Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters and I have had our ups and downs, mostly due to the fact that I read her first three novels in reverse order of their publication--from the twisty, superb Fingersmith, through the intense but punishing Affinity, to the borderline unreadable Tipping the Velvet. However unfairly--since, after all, Waters had been improving as a writer--I found myself reluctant to go any further with her, and gave her fourth novel, The Night Watch, a pass. Positive responses to it, as well as the slow healing of the wounds left by Tipping the Velvet, persuaded me to make a stab at her latest effort, The Little Stranger, and I'm glad I did. Fingersmith remains my favorite of Waters's novels, and I have serious problems with Stranger, but there's no denying that it is both absorbing and intense--shockingly so, given the ordinariness of its setting and the matter-of-fact way in which its events are reported. Even more importantly, it demonstrates--as the first three novels would have, had I not had the misfortune to read them in the wrong order--that Waters is not content to rest on her laurels, either in her settings or in her style. She's an author who is testing the boundaries of her talent and continually complicating the kind of stories she writes, with results that are, at the very least, fascinating to observe.

What I find interesting about Waters is that she's clearly a writer who is torn between her romantic and realistic impulses. Her first and third novels are driven by the vast array of pulpy tropes that make up the romantic novelist's toolkit: the babies switched at birth, mistaken identities, wicked guardians, and false confinement to a mental asylum in Fingersmith; the sequence of evil, unworthy, or unsuitable lovers the heroine must traipse through before she meets her one true love in Tipping the Velvet. In between these two novels, however, Waters wrote Affinity, a claustrophobic psychological novel which concerned itself almost exclusively with its narrator, Margaret's, troubled state of mind, and whose events and settings were stiflingly mundane. Affinity's plot is essentially Margaret moving back and forth between the cramped, airless house in which she is profoundly unhappy, and the drab, institutional prison where she visits female inmates, as she falls deeper into the delusion that one of the inmates--who is clearly manipulating her--loves her, and draws closer and closer to ruin and suicide. Though Waters's descriptions are undeniably effective, I found Affinity to be a profoundly mean-spirited novel, the literary equivalent of a splatter film. I felt that it expected me to enjoy the intensity with which Waters described Margaret's unraveling--certainly there was no room for pity, only a cold disdain, in her descriptions of the lonely and pathetic Margaret--and couldn't help but wonder if like so many artists before her, Waters had mistaken ugliness for realism.

The Little Stranger is a partly successful fusion of these two impulses. It's a ghost story mixed with the story of the decline of the British upper class, a sort of cross between Brideshead Revisited and The Haunting of Hill House. It achieves its romantic effect--the ratcheting dread experienced by the inhabitants of Hundreds Hall--through mundane means, and describes that dread and its causes through the eyes of a thoroughly mundane and rational man. In 1947, Doctor Faraday (whose first name is never revealed to us) is called to the dilapidated Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. Once the home of one of the county's most illustrious families, both the house and its inhabitants--the widowed Mrs. Ayres and her grown-up children Roderick and Caroline--have fallen into disrepair. The changes in economic reality and attitudes towards class wrought by the two world wars mean that the Ayreses no longer have the financial wherewithal to field the army of servants needed to keep their house from falling apart and themselves in the manner to which they had been accustomed. Faraday finds them living in genteel squalor--Mrs. Ayres clinging to the affectations of the squire's wife even though she has no one left to condescend to, Roderick faltering under the cumulative weight of lingering shell-shock and the stress of keeping the failing estate afloat, and Caroline, cursed with a plain face and a decent brain, desperate to get out.

Faraday, whose mother was once a servant at Hundreds and who carries a chip on his shoulder for that, as well as for his own confused class feelings--his working class parents worked themselves into an early grave in order to put him through medical school--is nevertheless drawn to the family, becoming their confidant and benefactor, offering advice, free medical care, and the occasional luxury item in exchange for a half-hearted acceptance as something between a servant and a member of the family. Dan Hartland calls Faraday's confused response to the Ayreses an expression of England's continuing love-hate relationship with its upper class, which is no doubt true, but not having experienced this ambivalence first hand I was mainly reminded of other novels that toy with it--Brideshead Revisited, of course, but also The Go-Between, The Line of Beauty, and Beware of Pity. Like the protagonists of those novels, Faraday is a man who has had to discard his origins in order to advance in life, and now finds himself without a sense of self. He's drawn to the Ayreses not because of their privilege and wealth--which they no longer possess--but because of the unshakable certainty with which they regard their place in the world. That same certainty, however, renders the Ayreses impermeable, a self-contained unit which Faraday can observe and occasionally interact with, but to which he can never truly belong. The only way for Faraday to gain admittance to the family is for it to be torn down.

