Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

In Robert Altman's 2001 award winning film Gosford Park, Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes open the story with a surprise.  While the credits unfurl, the audience is following the progress of Lady Trentham's car to Gosford Park.  We watch the car arrive at the great house; we watch the family come out to greet Lady Trentham at the door; we watch them welcome her to their home for the weekend.  But we do not follow Lady Trentham in through the front door.  Instead, we watch the butler tell Lady Trentham's new servant, Mary, to follow the car around to the back and we unexpectedly enter the house through the servants' entrance with Mary.  Once through the door we see the underground bowels of the house: the great vaulted kitchen, the gun room, the wash rooms.  We see hordes of servants racing frantically around preparing for the big weekend, doing all the hard work necessary to keep the house running smoothly and efficiently. 

Sarah Waters’ latest novel, The Little Stranger, opens with a scene that reminded me of the beginning of Gosford Park.  The narrator of the story, Dr. Faraday, is recalling the first time he saw Hundreds Hall, an estate in Warwickshire.  It was "the summer after the war", he was ten years old and the owners of Hundreds Hall were hosting Empire Day festivities for the locals.  Although he remembers his hosts, Colonel and Mrs. Ayres and their little six year old daughter Susan, what Dr. Faraday remembers most about that day is the house itself. 

(Spoilers below the fold.)

Like Robert Altman, Sarah Waters takes us into the house first through the servants' entrance:

My mother, however, still had friends among the servants, and when tea was finished and people were given the run of the grounds, she took me quietly into the house by a side door, and we spent a little time with the cook and the kitchen girls.  The visit impressed me terribly.  The kitchen was a basement one, reached by a cool vaulted corridor with something of the feel of a castle dungeon.  An extraordinary number of people seemed to be coming and going along it with hampers and trays.  The girls had such a mountain of crockery to wash, my mother rolled up her sleeves to help them; and to my very great delight, as a reward for her labour I was allowed to take my pick of the jellies and 'shapes' that had come back uneaten from the fete. 

When the parlourmaid is summoned upstairs by a bell, she takes the boy upstairs with her so that he may peep around the curtain into the part of the house where the family lives.  The sight of it thrilled him.  As a souvenir, he cut off a decorative plaster acorn from the plaster frieze work on the wall. 

I didn't do it in a spirit of vandalism.  I wasn't a spiteful or destructive boy.  It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it -- or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to 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 enamored of.

Almost thirty years later, after the next war, Dr. Faraday makes a medical call to Hundreds Hall.  There are no more grooms or gardeners; the stables are empty; there are no more parlourmaids. There are only two servants: a young servant girl, Betty, who lives there with the family, and Mrs. Bazely who comes in days to cook and clean.  Colonel Ayres is long dead.  Mrs.  Ayres lives in the Hall with her daughter Caroline and her son Roderick, who are in their twenties.  Roderick was wounded during the war and is horribly disfigured.  Caroline, who was living her own life in London during the war, came back to help nurse him.  The older daughter, Susan, died of diptheria not long after the Empire Days fete that Dr. Faraday remembers so well, the last Empire Days fete that the family hosted. 

And, just like the Empire, the house now seems to be on its last legs.   Many of its rooms are shut off and unused, the grounds are unkempt and the beautiful plasterwork is scuffed and broken from years of use and from the soldiers who were billeted there during the war.  Dr. Faraday is appalled at the condition of the house. 

If Robert Altman's film is a snapshot of life in a country house in all its glory before World War II would end that way of life for many people, The Little Stranger is the picture of life immediately after the war when that way of life is finished but the death has not yet been acknowledged. 

The Ayres were once "big people in the district" but like so many of Britain's landed families they have fallen on hard times in the aftermath of World War II.   Where the estate could once support itself from its farmlands on the backs of the lower classes, who had no alternative but to work for the large landowners at low wages, now the lower classes have opportunities to work in factories where they can make more money and work shorter hours and the cost of running the estate exceeds any profit it can make.   The strain of keeping up the house is excessive and yet the family believes, at least at the beginning, that they have a duty to the house; that it is their job to stick with it.  But the job is overwhelming them.

When Dr. Faraday confesses to a colleague, Dr. Seeley, that it is "as if something's slowly sucking the life out of the whole family", Seeley responds:

'Something is,' he said, with another bark of laughter.  'It's called a Labour Government.  The Ayreses' problem -- don't you think? -- is that they can't, or won't adapt.  Don't get me wrong; I've a lot of sympathy for them.  But what's left for an old family like that in England nowadays?  Class-wise, they've had their chips.  Nerve-wise, perhaps they've run their course.

Caroline Ayres herself confesses to Dr. Faraday late in the novel that she wants to leave, because "England's no good any more for someone like me.  It doesn't want me. "

Faraday, who has fallen in love with Caroline, says:

'For God's sake,' I said.  'I want you! Doesn't that mean anything to you?'

