Magazine article The Spectator

Straitened Circumstances

Magazine article The Spectator

Straitened Circumstances

Article excerpt


by Sarah Waters

Virago, £16.99, pp. 501, ISBN 9781844086016

£13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

There are more lesbians in fiction than you could shake a stick at, of course. Graham Robb, writing about late 19th-century fictional lesbians, has observed that the fin-de-siecle lesbian was educated at a boarding school or a convent.

She was frighteningly self-possessed, wore dark colours, read novels, smoked cigars, injected morphine or inhaled ether, suffered from excess hair except on the head, spent too much time in conditions suitable for tropical plants, and was prone to horrible diseases.

She was such a common figure that historians are able to make generalisations about the usual descriptors.

Still, when Sarah Waters started her delectable career with three novels about lesbians in the belle epoque, one had the sense of a gap being filled. These novels told of an aspect of 19th-century human behaviour which the 19th-century novel never found a way fully to encompass. Still more enchanting was her wartime and postwar novel, The Night Watch, which thought its way very thoroughly into a social milieu only narrowly rendered by novelists of the time. The butch dyke who was accepted by society during the war, when in uniform, and afterwards retreating to be an object of ridicule was that rare thing, an entirely original fictional type.

Her fifth novel is going to be fallen on by legions of fans, of which I happily declare myself to be one. I don't know how to break this, though: there are no lesbians in it. Not one. Brixton, Hackney and Hebden Bridge are bereft. How could she! She has taken the opportunity to tease her devoted readers with one of her main characters, Caroline, who has mismatched masculine features . . . with some sort of commission in the Wrens . . . . I'd heard her referred to locally as 'rather hearty', a 'natural spinster' . . . she had the worst dress sense of any woman I ever knew.

The reader who is waiting for Caroline's secret to come out as soon as the narrator mentions her 'boyish flat sandals' is going to be disappointed, however. She is just a girl with horrible clothes. Sarah Waters is amusing herself by toying with us.

This lesbian-less outbreak offers a good opportunity, however, to define a novelist not by her subject matter, but by her style and procedures. I think Waters is a novelist who finds her way to deep feeling through exploration of the most extravagant and artificial literary forms. The monstrous plot in Fingersmith - the twist-in-the-tail that no one ever forgets - somehow illuminates, despite its fantastic quality, the ordinary life of ordinary misfits. The backwards construction of The Night Watch might appear to make a mystery out of ordinary consequence, but found another way thereby to explore the secrecy and oppression of gay people's lives in the period.

And this one is that most artificial and alluring of all literary forms, the ghost story. Ghost stories are on the whole only to be advised for the most technically competent of novelists.

They are almost invariably studies in crescendo, and make demands on control and revelation at which many writers fail dismally. Few have sought to innovate in the form - added to The Turn of the Screw and The Jolly Corner's variations, there is really only the ghost'spoint-of-view narrative. In Henry James, E. F. Benson, M. R. James, Susan Hill's wonderful The Woman in Black and Penelope Fitzgerald, we mostly find the mastery of a form perfect in itself, not requiring modish variation. …

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