And torn down it is. One by one, the Ayreses fall by the wayside, undone by poverty and their inability to cope with their reduced circumstances. As, of course, we knew they must, as Waters promises in the novel's opening paragraph, in which Faraday recalls a childhood visit to Hundreds, which even then seemed to him "like an ice ... just beginning to melt in the sun." It is precisely this certainty of the family's doom, however, that recalls the mean-spiritedness of Affinity. The whole point of the novel seems to be for us to observe the disintegration of a family whose destruction is assured from the get-go. Because Waters continues to grow more subtle and more sophisticated with each novel she writes, The Little Stranger is not nearly as uncomfortable a read as Affinity. Several off-ramps appear on the family's path towards doom, making that doom seem less inevitable, and the obvious homage to Brideshead Revisited and its ilk softens the sting of the Ayreses' failure to take advantage of these opportunities, a failure which seems less like a choice on Waters's part and more like keeping faith with her literary antecedents. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the novel's emotional charge is derived mostly from waiting for the next axe to fall, for the next calamity to afflict the Ayreses and claim another one of their number.

Far from being tragic, this anticipation of calamity is the source of the novel's pleasure--the pleasure one feels at the thrills and scares of a horror movie. It's through the romantic, ghost story aspect of the novel that the Ayreses' destruction is related, as the family experiences hauntings and supernatural events which rattle the self-assurance that their real-world troubles had left untroubled. If, in the past, the Ayreses had been able to retreat to Hundreds Hall and pretend that the world hadn't changed around them, now the house itself seems to have turned against them. All of which is not to say that The Little Stranger is a genre novel--indeed it is determinedly, deliberately ambiguous about its genre, offering a rational explanation immediately alongside each supposed supernatural happening. For that matter, the specific type of supernatural phenomenon at work is never settled upon, with several different explanations suggested--is Hundreds haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Ayres's oldest daughter? Does it house a poltergeist? Is the emotionally unstable Roderick a firestarter? Does the teenage servant Betty have telekinetic powers? Is Caroline unconsciously punishing the family that has immured her in her childhood home?--but never enough 'evidence' to support any of them over the others.

To a genre reader, this ambiguity seems a little like the coyness of a mainstream writer not quite willing to admit having written a genre novel (though given her pulpy leanings this may be an unfair charge to lay at Waters's feet). I certainly found it less effective than in novels like The Haunting of Hill House, which like The Little Stranger leave us uncertain as to whether the haunted character is truly haunted or insane. In these more overt genre works, the uncertainty is used to bring us into the main character's fractured headspace. The Little Stranger, however, uses it as a distancing device. Faraday being so entirely rational means that the dilemma is just that--two competing theories, each with evidence for and against it--instead of the mingling of rationality and horror that make Hill House or The Turn of the Screw so effective.

That said, it is probably the case that Waters wasn't trying to emulate The Haunting of Hill House or any other straight up ghost story, for all that she may be recalling them, and that the distancing she creates through Faraday's mundane, unimaginative worldview is quite deliberate. Dan Hartland's reading that the supernatural elements of the novel are both a smokescreen and a metaphor for the more mundane attacks against the Ayreses and their class--as another character says to Faraday, what's sucking the life out of the house is the labor government and its deliberate strategy of taxing and regulating the upper class out of existence--is more generous than mine and quite likely closer to what Waters intended with the novel. It doesn't, however, change the fact that Waters takes advantage of an ambiguity she has no intention of supporting. None of the supernatural explanations for the Ayreses' predicament--not even the supposed revelation of the novel's closing paragraph--truly hold water, and in the end it's hard not to feel that Waters was simply wasting our time, using the ghost story--and the question of whether the novel actually is a ghost story--to gussy up a too-familiar Brideshead retelling, then tossing it by the wayside when it's no longer useful.

I've touched here mostly on my complaints against The Little Stranger, which is unfair because, as I said at the beginning of this review, I did find the novel nearly unputdownable. There's a lot here that's worth reading for--Faraday himself, with his complete lack of self-awareness and mixed up class prejudices, is a masterful example of the unreliable narrator, and his descriptions of the increasing calamities at Hundreds are a fine demonstration of the power of an affectless, boring and personality-free voice to create tension and horror. It's what's left when the last page is turned and the effect of the novel's romantic elements is allowed to subside--the Brideshead homage, the discussion of class in post-war Britain--that is leaving me, if not cold, then a little put off. Though The Little Stranger restored my faith in Waters as a writer, I can't help but feel that it is a mean novel. It may not be a ghost story, but it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the kind of horror novel that gives its genre a bad name--the kind that expects us to turn off empathy and enjoy the suffering of others. I can't help but feel that between this extreme and Evelyn Waugh's fawning lament for the death of the British upper class there is a more sensible, more compassionate middle ground, but Sarah Waters hasn't found it yet.

