The Little Stranger

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Disambiguation: "The Little Stranger" is also the title of one of the Color Classics series produced March 13, 1936 in three-strip Technicolor by Fleischer Studios.
First edition UK cover of The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger is a 2009 gothic novel written by Sarah Waters. It is a ghost story set in a dilapidated mansion in Warwickshire, England in the 1940s. Departing from her earlier themes of lesbian and gay fiction, Waters' fifth novel features a male narrator, a country doctor who makes friends with an old gentry family of declining fortunes who own a very old estate that is crumbling around them. The stress of reconciling the state of their finances with the familial responsibility of keeping the estate coincides with perplexing events which may or may not be of supernatural origin, culminating in tragedy.

Reviewers note that the themes in The Little Stranger are alternately reflections of evil and the social upheaval of the class system in postwar Britain. Waters stated that she did not set out to write a ghost story, but began her writing with an exploration of the rise of socialism in the United Kingdom and how the fading gentry dealt with losing their legacies. A mix of influences is evident to reviewers: Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Wilkie Collins, and Edgar Allan Poe. The novel was mostly well received by critics as Waters' strengths are exhibited in setting of mood and pacing of the story. It is Waters' third novel to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.[1]

Background[edit]

Waters' writing was well-received upon the publication of her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, a story set in Victorian London. She began writing in her early 30s while completing a dissertation in English literature about gay and lesbian fiction from the 1870s onward. Not enjoying the expository, she attempted fiction and finding that she liked it, followed Tipping the Velvet with Affinity, another Victorian-set novel with gothic themes, and Fingersmith, also Victorian yet more a Dickensian crime drama. All three have significant lesbian themes and characters; Waters often labels them as "Victorian lesbo romps".[2] To avoid being pigeonholed as a niche writer, however (asking "Why, oh why, did I ever allow the phrase 'lesbo Victorian romp' to cross my lips?"[3]), she followed these with The Night Watch, which also has gay and lesbian characters, but is set in the 1940s.[4]

For The Little Stranger, Waters diverted from overt lesbian themes, but incorporated other elements from previous books. A character in Affinity talks to spirits of the dead; the setting of Fingersmith is a large country estate inhabited by a small family and house staff; The Night Watch is set in post-WWII Britain with characters who are somewhat at a loss with what to do following the upheaval of war. Barry Didock in The Herald considers The Night Watch a companion piece to The Little Stranger.[5] Waters states that the change from a conservative to socialist society was her true impetus for writing The Little Stranger: "I didn't set out to write a haunted house novel. I wanted to write about what happened to class in that post-war setting. It was a time of turmoil in exciting ways. Working class people had come out of the war with higher expectations. They had voted in the Labour government. They want change.... So it was a culture in a state of change. But obviously for some people it was a change for the worse."[6] She set out, in actuality, to rewrite a version of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey, a courtroom thriller about a middle-class family accused of kidnapping a young girl.[7]

Waters is well known for the immense amount of research she completes for her novels. Researching for The Night Watch gave her background that she used in The Little Stranger, leading her to call 1947 "a miserable year"; much of her time preparing for this novel was spent in Warwickshire estate homes and local newspaper archives.[7] She told The Globe and Mail

I read a lot of novels from the period. And diaries were a wonderful resource. I also watched films from that period and went to museums and archives to look at ephemera from the period. I like to try to capture the idiom and slang... A writer at that time wouldn't have used profanity in a respectable novel. But if you look at diaries or letters, people were swearing all the time, in very modern-sounding ways. One of the excitements about writing about the past from the present is that you can put in a lot of the details that the mainstream novelists of the time couldn't because of the conventions of the time.[6]

Plot summary[edit]

Faraday, a country doctor with humble beginnings, is called to Hundreds Hall, an 18th-century estate that has lived far beyond its former glory. He treats a young maid who dislikes the large, drafty emptiness of the house, but strikes a friendship with Caroline Ayres, the unmarried daughter of the family, her brother Roderick, who continues to heal physically and mentally from his experiences as a pilot in World War II, and their mother, the lady of the estate. He begins treating Roderick's lingering badly healed wounds and becomes a family friend, knowing them well enough to realise they are in dire financial straits and unable to keep the house in any comfortable condition without selling their lands or objects in the house.

In an attempt to cheer up the family and possibly match Caroline to a potential husband, they throw a party for a few family friends when disaster strikes. A couple brings their young child who is mauled by Caroline's ancient and previously gentle Labrador retriever. Roderick begins to behave moodily and drink heavily. Faraday believes the strain of managing the estate is at fault. Roderick, however, divulges that something appeared in his room the night the dog attacked the girl. It was first in his room trying to harm him, and that he must keep the unseen force focused on him so as not to direct its attention to his sister or mother. Spots begin appearing on his walls looking like burns, and he is committed to a mental hospital after Caroline awakes in the middle of the night to find his room on fire though he is passed out in a drunken stupor.