'Do you, really?' she asked me.  'Or is it the house you want?'

That encounter is the whole novel in a nutshell.  It contains the overall picture that Waters is trying to convey. The upper classes are dying and the Labour government seems happy to see them go (England doesn't want me).  Some in the middle classes, like Dr. Faraday, are also living in fear of the changes coming, such as the National Health Service, and are shocked by the decay in the old estates.  They maintain that the country is going downhill and they would like things restored to the way they were (I want you!).  But do they really want those landed classes?  Do they really want to go back to being servants?  Or do they just want the trappings preserved so that, one day, they too can live like that? (Or is it the house you want?)  

The encounter between Faraday and Caroline also contains, in a nutshell, the immediate story of the novel.  Is Dr. Faraday in love with Caroline?  Or is he in love with Hundreds Hall?  Or is he in love with the idea that the son of a former nursery maid could marry the daughter of the squire and move into the Hall?  

Class differences permeate this novel.  Early in the novel when Dr. Faraday is called in to treat Betty he reacts coldly when Caroline and Roderick both complain that Betty, who lives in the basement, is better off than they are.  Roderick points out that the family never calls a doctor for themselves, but, Roderick says, "I gather that neglecting servants is a capital offence these days; they're to get better treatment than us, apparently."    And Caroline says, "Well, we don't treat her badly, if that's what you're thinking.  We pay her more than we can afford.  She eats the same food as us.  Really, in lots of ways she's better off than we are." 

When Roderick, who is all of twenty-four, calls forty year old Dr. Faraday simply 'Faraday' it grates on him.  Taking tea with the family as they reminisce about old servants, he thinks:

Perhaps it was the peasant blood in me, rising.  But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now.  After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards.  Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted china ...

Dr. Faraday is, however, enamored, of this collapsing house.  When he goes there he seems transported to another time.  His own life is rather bleak, as is life for many people in England.  Although the war has ended the rationing system has not.  A bachelor, Dr. Faraday  lives above his doctor's office.  Most of his patients are people poorer than himself who live in houses without running water and sometimes with dirt floors.  The landed classes do not use his service.   He sees himself as a failure even though his parents worked hard to get him the education that would let him rise to a class higher than theirs. The National Health Service is on the horizon and he is afraid that he will lose all of his private patients and his income.  He has been having nightmares about that.  Hundreds Hall, despite its state, is a welcome respite for him from these worries.  

And just as Dr. Faraday is enamored of the Hall, he also is not completely adverse to the class system.  He is irritated by the attitude of the Ayres family, but Dr. Faraday himself lectures Betty on her duties and explains her place to her.  Even though he realizes that his own mother, as a nursery maid at Hundreds Hall, was in  a position similar to Betty's he clearly feels superior to Betty.  He feels oddly disconcerted when the family moves Betty upstairs into Roderick's old bedroom so she can be closer to Mrs. Ayres.  And when Betty serves tea he notices, with a hint of pleasure, that Mrs. Ayres seems to have forgotten that his own mother was a servant when she talks about a "well-run house" as an oyster that turns girls from grit into pearls. 

She was addressing me as well as Caroline - clearly forgetting, for the moment, that my own mother had once been one of the specks of grit her great-aunt had meant.  I think even Caroline had forgotten it.  They both sat comfortably in their chairs, enjoying the tea and cake that Betty had prepared for them, then awkwardly carried for them, then cut and served for them, from plates and cups which, at the ring of a bell, she would soon remove and wash ... I said nothing this time, however.  I sat enjoying the tea and cake, too.  For if the house, like an oyster, was at work on Betty, fining and disguising her with layer after miniscule layer of its own particular charm, then I suppose it had already begun a similar process with me. 

Caroline Ayres also has a complicated attitude toward the house.  On the one hand she sees it as the family's duty to try to maintain it and their way of life, but she refers to the house as a monster early in the novel: 

'You're right.  Hundreds is lovely.  But it's a sort of lovely monster!  It needs to be fed all the time, with money and hard work.  And when one feels them' - she nodded to the row of sombre portraits - 'at one's shoulder, looking on, it can begin to seem like a frightful burden ... '

This monstrous reference is a foreshadowing of the direction the tale is going to take.  If the story that Waters is trying to tell sounds like a latter day Brideshead Revisited, the genre she uses to tell the story is altogether different; it is a ghost story.  Or perhaps, more accurately, a tale of the supernatural.  Because it is not at all clear what is causing the strange occurrences at Hundreds Hall, all of which begin only after Dr. Faraday is called in to treat the stomach ailment of Betty, the new maid.