42 comments:

thestoryandthetruth said...

None of the supernatural explanations for the Ayreses' predicament--not even the supposed revelation of the novel's closing paragraph--truly hold water

Sure ... but neither does Farday's rational explanations. I'm not sure it's fair at all to say that Waters simply uses the ghost story for convenience's sake - the form is clearly part of the grain of the novel. That the book isn't a straight ghost story, a didactic tale insisting on its supernatural elements, doesn't make it a cynical exercise ins appropriation. The twists and turns, the creeping dread and helpless terror, of the ghost story are all fundamental to the book; no one explanation of its events is entirely satisfying, and that seems to me part of the point.

I'm also uncertain that we're meant to enjoy the suffering of the Ayreses. I bumped up time and again against how sympathetic the book is towards the Ayreses: I'm fairly happy, thank you, with ancient estates being broken up if ordinary people are going to get better housing out of it, but this book isn't, entirely. There's an elegiac quality to the story which asks us to look at what we have lost, selling off all of our heirlooms and letting grand parlours go to ruin. Whilst your right that Waters is thankfully not as priggish as Evelyn Waugh, nor is her book some socialistic schadenfreude. I think it's much tenderer than you're allowing for.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think the only element that isn't satisfactorily explained by the rational reading is Caroline's fate, and even in that case I don't find the official explanation too tough to swallow.

no one explanation of its events is entirely satisfying, and that seems to me part of the point

That could very well be true, but if so I'm not particularly satisfied with this choice. That the novel doesn't browbeat its readers into accepting a certain interpretation of its events doesn't absolve Waters of the responsibility to make sure that the available interpretations are credible or at least internally consistent. I find it difficult to care for a story that is as incoherent as The Little Stranger turns out to be if you think about it too much, and if that incoherence was deliberate than I'm not just apathetic but annoyed.

I agree that Waters doesn't expect us to enjoy the Ayreses' downfall any more than she expected us to enjoy Margaret's in Affinity - that in fact, we're meant to sympathize with all of these characters. But it's here that I think the novel's generic and realistic elements butt heads. What makes The Little Stranger pleasurable - the ghost story and its thrills - is also the narrative of the Ayreses' downfall. So though Waters might not have wanted us to enjoy that downfall, she's constructed her novel in such a way as to almost force us to enjoy it. Again, I don't think Stranger is as bad as Affinity in this respect, and that's due in part to the sympathy Waters extends to the Ayreses, but there's only so much she can do to combat her own genre and structure.

thestoryandthetruth said...

I think the only element that isn't satisfactorily explained by the rational reading is Caroline's fate, and even in that case I don't find the official explanation too tough to swallow.

You are clearly more credulous than I. :P My reading of the rational explanations were that they were just enough - they stretched themselves to within breaking point, just to cover the facts. This recalled not just the obvious - the Ayreses' and their world is doing just the same and it of course snaps - but also that short conversation in which Faraday and Seeley discuss science: "Perhaps in fifty years' time medicine will have found a way to calibrate the problem, and explained it all." That is, when a solution seems just credible enough, but only just, it's probably because there is another, stranger, explanation which our philosophies have yet to expand to encompass. ("She couldn't have made those knocks! I felt them!" "That, I must admit, I can't explain.")

I think, too, that in saying that the ghost story is what is enjoyable about the novel, you reveal where we part on it. For me, it is in the tensions of the novel - its fabric, not a single thread of it - that the pleasure derives. So, I find the depiction of village life or medical practice in the post-war, pre-welfare state period to be as interesting as the ghost stuff, and the ghost stuff fascinates me only as much as the wonderful drawing of life on a crumbling estate. If you choose to find the ghost story the most interesting element, I'm not sure you can blame Waters for forcing you to do so - she offer a great deal besides. After all, the structure of the book is explicitly not based around the ghost (one of the ways in which Waters signals we shouldn't read it purely as ghost story), the whiff of which doesn't even waft along until 150 pages in.

