Plottergeist

Thomas Jones

  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
    Virago, 501 pp, £16.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 1 84408 601 6

My grandmother’s grandfather died in 1913, survived by his wife, Ann, and five children: four sons and a daughter, Margaret. The sons all married and left home; but Margaret, who was 35 when her father died, remained as her mother’s companion. At some point the two women moved a few miles across North London from their house in Canonbury to Belsize Park, where they lived together until Ann died in 1936, when Margaret was 58. After her mother’s death she had some kind of breakdown and her brothers arranged for her to move into a nursing home in Tetbury in the Cotswolds, a hundred miles and several worlds away from the city she had lived in all her life.

Some years later she was transferred to a Gloucestershire hospital: ‘when the money ran out’, according to one of her nephews, though it may also have had something to do with the creation of the NHS. My great-uncle remembered visiting her once in the late 1940s: the ward was large and crowded, he recalled half a century later, a ‘thoroughly wretched’ place. ‘Lying in bed, she stared up at us with haunted eyes.’ I don’t know when she died: an otherwise detailed family tree records only that she was alive at the time of the 1901 census. Her brothers were all good Christian men: one was ordained in the Church of England; another was a Unitarian deacon. I’m sure they all thought her plight, when they thought about her at all, terribly sad; but I doubt it ever crossed any of their minds that what they’d done to her might have been anything other than a normal way for the patriarchs of a respectable middle-class family to behave.

Sarah Waters’s novels – the first three set in the Victorian era, the more recent two in the 1940s – have always been interested in the ways in which English society has disposed of its more awkward or inconvenient members by locking them away in various kinds of institution. The secondary narrator in Affinity (1999) is a medium imprisoned in Millbank in the 1870s for fraud and assault. In Fingersmith (2002), a postmodern take on the Victorian sensation novel and in particular a reimagining of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, a plan is hatched to steal an heiress’s fortune by tricking her into an unsuitable marriage and having her committed to an insane asylum. Parts of The Night Watch (2006) are set in a jail during the Second World War, where conscientious objectors are among the prisoners who watch the bombs fall on London through the bars of their cell windows.

The narrator of Waters’s new book, The Little Stranger, is a GP in rural Warwickshire in the years immediately after the war. Dr Faraday demonstrates a cavalier willingness to bundle his patients off into long-term residential psychiatric care, more or less on his say-so; the second opinion of one of his obliging colleagues is a mere formality. Yet as the novel progresses, the balance of Faraday’s own mind is called increasingly into question. Who is sane enough to say who is mad?

Perceptions and definitions of mental illness change over time. The doctors at the asylum in Fingersmith include homosexuality and literacy among a patient’s symptoms. Later they decide that illiteracy is a symptom, too: crazy if you can read, crazy if you can’t. Once it’s been decided that someone is mad, everything that she says or does, not least insisting on her sanity, is taken as further evidence of madness. She is mad because people more powerful than her have decreed it so. It’s easy, especially for those of a conventional turn of mind, to think that what’s conventional is the same as what’s normal, and that what’s normal is the same as what’s sane. Since what’s conventional is determined by those in power, insanity may sometimes be another name for powerlessness.

Most of the main characters in Waters’s earlier novels are people whom conventional history has tended to overlook, on account of their gender, or their class, or their sexuality, or all three; there’s no shortage of lesbian servants. ‘Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly,’ Margaret asks in Affinity, perhaps a little too obviously, as her brother is holding forth at her mother downstairs, ‘when women’s are so easily stifled?’ Gender and class roles are a less physical but no less restrictive form of institutional confinement: Waters’s ‘free’ heroines are constrained by the requirements of marriage (Fingersmith) or spinsterhood (Affinity), with corsets for straitjackets. (Just in case I’m making this all sound rather programmatic and worthy: it’s not, because Waters is too smart for that, and because the novels are too enjoyable.) And there may be a perverse kind of freedom in imprisonment: at least one of the people that Faraday has put away in The Little Stranger finds it a welcome relief from the pressures of the world outside – the asylum, for once, lives up to its name.