Roderick refers to "it" as an "infection". Betty thinks it is something evil that acts like a "bad servant".  Mrs. Ayres, on the other hand, becomes convinced it is the ghost of her little girl Susan.  Caroline dismisses the idea of the ghost of Susan out of hand but thinks it might be a poltergeist.  Dr. Faraday consistently states that there must be a natural explanation for it; but he is the one relating the story so the reader may be forgiven for thinking that he protests too much.

Dr. Faraday's colleague, Dr. Seeley, considers the possibility that there may be an emanation coming from a living person who is attached to Hundreds' Hall and that explanation seems to be the one that Waters wants us to explore.  He provides the title of the novel, The Little Stranger, when he says: 

... The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all.  Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners.  Let's call it a  - a germ.   And let's say conditions prove right for that germ to develop -- to grow, like a child in a womb.  What would this little stranger grow into?  A sort of shadow-self, perhaps:  a Caliban, a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away:  things like envy, and malice, and frustration ...

Waters does a good job of building the atmosphere necessary for this type of tale.  She uses Dr. Faraday as a narrator; he sounds completely reasonable and is a medical doctor who is always looking for a rational explanation for what happens.  But, as is usually the case with first person narrators, it is not entirely clear that Dr. Faraday is a reliable narrator.  Especially as it becomes clear that he has complicated feelings for Hundreds Hall and for the family.  After establishing Dr. Faraday and his character, Waters then begins to layer on stories told to Dr. Faraday by members of the household.  Dr. Faraday is telling the tale but, often, he is telling us what another character has relayed to him, while adding his own interpretation. 

For instance, Roderick confesses to Dr. Faraday (who tells us) that strange things have been happening in the Billiard Room, where he now sleeps and which he also uses as an office.  Roderick's possessions disappear and then reappear.  He sees a shaving mirror move across a table toward him.  But, although Dr. Faraday relates Roderick's tale to us, he also tells us that this is certainly a delusion, perhaps brought on by post-war trauma and the pressure of trying to keep the estate together. 

Caroline relates the story to Dr. Faraday (who tells us) of strange tapping sounds in the walls and ringing telephones and childlike writing found in the woodwork of the Saloon and the hall; but surely, Dr. Faraday tells us as he relates her story, the house is old and it makes strange sounds and the telephone wires could be crossed because of the cold weather.   The creepiest portion of the novel, Mrs. Ayres' experience in the old nursery, is pieced together by Dr. Faraday from parts told to him by Mrs. Ayres, Caroline and the servants.  But again, Dr. Faraday assures himself and us that Mrs. Ayres is suffering from delusions.  Or is she?

Waters unabashedly peppers her tale with allusions to other famous ghost stories and tales of the supernatural.   Let me admit right now that I've never been an aficionado of ghost stories - I admit to being a wimp and having to sleep with my light on after I've read a scary tale.   So I tend to stay away from them.  But even I have read the most famous works and can recognize allusions to The Fall of the House of Usher and The Turn of the Screw.  

It may seem natural to set a creepy scene with Mrs. Ayres in the nursery.  Susan Ayres died of diptheria in the old night nursery; Dr. Faraday's mother was a nursery maid (although years before Susan died). And, in fact, this nursery isn't a particularly frightening place; it was used by Caroline and Roderick in their youth and was even used to billet soldiers during the war but ... who can forget Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (and the terrifying movie made by Robert Wise) where the coldest spot in the house was outside the old nursery?   As Mrs. Ayres was mounting the staircase to go to the nursery I was calling out in my mind Don't go there! 

The only complaint I might make about the novel is that Waters herself doesn't seem to have believed enough in her own tale of the supernatural.  She seemed reluctant to directly and unambiguously define the source of the evil that overcame the inhabitants of Hundreds Hall.  

Based on the last paragraph of the novel, I assume that she wants us to believe that the little stranger emanated from Dr. Faraday himself:

If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn't show itself to me.  For I'll turn, and am disappointed -- realizing that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own.

Keeping in mind that Dr. Faraday is himself responsible for a cracked window pane (when Caroline jilted him he broke a pane by throwing the ring), this final paragraph seems a confirmation that it was Dr. Faraday's psyche that created the emanation which preyed on the house and its inhabitants, but he is denying it to himself.  And this is not unlikely given his history of vandalizing the house so that he could possess a part of it (remember the plaster acorn).  On the other hand, when he makes this statement he may not be looking at his cracked window pane and perhaps he is simply being truthful when he says that he has never seen the emanation that Caroline saw. 

As an ending, it is a bit of a let down. Perhaps Waters was consciously evoking what turned out to be the ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw and hoped her readers would argue over her ending for years to come.  But although there have been arguments about The Turn of the Screw for many years, it isn't at all clear that Henry James intended to create any overt ambiguity that a casual one-time reader would notice.   The casual one-time reader of this novel would certainly feel as if the whole story was not told.