I think, too, that you can read the inevitability of the book, read it for its thrills, without wanting the next Ayres to fall. As you point out, there's always the faintest hope that there's some other way (geddit?).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

My reading of the rational explanations were that they were just enough - they stretched themselves to within breaking point, just to cover the facts

But doesn't that bring us to the famous saying that it's fiction that needs to be plausible, not reality? At any rate, remember that we never get to see the hauntings first hand - they're all reported to Faraday. Most of these reports put me very much in mind of real world accounts of the paranormal, where in most cases if you take the account at face value you have no choice but to accept the paranormal explanation, and the fault is really in the witness, who is confused, hysterical, possessed of an overactive imagination, misremembering, embellishing the facts, or simply lying. With the exception of Caroline - who doesn't start believing in the supernatural explanation until very late in the novel when even she might be forgiven a little hysteria - it's pretty easy to imagine all of the witnesses in The Little Stranger falling into at least some of these traps.

I find the depiction of village life or medical practice in the post-war, pre-welfare state period to be as interesting as the ghost stuff, and the ghost stuff fascinates me only as much as the wonderful drawing of life on a crumbling estate

That is, as you say, where we part ways. Though I wouldn't say that I don't find these elements interesting or that I think they were badly done. I just don't think they're where the novel lives.

That's a good point about the supernatural coming in so late in the story, and maybe there's an issue here of my expectations going into the novel, as I was aware of the ghost angle (and the question of whether the novel was actually a ghost story). I think 150 pages is going too far, however. I'd call the incident with the dog the first supernatural occurrence, and in my edition it happens around page 100.

thestoryandthetruth said...

the fault is really in the witness

Well, exactly. And again we come back to that discussion about science, in which the fault is with the witness. You're absolutely right that our 'witness' is flawed old Faraday, to whom actual witnesses report their own in turn flawed perceptions. (He does of course see the scenes of the events - the strange burns marks in Rods' room, the odd circumstances of Caroline's fall - which are in and of themselves difficult to fit a rational explanation around.) But again we come to the way in which the book is concerned with how we seek to explain the unexplainable, encompass the unencompassable - events too big for us to understand. Everyone, including the reader, is playing this game. I don't see how this is not plausible as fiction.

I'd call the incident with the dog the first supernatural occurrence, and in my edition it happens around page 100.

Hmm, is prior knowledge coming into play again there, though? I mean, what's supernatural about a dog savaging a child? Nothing at all (unless we know that it will be revealed/suggested there was). Betty is the first to suggest that it's something else, on page 130. We don't get anything concretely weird until page 157, when Rod begins his confessional with Faraday. Until then, everything is perfectly explainable, although fraying at the edges. It's Rod's dancing mirror that starts Faraday's trouble.

Again, the book is not structured like a ghost story. As you rightly point out, our narrator never even sees the 'ghost' for himself! At this point, though, my sense is we're coming at the novel from two different angles. (Even if I do think it's insufficiently holistic to see the the supernatural element as the novel's raison d'être. :P)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not sure I'm following you. My point is that there are two ways to read the book - as a naturalistic story and as a ghost story. If I choose the first reading, then I'm free to apply my knowledge of the real world, and of the fact that eyewitness testimony of the supernatural is famously unreliable and that reality doesn't need to be as neat as fiction to be true. When combined with the facts of the book (such as the fact that its only rational character never witnesses the supernatural first hand), this reading creates a coherent, internally consistent story. If I choose the genre reading, then I expect a story that similarly holds together within the rules of its genre. As a ghost story, the novel doesn't.

As for the dog, you're right that prior knowledge is having an effect, however I don't think having that prior knowledge makes me an unusual or particularly knowledgeable reader. More importantly, the slow buildup of alleged supernatural events is completely in keeping with the structure of the ghost story - they go from easily explainable to more difficult to dismiss to outright unnatural.

thestoryandthetruth said...

Yes, and I think my point is simply that to so cleanly cleave the two elements of the book is to reduce it somewhat. You suggest the book lies in its ghost story; I think it would be fairer to say that the book lies in its own sense of unease, its own inability to fully account for itself, and that reading it as either/or diminises that effect. I think trying to separate out the elements - and then impose a hardcore reading upon then - is never a good idea.

You're right that the book is structured like a ghost story in the sense that events slowly get stranger (though do they? Mrs Ayres experience is stranger than Caroline's), but a) I don't think this gets you out of the bind that those events are not emphasised by their placement within the text, and b) you still can't call the dog incident supernatural without special knowledge. :P

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think it would be fairer to say that the book lies in its own sense of unease, its own inability to fully account for itself, and that reading it as either/or diminises that effect

I don't think I am reading the book as either/or. On the contrary, I'm looking for that unease you're talking about and finding an imbalance instead. The rational reading of the book holds water. The irrational reading doesn't - which is apparently quite deliberate. This leaves me with no doubt as to which reading to prefer, and leads me to conclude that Waters was using the novel's genre elements as bunting. For the novel to have been as wrongfooting as you suggest it is trying to be, Waters would have had to destabilize the rational reading, so that no matter how I chose to read the novel there would be loose ends I couldn't account for. I don't think she did this.