Faraday and Caroline waver between romance and confused platonic friendship. Other sounds in the house alarm Caroline and Mrs Ayres and their two maids. They find curious childish writing on the walls where these activities have taken place. The maids' bells sound without anyone calling them; the phone rings in the middle of the night with no one on the line. A 19th century tube communication device linking the abandoned nursery to the kitchen begins to sound, scaring the maids. When Mrs Ayres goes to investigate, she is locked in the nursery where Susan, her much-loved first daughter, died of diphtheria at eight years old. Experiencing shadows and indiscernible fluttering and frantic to escape, Mrs Ayres pounds the windows open, cutting her arms. After Caroline and the maids free her and she recovers, she comes to believe and take comfort that Susan is around her at all times, that Susan is impatient to be with her though she sometimes harms her. Caroline and the maid find one morning Mrs Ayres has hanged herself.

The day of Mrs Ayres' funeral, Faraday and Caroline set plans to marry in six weeks' time. Caroline, however, is listless and uninterested in the wedding, eventually calling it off and making plans to sell Hundreds Hall. Faraday is unable to believe it and tries several times to talk Caroline out of it to no avail. On the night of their would-be wedding, Faraday has a call that keeps him out and comes home to learn that Caroline hurled herself off of the second floor onto a marble landing, killing herself. The maid reports at the inquest that she awoke to hear Caroline go upstairs to inspect a sound she heard in the darkened hall. She simply said "You!" then fell to her death. Three years later, Faraday continues to visit the abandoned mansion, unable to find what Caroline saw.

Style[edit]

Sara O'Leary in The Gazette states that Waters' narrative voice is her strongest asset and that she has an "uncanny ability to synthesize her research and is never expository in the telling details she draws upon—tiny little things about what people wore or ate or had in their houses".[8] Emma Donoghue in the Globe and Mail remarks on the diversion from the narrative style in The Little Stranger. Waters is known in her previous four novels for providing plot twists, but this one, notes Donoghue, provides a straightforward accounting that tackles issues of insanity, poltergeists, and family secrets "with a minimum of tricks".[9] The review in The Washington Post concurs, using a quote by Henry James to say everything to be done in the way of ghost stories and haunted houses has been done. Ron Charles states that the novel is not cliché due to Waters' restraint: "the story's sustained ambiguity is what keeps our attention, and her perfectly calibrated tone casts an unnerving spell".[10] A similar review appeared in The Australian calling attention to Waters' "moderation and flawless cadence" that forms "a story pulsing with malevolent energy" and an "atmosphere is wickedly, addictively tense".[3]

In The Sunday Telegraph, John Preston writes that "the richness of Waters's writing ensures that the air of thickening dread is very thick indeed. Everything, from Mrs Ayres's 'absurdly over-engineered shoes', to the hairs on Caroline's legs—each one 'laden with dust, like an eye-blacked lash'—is described with a wonderfully sharp eye."[11] Waters herself acknowledges the light-handedness of the supernatural elements of the story, stating "I wanted the ghost story to be fairly subtle. The ghost stories that I've enjoyed are uncanny, unsettling and eerie more than they are about in-your-face pyrotechnics. I wanted it to be very based in the social context of the time, but for it to have this extra element of strangeness."[6]

Several references in The Little Stranger indicate the influences Waters used in its composition. Rebecca Starford in The Australian praises Waters' ability to use elements from other authors: "Waters is one of the great contemporary storytellers. She has never made bones about borrowing", noting that her inspirations for this story were Daphne du Maurier, Henry James, Agatha Christie, and Charles Dickens.[3] As children, Roderick and Caroline changed the hands of a broken clock to twenty minutes to nine, thinking it amusing to reflect the stopped clocks of Miss Havisham's house from Dickens' Great Expectations. Like the narrator of du Maurier's Rebecca, Faraday has no first name; the man overcome by the house in Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher is also named Roderick. Peter Cannon in Publishers Weekly writes that the novel is evocative of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.[12]

Themes[edit]

Evil[edit]

The Little Stranger is set in an estate similar to Ragley Hall in Warwickshire with extensive grounds, although many rooms in Hundreds Hall are closed, making it seem partially paralysed.