So, rather than shutting the novel with a contented sigh, I found myself flipping back through it to see if maybe I was mistaken.  Or to prove to myself that I was right.  But I found nothing definitive.  In fact, I realized that I could make a pretty good argument that it was Caroline who was the source of the little stranger and that she did eventually realize it was herself (that "You!" could have meant anyone, even herself).    But that just didn't feel right; it seemed the wrong answer when looking at the entire story that Waters was trying to tell. 

All of which led me to the most obvious question: why did Waters choose to tell her story in the form of a ghost story? 

Waters, when interviewed in connection with the Booker shortlist, said that she read many novels written during that time period:

Marghanita Laski, Elizabeth Jenkins, Mollie Panter-Downes, for example: they tried to capture this very particular moment in British rural history when an older way of life was dying off and working-class people had all sorts of new opportunities; their middle-class characters, however, are pained and struggling, and the feeling you take from their novels is one of loss and sadness, not of excitement at the prospect of social and cultural change. But the earnestness with which they address the issue of class shows what a hot topic it was for them, and that was my starting-point, really: that deep anxiety about class; that fear and uncertainty about what was going to happen to the nation next.

Certainly, there is nothing that can evoke fear better than a well-told ghost story.  And despite the ending, Waters tells the supernatural portion of the story in a compelling way.   And a ghost story told by a master in an ambiguous way can create a sense of uncertainty.

A ghost story also allows Waters to portray people whose lives are buffeted by uncontrollable forces.  The landed classes, like the Ayres, have lived all their lives in a class system that is as comfortable as their old home.  But after the war the system that they once controlled has now turned on them in the same way that their own home, Hundreds Hall, seems to have turned on them.   

And the fact that the house has become possessed by the little stranger is similar to the fact that many of the grand old houses of England were being sold for taxes and were now possessed by strangers. 

The little stranger, in fact, makes its first appearance on the night that Mrs. Ayres decides to host a "little gathering" and invite the new neighbors who have purchased one of the old houses of the county.  (It is perhaps a clue that "little" is an adjective bandied about without much real meaning - Mrs. Ayres throws a "little gathering" which is simply a cocktail party and the family congregates in the "little" parlor, which is not at all small and is simply a parlor.  So perhaps the little stranger is simply a stranger.)

Dr. Faraday admits that the "thought of the Hall being opened up to strangers unsettled me slightly."   The new neighbors may be strangers, but Dr. Faraday is also a stranger, but he very much wants not to be a stranger.  While Dr. Faraday observes and reports on all the family members and the servants it is, in fact, Dr. Faraday himself who is probably the most interesting character because he is a member of that middle class that is "pained and struggling."  

At the party something causes Gyp, the old black Labrador Retriever who has never harmed a fly, to attack a little girl. This is a terrible incident and it leads to demands that the dog, Gyp, be destroyed.   The family cannot protect Gyp and ignore these demands the way they once could have simply by virtue of their status.  When Caroline consents to have Gyp destroyed she seems to give up:  she says that everything else is gone, why not Gyp?  Perhaps I was simply overly-affected by the death of a Black Lab because I have one in my own family, but the death of Gyp was the part of the novel that affected me the most.  I thought it showed just how harmful and unreasonable was the family's  attachment to a house they could no longer afford.  In protecting the house and their reputations, they killed a living being. 

Dr. Faraday asks one of his patients, a "labouring man", if he thinks a dog that did what Gyp did should be destroyed.   "He answered, without hesitation, that he did not - because as he'd just said, every dog was a biter and where was the sense in punishing a creature for what was natural to it."   But Dr. Faraday sees that the little girl's parents are likely to make trouble and he knows that the estate cannot handle a big claim.  And he counsels that the dog be put to death.  Perhaps this seems logical, but by making her story a ghost story Waters makes it even more clear that Gyp was innocent.

The death of Gyp was the first moment that I thought - oh hang the house.  Do the right thing; risk losing it.           

The supernatural aspects of the tale also allow Waters to produce metaphors for the changes being worked in the master/servant relationship. The servant bell call system must be disconnected because the bells keep ringing at odd times.   The speaking tube by which servants in the nursery could call down to the kitchen must be destroyed because it is making strange noises and plays a part in Mrs. Ayres moments in the nursery.  Betty, the maid, must be moved to one of the bedrooms normally used by the family.  As Mrs. Ayres deteriorates, Betty plays board games with her to entertain her.  Mrs. Ayres lets her try on old fur coats and dresses as she goes through her wardrobe.  The little stranger is destroying the social order. 

Finally, it may be that Waters' choice of a ghost story as the vehicle for her underlying story will make this novel more successful on this side of the Atlantic.  Americans might not be much interested in a tale of the class struggles of the English after World War II.  But they can enjoy a good ghost story.