Zahra said...

I'm confused by what you're referring to as the rational and irrational readings. As I read it, all the explanations offered are severely undercut and discarded, until the end when we're left with just two to choose from--at which point I personally found the supernatural explanation more plausible.




Spoiler space



The ghost of Hundred House is either 1) the psychological energy of Dr. Faraday, his lust for the house and repressed class hatred of the Ayres, taking supernatural form (Caroline's "little stranger" theory), or 2) not a ghost at all, but Dr. Faraday. Is this what you mean?

Because it seemed to me that Caroline's fate was the only element better explained by 2 rather than 1 (and even then, Betty hears no other footsteps). I found Mrs. Ayres's experience in the nursery particularly hard to explain rationally. How do you account for it?

Reading your review I wonder if you saw the Ayres as less sensible and more hysterical than I did. I thought the drama was not them collapsing under the weight of their own baggage, but Dr F deliberately (if unconsciously) exploiting that baggage to possess the house. I never doubted that we're supposed to find him the moving agent. He feels a wave of malice toward the girl's father right before the dog attacks, he deliberately gives Roderick one more night at home, the ghost only starts evoking Susan after he learns more about her death, and the book repeatedly makes the point that bad things only happen at the house in his absence.

I am also wondering if and how your rational interpretation of the haunting incorporates Betty.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

More spoilers ahead:

I wonder if you saw the Ayres as less sensible and more hysterical than I did

Yes, certainly. Roderick is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Betty is credulous, bored, and eager for attention, and Mrs. Ayres's confusion about her place in the world is exacerbated by her lingering grief for Susan. The only member of the family who isn't susceptible to hysteria is Caroline, and as I said to Dan, she doesn't start to seriously consider the supernatural as an explanation for her misfortunes until she's suffered a great many of them and might be forgiven some mental and emotional exhaustion.

I don't think we're meant to believe that Faraday physically and deliberately attacked the Ayreses. Even the ending seems to suggest that he was either unconsciously responsible for it, or that his responsibility is a metaphor for the communal assault on these old families. The 'rational' explanation, as I see it (though I really ought to find a better term), is precisely the one that Faraday keeps suggesting throughout the novel - that the Ayreses are imagining being haunted, and sinking into hysteria and madness.

I am also wondering if and how your rational interpretation of the haunting incorporates Betty

How does the supernatural explanation, assuming that Faraday is the culprit, incorporate it? It's because Betty senses a 'bad thing' in the house that Faraday is sent for in the first place.

Niall Harrison said...

There's so much debate about how The Little Stranger can or should be read, I'm clearly going to have to pick it up for myself at some point. Thomas Jones in the LRB thinks the ghost story reading is the only supportable one:

"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."

Although frankly I'm not sure about this:

"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. [...] 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."

That seems a very odd understanding of haunting and ghosts. Maybe I'm just not postmodern enough. (His conclusion is that "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.")

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You know, for all my back and forth with Dan and Zahra, I don't actually think the question of which reading of The Little Stranger is the 'correct' one is all that interesting. I agree with Dan that the ambiguity in the novel is not simply deliberate but its ultimate goal, that Waters expects us to finish the novel feeling wrongfooted and uncertain. I just don't think she's done a good enough job of creating that uncertainty. Still, I'd be interested to hear your take on the question.

I'll have to read the Jones piece in its entirety when I have a bit more time, but it does seem a little strange to argue that the inherent unstoryableness of reality is an argument in favor of the ghost story reading, since what is a ghost story but an attempt to cast the inexplicable into a coherent form, and to ascribe a motive to seemingly random misfortunes? On the contrary, it's Faraday the rationalist who rejects story most completely (though Jones is right that there is something darkly comedic about his insistence that anyone who describes an event he can't explain must be mad), and it's the naturalistic reading of the novel that leaves us the least satisfied in our desire for narrative.

Mike Harrison said...

Abigail, thanks so much for this post and subsequent discussion. It helped me sort out my position on The Little Stranger, which was complicated by my having been born and brought up twenty or so miles from the location of Hundreds Hall, at around the time the novel is set. Houses like that were still struggling on well into the 1950s, and indeed the mother of one of my childhood friends was working as housekeeper in one as late as 1960.