What’s more, the conventionally powerless may find that their difference gives them power of a different – unconventional, and therefore precarious – kind. Selina Dawes, the medium in Affinity, holds spiritual sway over her social superiors, until the material forces of law and order come crashing through the door. One of the mistakes Dr Faraday makes in The Little Stranger is to believe that he is less conventionally powerful than the surviving members of the Ayres family, the impoverished gentry who live at Hundreds Hall, the big house where his mother had been a servant before her marriage. But Faraday is an able-bodied, 40-year-old, heterosexual, professional male with a prominent and respected role in postwar society. Mrs Ayres, by contrast, is a widow in her fifties; her daughter, Caroline, was in the Wrens, but came home to help nurse her younger brother, Roderick, after he was badly wounded serving with the RAF. Roderick, crippled and scarred, is now trying his inadequate best to manage the estate, and sinking further into debt as the house dilapidates around him.

The Ayreses’ crumbling ancestral home isn’t much better than an open prison. They can’t afford to maintain it, and they can’t afford to leave it. They’re trapped in another stifling, decaying institution too: the prewar hierarchy in which they had an established role as landed gentry, but which has essentially ceased to exist everywhere except inside their heads. Most of the house is locked up and under dust sheets. The Ayreses have only one live-in servant, a 14-year-old maid called Betty, whose sudden illness brings Dr Faraday to the house for the first time as an adult. The novel opens with a brief recollection of the only time he had been there as a child, on Empire Day 1919, at a village fête. ‘I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain – like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.’ To the boy, or to the man the boy has grown into, the house seems a sensuous, fugitive luxury.

Waters has always paid close attention to the material and organisational details of buildings: both Millbank Prison and Margaret’s house in Cheyne Walk in Affinity; in Fingersmith, the chaotic household of thieves and fences in South London, the vast and gloomy country house beside the Thames in Buckinghamshire, the lunatic asylum. Her novels are rich with period detail, but she never falls into the trap of parading her considerable learning for its own sake, describing scenes, places and objects that would be too familiar for her characters to notice. The reader of Affinity discovers Millbank at Margaret’s side; in Fingersmith, Victorian London is described from the point of view of a young woman on her first visit to the city, while Briar, the country house, is seen through the eyes of a young woman who has just left London for the first time. In The Night Watch, the details that tell readers it’s 1947 are carefully chosen to be things that strike the characters as new, like advertisements for American chewing gum. For Hundreds Hall to be described in detail, then, it has to be seen through the eyes of an outsider. And Faraday sees it all, from the peeling paint to the warped window sashes to the old Victorian speaking tube between the kitchen and the nursery, which, when removed, looks like ‘a mummified snake’.

After he’s dealt with Betty’s complaint, other reasons crop up for Faraday to return to the house, and he finds his life becoming ever more involved with the Ayreses’. He tries out an experimental treatment on Roderick’s crippled leg; Caroline gives him keys to the gates on both sides of the park so he can drive through it to save time and petrol on his rounds; he’s even invited to a small drinks party, the first party of any kind there’s been at Hundreds for several years. The other guests are the owners of the other large houses in the area – some old money, some new. ‘No one’s unwell, I hope?’ one of them says on catching sight of Faraday, unwittingly needling the doctor’s status anxiety. He doesn’t seem so bothered by the Ayreses’ flights of snobbery when they aren’t directed at him, however: when Roderick says that ‘ordinary people hate our sort now,’ and his mother replies, ‘Not in Warwickshire’; or when Mrs Ayres says that ‘probably monkeys have the vote in India now.’ The drinks party is a failure, and would be farcical if it weren’t brought to an abrupt end by a sudden and inexplicable act of violence – the first of many, as it turns out.

It would be wrong to give too much away about the plots of any of Waters’s novels; she’s one of the great constructors of literary plots – possibly the best currently writing in English. One of the things she excels at is the interplay between different narrators, or different narrative perspectives. A new narrator a third of the way through Fingersmith, for example, recasts everything you’ve read up to that point in a whole – and wholly unexpected – new light. Affinity skilfully counterpoints Margaret’s journal, in which she records her visits to Selina’s jail cell in the autumn and winter of 1874-75, with Selina’s diaries from two years earlier, detailing the events that led up to her incarceration.