As a doctor, Faraday is a rational narrator who confronts each member of the Ayres family and the maids in turn as they divulge their suspicions that something in the house is alive. As he consults with other physicians, they are able to explain away the strange happenings easily with answers supplied by medicine and psychology. Waters does not give definitive answers about the occurrences, leaving it more a philosophical issue. Not wanting to frustrate the reader however, she admits "I tried to keep it strange, keep what was happening genuinely odd, without closing it down with a neat explanation at the end."[13] The title of the book is a reference to Faraday's continuing questions; Roderick is fearful that the house is infectious. Eventually Faraday wonders if it is "consumed by some dark germ, some ravenous shadow-creature, some 'little stranger' spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house itself".[3][14]

Emma Donoghue considers the deepest theme of the story to be "the unpindownability of evil", as suspicion shifts to individuals who may be self-destructing from the forces around them, possible malevolent motivations from the family or house staff, an unseen force inhabiting the house, or Faraday himself.[9] Faraday's concern for the family is often intertwined for concern for the house so that he often discourages those who are obviously troubled by staying there from leaving it. He explains away the suspicions of Mrs Ayres, who believes that Susan is in the house trying to hasten their reunion; Caroline, who believes that Roderick is so upset in the mental institution that a part of him is trying to contact the family to warn them of something; and Betty, the maid who is convinced the malevolent spirit of a former domestic resides on the second floor of the home. Faraday's rationalisations become increasingly improbable as he blames all the strangeness on fatigue, stress, even the house's plumbing.[5] Ron Charles in The Washington Post considers Faraday's deep concern for the family that is often mixed with envy to be influenced by Patricia Highsmith's psychopathic manipulator Tom Ripley.[10]

Class[edit]

Class and ambition is repeatedly referenced in the novel. Faraday's mother was at one time a nursery maid at Hundreds Hall, much like Waters' grandparents who were domestics in a country estate;[2] the reader is first given a description of its opulence when the narrator is a child and he attends a garden fête, and is so entranced with the building he plies a piece of it off and puts it in his pocket. He often revisits his memory of his first significant impression of the mansion comparing it with its current state. Soldiers were billeted in its rooms during the recent war. Two centuries of wear and weather have taken their toll, and the taxes on the British gentry are too high for the family to bear. They attempt to reconcile their family legacy with the reality of having no money to keep it up. Charlotte Heathcote in The Sunday Express and Rebecca Starford in The Australian both note that the novel is preoccupied with class.[15]

Faraday too is conflicted as he recounts how his family sacrificed everything, including his mother's health and life to give him his education. He laments that he has not achieved anything with it and he visits Hundreds Hall vacillating between being flattered and feeling undeserving of knowing a family like the Ayres. They, however, seem resolute to not being able to afford the upkeep of the house and once Roderick is gone, Caroline and Mrs Ayres are ambivalent about staying in the house. It is Faraday who is most indignant about the family being forced to sell their land and possessions. Faraday is an unreliable narrator, and reviewers noted the slight discrepancies in what he says to the family as their doctor and his devotion to the house at their expense.[9][16]

Near the end, as Faraday attempts to explain reasonably and scientifically why the family for which he has grown so fond is falling apart, he wonders what must be eating them alive; a friend blurts "Something is....It's called a Labour government."[9][17] Barry Didock notes that Waters captures the stark mood of postwar Britain that Evelyn Waugh did in Brideshead Revisited, where the social changes the country was encountering did not make the future optimistic at all.[5] The anxiety about the future is so all-consuming that Scarlett Thomas in The New York Times suggests it is the cause for speculation about each character's sanity.[16] Waters concedes that although her novels are all period pieces, they are not meant to instill an overwhelming romantic sense of nostalgia: "I'd hate to think that my writing's escapist. For me, my interest in the past is closely linked to my interest in the present, in the historical process of how things lead to others."[2]

Reception[edit]

Upon its release on 28 May 2009, reception to the novel was mostly positive. Ron Charles in The Washington Post calls The Little Stranger "deliciously creepy", stating that the tale is "one screw away from The Fall of the House of Usher".[10] Erica Wagner, a reviewer for The Times confesses that "left alone one night in her boxy Seventies ex-council house—about as unspooky a place as you can imagine—had to stop reading for fright".[18] Corinna Hente in The Herald Sun writes "This is a terrific, chilling read you can get lost in, from a first-class storyteller", although she accedes that the novel is slow to start and readers may be disappointed with the ambiguous ending.[19] Charlotte Heathcote calls Waters "a darkly masterful storyteller with a rare gift for bringing a bygone era to vibrant life".[15] The ambiguity of the jostling between evil and class was praised by Scarlett Thomas in The New York Times, as Thomas notes, "Sarah Waters is an excellent, evocative writer, and this is an incredibly gripping and readable novel" but questions about the likable Ayres family who are killed as if by being socially redundant leave Thomas uncomfortable.[16]