Given that experience it seems to me that the clearest literary reference is not to Brideshead Revisited but to HE Bates's Love for Lydia, the social geography of which Waters’ novel replicates quite exactly. Both The Little Stranger and Love For Lydia view the decline of the English "county" class from a working-to-lower-middle perspective (Brideshead, by contrast, views the ever-tottering contraption of the aristocracy from Charles Ryder’s much more securely middle class position); both are composed retrospectively from the point of view of the novelist (although Love for Lydia was, of course, the product of Bates' youthful personal experience) and themselves place a kind of doubled retrospection and nostalgia at the heart of the analysis; both are set in a rural landscape which, in the late 40s to late 50s, could still be found in a broad sweep of the English Midlands; and both have a plot in which an awkward but powerfully attractive young County woman is pursued by an intelligent but naive and self-deceptive young local man.

If you’re English, if you were alive at the time, if you’ve read Bates--to whom, I suspect, specific reference is being made--and if your own experience gives you some insight into the collision of classes depicted in both books, this aspect of The Little Stranger--the way it deals with social history in a real place--seems unsatisfying. The social realities are carefully researched but not very alive. The landscape rendering is a pixel deep. The feel of things is exactly what you would expect of a text assembled from other texts historical and fictional.

The Gothic component seems similarly thin to me. The buttons have been identified by careful research then pushed efficiently; latency is built up layer by layer until it becomes “unbearable” for the reader--except that, for this reader, it didn’t. I’m respectful of Waters’ technique. She’s a clever literary professional whose method consists in adding postmodern value to old generic tropes for the reading-group audience, appropriating history on behalf of an emergent class (the neoliberal children and grandchildren of Dr Faraday, whose cultural snobberies have almost replaced those of Hundreds Hall but which have yet to make a dent in the much older snobberies of Brideshead). Nothing wrong with that. And I’m all for the ambivalence that soaks the ending, if for no other reason that it reminded me again of Love for Lydia. But though I wanted to enjoy The Little Stranger, it struck me in the end as less a novel than a high quality TV adaptation of one.

Anyway: thanks again for the post. In a way it’s made me understand, clearly and experientially, the difference between seeing history and being it.

deborah said...

I think the title gives away the ending: Dr. Faraday is the 'Little Stranger,' and rather than dreaming while he's in his car, he's at Hundreds--why else would Caroline say, 'Oh, it's you,' before she falls? He has walked over from his car and kills her, so he can take care of the house that he's obsessed with. Then you backtrack and realize he probably preyed on the mental weaknesses of the brother and mother and pushed them to their demise.

Anonymous said...

The suggestion that Faraday went to Hundreds and killed Caroline to take possession of the Hall doesn't ring true if you consider that the house had ben cleared and was up for sale. For all he knew, there would be a new owner within months(possibly the developer in search of land for housing). This would be entirely in keeping with the period. At the end, I felt that Faraday had himself been taken over by the house. He had become obsessed with clearing and tidying in the same fruitless way that Roderick and Caroline had.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Betty thought there was something bad in the house before Faraday got involved with the family. Her illness was feigned. She told Faraday she was afraid of parts of the house and wanted to go home

Anonymous said...

I thought there was a strong parallel between this book and greaat Expectations. This was made explicit by the reference to the closk being stopped at the same time as Miss Havisham's. She was jilted in a similar way to Faraday. As for Farady getting what he wanted in the end, this conflicts with the fact that Caroline had surviving relatives who inherited the property. Any hold was very tenuous.

r. bickel said...

I just finished reading it. Glad to find some discussion.

I feel certain the Faraday killed Caroline. There are so many clues--why else put them all in there? He is parked outside the house; he "sees himself" walking towards it. He goes into his reverie at 2 a.m.; Betty says she hears the distrubance at "half past 2." Caroline saying "You!" I think it's pretty obvious. Which all points back to him being the poltergeist.

Becky said...