The Night Watch moves not only between the points of view of its four main characters, but steadily backwards in time. Not in the too-clever-by-half way that Martin Amis rewinds the life of a Nazi doctor in Time’s Arrow, but by setting the book’s three parts in 1947, 1944 and 1941 consecutively. ‘So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become,’ the first chapter begins. In 1947 we find out who the characters are; in 1944 and 1941 we find out what they did and what happened to them to make them that way. Each section casts the one that follows – or should that be precedes? – as tragedy; we know where the characters’ actions will take them. But ‘1944’ throws up as many questions as it answers, and though ‘1941’ answers enough of them to provide some kind of resolution to the novel, it also leaves you wanting to read about the characters’ lives in 1938. One of the many impressive aspects of The Night Watch is the way that Waters maintains the forward momentum of the narrative while moving backwards in time. ‘You mustn’t brood on things from the past,’ Dr Faraday tells Mrs Ayres in The Little Stranger. ‘The issue we’ve to deal with now is not what’s made Rod ill, but how we’re to get him well again’ – as if the two were separable.

Dr Faraday, who could evidently learn a thing or two from Dr Freud, tells his story in a surprisingly orderly and traditional fashion: beginning at the beginning, going on until he reaches the end and then stopping. He is in every way a departure as a medium for Waters to employ. For one thing, his is the only perspective: she hasn’t written a novel from a single point of view since her first, Tipping the Velvet (1998). The narrator of that, however, is a cross-dressing oyster girl turned music-hall act in Fin-de-Siècle London. Whereas Faraday, on the face of it, couldn’t be less transgressive if he tried. And yet it is possible to see through his slightly plodding, well-meaning, literal-minded account to a darker story, of his role in which he has almost no idea.

Unlike Affinity or Fingersmith, The Little Stranger doesn’t need two narrators because it has something much cleverer: two narratives running concurrently, the story Faraday tells and the one he’s part of; the glimpses you catch through the cracks in the one give you enough clues from which to build up a sense of the other. This is one of the ways in which The Little Stranger resembles Rebecca; it’s also like Daphne du Maurier’s novel in its emphasis on the importance of the physical presence of the house. (Hundreds, like Manderley, also happens to have a long drive lined with rhododendrons, though they’re not so fleshy and burdened with sexuality in Waters’s novel.) And like the second Mrs de Winter, Faraday dreams of going back:

At night I would lie in my bed, weary but wakeful, thinking of Caroline lying in hers. My mind would go softly across the darkened miles between us, to slip like a poacher through the Hundreds gate and along the overgrown drive; to nudge open the swollen front door, to inch across the chequered marble; and then to go creeping, creeping towards her, up the still and silent stairs.

We don’t have to see the awkward relationship between Faraday and Caroline – never quite the love affair he’d like it to be – from her point of view, because it’s clear enough from his account what her feelings for him are, or at least what they’re not. Unreciprocated love, or love that is returned with deception, is a persistent theme across Waters’s books. In Affinity, one woman loves another, and believes herself loved in return, but the woman she loves is secretly in love with someone else, and is only playing along for an ulterior motive. In Fingersmith, Waters pursues the conceit and complicates it: two women fall in love, but each is already committed to deceiving the other. The structure at the core of The Night Watch is a love triangle: three women, three consecutive, overlapping and unbalanced relationships – A is more in love with B, B with C, C with A. (Men may be whiskery and repulsive, inflicting all sorts of horrors on women through sex – pregnancy, marriage, not to mention the act itself – but other women can be just as cruel.)

The situation in The Little Stranger is simpler, but more troubling: a man comes to believe he is in love with a woman and that she returns his feelings, when it’s all too evident that neither is the case. She doesn’t love him, and ‘love’ perhaps isn’t the right word for the way he feels about her: ‘I put the tray across the arms of her chair, effectively pinning her behind it. Laying a napkin in her lap, I said, “Just try a little, will you? I’m afraid of you growing ill.”’ In Faraday’s case, lover and deceiver are one.

One reason he deceives himself so easily is that he’s so convinced of the rightness of his worldview. ‘I am not naturally a duplicitous man,’ he says, as if anyone were ‘naturally’ anything. ‘I see what’s in front of me … Then I make sensible deductions. That’s what doctors do.’ But does he see what’s in front of him? And are his deductions sensible? In Waters’s fiction, the things doctors do are often appalling and far from sensible: the abuse of the patients in the asylum in Fingersmith; a botched abortion in The Night Watch, described in sickening detail: ‘There was a slithering sensation between her legs, and the splash of something striking the water. She looked in the bowl. The plug of gauze was there, quite sodden and misshapen with blood; and blood was falling from her still, thick and dark and knotted as a length of tarry rope.’ Faraday’s mother died when he was 15: ‘She had had miscarriage after miscarriage, it turned out, all through my childhood, and the last one killed her.’