Kirkus Reviews was similarly pleased with Waters' detail, but considered the relaxing of tension in crucial places and Faraday's sometimes second-hand narration of events in Hundreds Hall flawed. They write, however, that Waters "work[s] in traditions established by Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan le Fanu and Wilkie Collins, expertly teasing us with suggestive allusions to the classics of supernatural fiction. A subtle clue planted in one character's given name neatly foreshadows, then explains, the Ayres family's self-destructive insularity."[20] John Preston in The Sunday Telegraph was disappointed with the ending, complaining of the loss of tension, but states, "it's still a hell of a ride getting there".[11] Tom Beer in Newsday greatly praised the novel, writing that "the pleasures of The Little Stranger aren't those of your garden-variety suspense novel. They lie, instead, with the author's uncanny ability to paint her characters and their world and to seduce the reader into following along with her. Hundreds Hall is a pretty gloomy place, but I was thrilled to spend time there, under the guidance of this supremely gifted storyteller."[21]

Following Fingersmith and The Night Watch, The Little Stranger became Waters' third novel to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, a prestigious award for novelists who are citizens of the British Commonwealth.[1] Salon.com chose the novel as one of the best books of 2009.[22] Waters' website reports that the novel has been optioned for a film adaptation.[23]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b The Little Stranger, Man Booker Prize website. Retrieved on 15 September 2009.
  2. ^ a b c Allemang, John (18 May 2009). "Ghost writer: She's known for writing Victorian-era lesbian sex romps, but best-selling author Sarah Waters haunts a new genre in her latest novel, The Little Stranger", The Globe and Mail (Canada) p. R1.
  3. ^ a b c d Starford, Rebecca (2 May 2009). "Something wicked this way comes", The Weekend Australian, p. 12.
  4. ^ "Sarah Waters", Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2009. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center.
  5. ^ a b c Didock, Barry (30 May 2009). "Capturing the spirit of the age: A haunting novel evokes the claustrophobia of postwar Britain", The Herald (Glasgow), p. 9.
  6. ^ a b c Wagner, Vit (16 May 2009). "Post-war Britain ripe for ghost stories; U.K. author moves forward in time with latest historical novel", The Toronto Star, p. E06.
  7. ^ a b McCrum, Robert (10 May 2009). "What Lies Beneath: Ghosts, Gothic horror, lesbians, poltergeists, female hysteria... There are hidden depths to Sarah Waters...", The Observer (England), p. 20.
  8. ^ O'Leary, Sarah (16 May 2009). "Odd doings at hundreds hall; Sarah waters takes readers somewhere unexpected", The Gazette (Montreal), p. H11.
  9. ^ a b c d Donoghue, Emma (16 May 2009). "Just who's to blame for all this horror?", The Globe and Mail (Canada), p. F10.
  10. ^ a b c Charles, Ron (20 May 2009). "This Old House; Sarah Waters restores a classic ghost story to its original condition", The Washington Post, p. C04.
  11. ^ a b Preston, John (17 May 2009). "FICTION: Sarah Waters's old-style ghost story makes the hairs on the back of John Preston's neck stand up", The Sunday Telegraph (London), p. 29.
  12. ^ Cannon, Peter (13 July 2009). "Horror for the Refined", Publishers Weekly, p. 20.
  13. ^ Gilbert, Matthew (24 July 2009). "A Ghostly Turn", The Boston Globe, p. 5.
  14. ^ Waters, p. 463.
  15. ^ a b Heathcote, Charlotte, (12 July 2009). "FICTION: Review", Sunday Express, p. 67.
  16. ^ a b c Thomas, Scarlett (31 May 2009). "House Calls", The New York Times, p. 20
  17. ^ Waters, p. 351.
  18. ^ Wagner, Erica (30 May 2009). "Terror at every turn: A traditional ghost story still has the power to chill in Sarah Waters's masterly hands", The Times (London), p. 11.
  19. ^ Hente, Corinna (16 May 2009). "Stranger than fiction", The Herald Sun (Australia), p. 18.
  20. ^ "The Little Stranger", Kirkus Reviews (May 2009).
  21. ^ Beer, Tom (10 May 2009). "The spirit is thrilling: Unwelcome guests haunts the manor in this compelling ghost story", Newsday (New York), p. C22.
  22. ^ Miller, Laura (8 December 2009). The best fiction of 2009, Salon.com. Retrieved on 29 January 2011.
  23. ^ The Little Stranger Optioned for Film by Potboiler Sarah Waters.com (18 August 2009). Retrieved on 15 September 2009.
  • References to The Little Stranger correspond to Waters, Sarah (2009). The Little Stranger, Riverhead Trade (American edition). ISBN 978-1-59448-880-1

External links[edit]