After finishing the book the conclusion was so cleverly ambiguous it took me some time to work out in my mind what i thought had happened, but i also am fairly certain that Faraday pushed Caroline. I don't think he was the little stranger though, i think that the happenings in the house were beyond reason and inferred mental influences from any of the characters and therefore must be supernatural. I was dissapointed with the ending at first - i hoped that there was going to be a fantastic twist as she is very good at them, however, i realised when i thought about it that there couldn't be really and an ambiguous ending is ultimately more satisfying then a neatly tied up ending as it makes you ponder over it for a long time after you have finished. A great read, i really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

I think this book is so fascinating and complex, and I'm glad I've found this discussion blog. Reading previous comments has made me more certain of Faraday's role in the death and distruction at Hundreds Hall. I think perhaps there was a supernatural entity there, which Betty sensed, before Dr.Faraday arrived on the scene. I'm assuming that Waters did much research on the subject, including poltergeists, and knows that those who have experienced such happenings will say that they begin suddenly, and for no apparent reason, end much the same way. I think Faraday exploited the loss of reality within the Ayres family in order to cause Caroline's death. It's quite clear to me that the author intends for readers to see Faraday's own descent into madness, or at least, his growing obsession with the house and what it represents to him. He never really loved Caroline, only the house, which he saw as part of his past, his mother's past, and he thought he was coming full-circle in his own life by marrying into the Ayres family. He says as much in the novel. He represents the changing of the guard in Britain, and the ascendancy of the working-class. When Caroline makes a very rational decision to leave Hundreds, he completely panics - why? If he loved her, or was truly a "rational" man of science as is suggested in the novel all along, then he would see that selling the house was the best thing for both of them, and something that should have been done as soon as Rod became ill. Was his reaction latent class envy? Did he feel he was the rightful heir because his mother suffered some indignities there, and now he had come to vindicate her memory? It's no coincidence that at the start of the novel he tells his own secret tale of destruction, when as a child visiting the house - a "little stranger" if you will - he vandalized it. He admitted that he even though he was supposed to be a clever boy, he couldn't help but want to covet and destroy the house simultaneously.

I don't know why Betty didn't hear other foosteps the night of Caroline's death. Perhaps Faraday removed his shoes, who knows? But Caroline's recognition of someone very familiar in her exclamation leads to the conclusion that it was Faraday who was there in the house, who frightened her, and either chased her to her death or actually pushed her (the way she fell, limbs wildly flailing,suggests she did not jump). And of, course, Faraday's conintual return to the house afterwards to "keep it up", and the ending paragraph suggests he,too,has been possessed by what haunts Hundreds Hall, whether it is something supernatural, or a very worldly preoccupation with our place in this world.

Peta Douglas said...

I got this book from the library yesterday after a long wait of about nine months. I had read all of Water's novels and, apart from Night Watch, enjoyed them very much. So I read The Little Stranger in one night and was completely hooked, anticipating her usual surprise ending, even to the point of forcing myself to hold off the last chapter until I couldn't stand it any longer. To say that I was confused and disppointed is an understatement. What happened? And what about Brenda as the love interest for Caroline? Why was she even brought into the story? There were many references to Caroline's spinsterhood, plain looks and thick ankles, not to mention her aversion to Dr Faraday's advances which went nowhere. And Betty? For a while I thought that the references to Betty's child like frame were alluding to her being a reincarnation of Susan, esp when the book referred to "child-like pinches " on Mrs Ayre's arm and light footsteps aoutside the nursery. I found it all very frustrating because a lot of the facts were unconnected and some went nowhere. Not giving up on Sarah Waters though.

Anonymous said...

You can Google or search for a very interesting interview with Waters about this book. She talks about how she deliberately set out to write a heterosexual love story (if you can even call it that)and utilize the male narrator's voice, also a first for her. She definitely wanted to address the issue of societal changes after WW II in Britain, so I think those readers who ascribe deeper symbolism to the events at Hundreds Hall are nearer the mark than just viewing the book as a tale of the supernatural.

Mrs. B. said...

I just read this and I loved it. In retrospect, I believe it's better even than Fingersmith because it's so brilliantly crafted. The ending also is ambiguous and I actually love that. You can think about it for a long time after and I think it might even be better and clearer after a reread.

Carol said...

I tend to agree with Peta Douglas; I don't like novels that leave you confused and dissatisfied. It seems clear that Faraday (why do we never learn his first name?) pushed Caroline off the balcony - his evasive and defensive tone in the last chapter, together with some thickly-laid-on clues, seem to suggest this strongly. This of course makes him suspect as a narrator - the classic unreliable narrator - but it still is far from clear that he could have been involved in the disasters that befell Rod, Mrs Ayres and the wee girl who got bitten by Gyp. In the end, while I very much enjoyed the portrayal of class resentments as a corrosive force, the supernatural element was just pointless and silly.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised that anyone thinks that Farraday literally went into the house and pushed Caroline. Farraday's earlier discussion with the other doctor about subconscious mental energy manifesting itself as outward energy, provides the explanation. Farraday's obsession with possessing the house and controlling its inhabitants manifested itself in a vindictive, ghost-like form.