As for Faraday’s seeing what’s in front of him, The Little Stranger is described on its jacket as ‘a chilling ghost story’, so I don’t think it’s giving too much away to reveal that the macabre goings on at Hundreds Hall are believed by its residents to be the work of a ghost. The only thing is, no one can agree on who or what they’re haunted by. Betty and Roderick believe it’s the malign spirit of the house itself; Mrs Ayres believes it’s her first child, who died of diphtheria at the age of six; Caroline believes it’s a projection of Roderick’s unquiet mind. In a sense, they’re all right: each of them is haunted, metaphorically speaking, in their own way. But that doesn’t mean that any of them is right about what, if anything, is haunting Hundreds; they’re all seeing the mysterious phenomena through the lens of their own private griefs. In Affinity, the people who visit mediums are more than willing to be taken in by the phosphorescent paint and all the rest of it because they want to believe they can still communicate with their dead loved ones.

Faraday never witnesses any paranormal happenings himself: to maintain a sense of ambiguity, and so plausibility, everything untoward is described at one remove. Being a rational man of science – though his namesake was also the discoverer of electromagnetic induction, evidence of invisible forces at work in the atmosphere – Faraday interprets the ghosts as symptoms of the Ayreses’ various psychopathologies, as evidence of their madness. It’s tempting for the sceptical reader to go along with him, or at least to see the supernatural events principally in terms of their metaphorical force. Affinity certainly comes down on the side of scepticism, though it believes in people’s need to believe. There, spiritualism is a release valve for class resentment and repressed sexuality: the seances are charged with elements of homosexuality, transvestism and sadomasochism (sometimes there’s even a bit of kissing). The novel also makes the nice point that even though there’s no such thing as ghosts, the medium’s bourgeois clients are constantly surrounded by a great many unseen and overlooked presences: their servants. But in The Little Stranger, there is finally no ‘rational’ explanation: Hundreds Hall is literally haunted by a poltergeist.

There is a sense in which all novels are ghost stories: fictional characters are translucent phantoms, which readers believe in (or don’t); readers lurk in the presence of characters, spying on their most intimate moments, eavesdropping on their innermost thoughts. And however thoroughly the novelist establishes her characters’ motivations, however robustly she forges her chains of cause and effect, everything that happens ultimately does so at the whim of the writer. Certain things have to happen for the narrative to progress. In The Little Stranger, Waters radically strips these events of their mimetic cladding. Every novel is haunted by a tyrannical poltergeist, in the form of its plot.

This isn’t a mere metafictional blind alley, however. There are real-life analogues of the arbitrary, coercive demands of a novel’s plot: in life, too, things happen for no good reason, or rather for no reason at all, good or bad. But it’s hard to recognise that and go about your daily life as though it meant something. Like faces in rock formations – who needs Mount Rushmore when you’ve got the Man in the Moon? – we see patterns in the chaos; we make up stories to make sense of life, or rather to pretend that life makes sense.

Faraday is an anti-narrator. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, in metaphor, in fiction, in storytelling: the story he tells, that everyone except him is mad, is not only insane – or would be if Waters hadn’t called that category so repeatedly and thoroughly into question – but a woefully inadequate response to the arbitrary and chaotic events that life consists of. Even he eventually comes to admit as much. Waters’s novels are full of fetishistic objects, tokens and totems freighted with (often unstable or multiple) significance: rings, gloves, lockets, dried flowers, velvet collars. Faraday has over the months accumulated

a medal, a photograph, a whistle, a pair of keys, an unworn wedding-ring. They formed the spoil of my time at Hundreds: a queer little collection, it seemed to me. A week before, they would have told a story, with myself as the hero of the tale. Now they were so many unhappy fragments. I looked to them for a meaning, and was defeated.

The only possible explanation left, once his unsatisfactory version has been discounted, is that the terrible things that happen at Hundreds Hall are the work of a vicious and implacable ghost – which is as good as saying that there’s no reason for them to happen at all. But Faraday’s failure to make a coherent story out of the events of the novel translates into a destructive inability to make sense of either himself or the people around him. The Little Stranger, like all the best works of postmodernist fiction, acknowledges both that making up stories is a mistaken and hopeless way to try to understand the world, and at the same time that it’s the best – perhaps the only – way we have.