships like little Greek boats on the Mediterranean, buffeted about in quest of home).

In any case, the house is primary in Waters' latest astonishing novel, The Little Stranger, a ghost story I read with mounting terror and anxiety, admiration and pleasure. Once again, beginning on the first page, when a narrative voice informs us (less lyrically this time) that I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old.

We don't know much about this narrator -- it must have been a boy, we think, though he's not one now. The first time he saw the house must have been a while ago -- he says it was on an Empire Day fete; even an ignorant American reader like myself must think that Britain doesn't celebrate such a thing anymore. And yes, he was a boy, for he stood with a line of other village children making a boy-scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us...

He doesn't remember much about the swell people who inhabited Hundreds Hall so much as the house. Especially the inside of it -- for although there'd been lavatories set up for the village celebrants in the stable, when he needed to use it, his mother, who still had friends among the servants (still? had she been a servant there herself?) took him quietly into the house, where he gets a taste of the thrill of the house itself, as he peers in from behind the green baize curtain that traditionally separates owner from servant.

He's drawn to one of the dustless white walls, which had a decorative plaster order, a representation of acorns and leaves...

He tries to prise out one of the acorns from its setting, and when that failed to release it I got out my penknife and dug away with that...

I wasn't a spiteful or destructive boy. It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it.... 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.

After which original moment of trespass, transgression, of violence and desire, this reader was once again helplessly seduced -- again by an entry into a house, a story, even (or because) this voice is stodgy instead of lyrical, a rational even if slightly guilty outsider.

No good will come of this, my properly seduced reader self thought.

And no good does, in the body of the novel, which takes place thirty years after this initial assault -- in the late 1940s, after World War II, after the Ayres family has borne the death of one child, the serious war wounds of another, and a national economy badly damaged as well. Those surviving can barely support the money-suck the house has become; while as for the boy with the penknife, son of a former servant, he's now a village doctor, struggling to build a practice.

But that's all I'm going to tell you of the plot. Though I wish I could think of a more genteel way to tell you that The Little Stranger scared the crap out of me even as I enjoyed and admired it.

And to recommend it to you as a historical novel as well, even if it isn't one of Waters's hot, colorful, highly romantic 19th century "Lesbo romps" (her own term for the critically acclaimed Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith -- the British literary establishment seems to me less prissy than the American, having short-listed the compulsively readable Lesbo romp Fingersmith for the prestigious Booker prize).

Somber, in contrast, as its narrative voice is (and perhaps disappointing some fans, by not having an intrepid lesbian heroine busily reclaiming a century of British fiction) The Little Stranger nonetheless does some excellent literary reclamation of its own (a particularly scary scene takes place amid a failed courtship, in a grand Regency-styled saloon, built by an ancestor described as right out of Georgette Heyer -- well, it got my attention, anyway). But that's just one of the creaks and echoes in this historical house, and one of the hints at the secrets of class violence at the heart of the ghost story genre in its brilliant retelling.

Any other Sarah Waters fans out there? Some favorite ghost stories? (Click on the links to read more about Waters and her favorites).

And I always love to hear tales of readerly ravishment, by books that wouldn't let you put them down.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Pam! I haven't read Sarah Waters, though I've been meaning to for years, and your post makes her books sounds even more intriguing. I love country house setting. I think it's interesting that great country houses are a staple of both the country house mystery and the gothic.

Being seduced into the world of a book. I remember having that feeling with Laurie King's Mary Russell book--the whole series, at the time, which was the first four books, of which I started with the fourth book. I rushed out to buy the others and started reading in line at the book store. Years ago, I sat curled up on my sofa reading Steven Brust & Emma Bull's "Freedom & Necessity" even though I had a book due in about a week.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Years ago, I sat curled up on my sofa reading Steven Brust & Emma Bull's "Freedom & Necessity" even though I had a book due in about a week

I love that, Tracy. And sometimes, that's exactly what the due-in-a-week book needs.

10:39 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I haven't read any fiction that I felt that way about but Frances Osborne's book about her great-great grandmother Idina Sackville, I could't put down. I bought it at the W.H. Smith in Heathrow airport when I arrived in London in March and it was just brilliant. Also Kate William's new biography of Queen Victoria.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Oh I love Sarah Waters. I can't wait to grow up to be her. She is such a master of historical atmosphere and detail. Funnily enough Pam and I both got hold of The Little Stranger, at about the same time but she was the first to tell the other to read it. I think Tipping the Velvet is extraordinary altho the end is weak (the TV adaptation had a stronger end, and that was one of the best BBC productions ever).

6:18 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I still haven't seen the TV Tipping the Velvet. I almost never feel like this, but I'm sort of afraid to see Nancy and Kitty not looking as I imagine them. Have you read Affinity, Janet? I haven't yet, but one of my son's most brilliant professors said it's her favorite -- of the early ones anyway.

Elizabeth, I'm sort of in awe that you get seduced by nonfiction. Seems such a grownup way of reading (esp while I'm squeaking about wanting Nancy and Kitty to look just as I imagined them...)

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Pam, the story of Idina Sackville's life is so fascinating, that I couldn't put it down, which is why her great-granddaughter wrote the book in the first place. She was as fascinated by her as readers have become since the book was published. As for fiction, I forgot to mention Libba Bray's young adult series set in late Victorian England, starting with A Great and Terrible Beauty.

It is worth watching Tipping the Velvet series, Pam. Rachael Sterling, who is Diana Rigg's daughter, is quite good in it, although I confess when I bought it, I thought it was more about Victorian Music Halls then it turned out to be.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In truth, Elizabeth, I think the end of the novel is a little awkward. Though also appealing from a utopian political p.o.v. The concept of a vast number of women waiting for Eleanor Marx to appear always seemed to me a sad and poetic one.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Amanda McCabe said...

LOL--I have "The Little Stranger" on my TBR pile, but have to confess I have put of reading it because I have heard reports just like yours, Pam (that it's very scary!). But I adore haunted house stories (and really liked "Tipping the Velvet") so must read it soon. :)

1:19 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm not usually a fan of scary, Amanda (I refused to see David Cronenberg's The Fly in a movie theater, and watched the video standing in the doorway of our living room, in preparation for a hasty getaway).

And when I was reading The Little Stranger, I kept saying "I don't know why I'm putting myself through this." To which my husband replied, "You're having an experience." He was right, and I cherish that now.

7:01 AM  

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