Sarah Waters, “The Little Stranger”

Why is this title sinister? Maybe it’s the combination of ideas: “stranger” always connotes something potentially menacing, and when you add the diminutive you tip over into the creepy. Then you fabricate a decaying English country house, a self-deceiving narrator, the social chaos of the years just after World War II, and you have The Little Stranger.

I don’t read a lot of this kind of thing, but  I don’t suppose anyone writing it gets far from the shadow of The Turn of the Screw. In this instance Waters seems to be enjoying both discipleship and freedom from influence. Her overriding concern here is the dislocation and anxiety provoked by the downward mobility of the “county” family that owns Hundreds Hall and the upward mobility of characters like the local builder Babb, who buys land (“the grass-snake meadow,” in family parlance) from the Ayres family and builds council houses within view of the house. In a way it’s like reading post-war Angela Thirkell from the other side of the green baize door.

Our narrator has complete social mobility. He is Doctor Faraday (no first name that I can remember: hmmmmm), son of a maid at Hundreds, a “clever boy” who was sent to good schools, worked hard, and has established a foothold in the professional class.  He’s like one of Thomas Hardy’s characters, though, in that no one, least of all he himself, can forget his plebeian origins. Faraday first comes to Hundreds Hall to see the teenage maid Betty, who is disturbed by what we’d now call paranormal phenomena in the house. He naturally becomes emotionally involved in the lives of all four of the residents, and falls under the spell of the house.

So… is Hundreds Hall really haunted? This has to be the engine of a ghost story, the need to know what’s actually going on.  Waters spins out the tension, as the weird incidents pile up, family members succumb, and the house itself takes on an uncanny power. Quite early on, Faraday has the sense to grasp that the local people of Warwickshire, the former servants and farm laborers, had “begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards.”  So, of course, is the gentry. Waters brilliantly sketches the threat posed by a nouveau-riche family that takes over a nearby house and desecrates it by tearing out paneling and threatening to install a swimming pool. Also brilliant is a visit Faraday makes with Caroline Ayres (daughter of the house and eventually the object of his romantic intentions) to one of the unfinished council houses. “What is a fitted kitchen?” asks Caroline. “There are no nasty gaps,” Faraday answers, “and no odd corners.”

Hundreds, of course, is nothing but  nasty gaps and odd corners. Waters is even-handed enough to show us its extraordinary beauty as well as its nastiness. The book ends — as, really, it had to — on an unsettling note. The house continues to crumble. Faraday, who still has keys, visits it and attempts to stave off the worst of the decay. He claims no understanding of the strange occurrences, saying only that the house has “thrown the family off, like springing turf throwing off a footprint.”  In a way it makes the fate of the House of Usher look refreshingly clear-cut.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
This entry was posted in anglophilia, contemporary fiction, ghost story and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Sarah Waters, “The Little Stranger”

  1. Nathalie Foy says:

    Waters is interviewed for The Guardian book club this week, and she discusses the ending, if you are interested.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/audio/2010/aug/19/sarah-waters-guardian-book-club

    • carolwallace says:

      Ooh, thank you. I accosted a woman in the subway yesterday because she was reading “The Little Stranger.” She was… um… startled.

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