Anonymous said...

So was Farraday the Little Stranger all along? Or did he subconsciously and unknowingly join a supernatural entity which was already in the house?

Mike Alexander said...

My view is that Faraday probably killed Caroline whilst in a dissociated mental state (somewhat like George Harvey Bone in Patrick Hamilton's "Hangover Square"). He may even have been responsible for the burn marks, the "S"s, and the fire. He smokes, and always carries a lighter. He is never there when the spooky events take place. But he doesn't generally have an alibi either. Also his courtroom flashback at the end is very lucid. The last paragraph is clearly an ironic piece of suggestion:

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

Not only does this image imply he may in fact be the ghost; it also suggests a fragmented and confused personality.

His violent lust after possession of the Hall (for that, not Caroline, is surely his object of desire) is strongly prefigured in the symbolism of cutting off the decorative acorn moulding as a child.

There is also the repressed violence of his character, which comes out, for example, when he throws the ring at Caroline, intending to hurt her - and on a few other occasions besides. Also his crass - nay, sociopathic - attempt to bulldoze ahead with the marriage plans on the very day that Caroline has buried her mother.

Finally - and I don't think anyone has commented on this - in the passages where Faraday relates the spooky events (which he supposedly only knows of second-hand), he includes a great amount of detail which he would be unlikely to have gleaned from others' accounts. Indeed, this struck me as clumsy writing technique at the time, but with the hindsight of the ending, I think it was actually a very clever way of suggesting that Faraday was not quite so absent as he claimed.

Anonymous said...

I don't think he was ever physically present in the house to do any mischief himself, except for the time that Gyp bit the little girl (and Rod was having his seizure), and at the end, if it was indeed him who killed Caroline. I don't think he had anything to do with either Rod or Mrs. Ayres' descent into madness. In Rod's case, it was easily explained by war trauma, and the burden of caring for the house, and helplessly watching it crumble before his eyes. Dr. Faraday was rather cold and heartless about it, but not malicious. Mrs. Ayes went mad by the power of her own suggestion. She was always fragile, as described often in Faraday's account of her looks and demeanor. When spirits began to be suggested, she naturally associated it with her dead child, with whom she continued to be obsessed. That's not hard for any parent to relate to, especially someone who has been under extreme duress from watching her son go mad, and had terrible accidents at the house, like the incident with Gyp. That, too, can be rationally explained. Gyp was an old dog who was not used to young children. That kid was an obnoxious brat, and it is entirely conceivable that she may have provoked the animal to snap at her. I've seen dogs try and do it myself several times if a child puts it's face too close to theirs, and is annoying it, it will try and bite.

I suppose you could say Faraday had bad karma, and brought his own baggage to the house - his destructive, covetous early history, his resentment/embarrassment at being a servant's child, and seeing his mother and the other servants sometimes treated carelessly. But also his longing to possess the house, and with it, the gentility and refinement of the upper classes. After all, that's the underlying theme of the book. He's not the first to think that aquiring the gentry's possessions would enhance his own self-worth. I hope this discussion will continue because I still have not found a satisfactory explanation for the ending, but I think I'm getting there!

Fran said...

I had never read any of Sarah Waters books before and only picked it up to read becaue I had heard it discussed on the channel 4 book club.

My take on it is that Faraday was the "little stranger". He seemed obsessed with Hundreds Hall and dissatisfied with his own social position. It was only after he became involved with the family that the real destruction began to take place. It also becomes clear that his real motivation in wanting to marry Caroline was to become a part of Hundreds Hall rather than to marry her for herself. If you believe in the "ghost story" element of the novel, then it seems likely that there was a spirit or presence in the house all along, but that the introduction of Faraday and his negative "vibes" set off the series of chilling events, all conspiring to edge him nearer to his goal of attaining Hundreds.

Great book, though!

Libby said...

Oh, thank goodness for this page, because when I finished the book last night I actually checked to see if pages had been ripped out -- I wanted more answers!

I will be the first to admit that I didn't suspect Faraday of anything until he did not find it important enough to mention to his friend that actually, he was not at the hospital and instead had slept in his car just a bit away from Hundreds. Which means, yes, I was still clueless even after just reading about his dream in the car. Sometimes I just really need to be hit by a clue by four.

Having figured it out, I like the mesh of the scientific and metaphorical in the novel. Naming the doctor "Faraday" is a big clue (big enough that even I caught it, ha ha) but I like the parallel between what Faraday does and the concept behind a poltergeist. What does Faraday do to Rod's leg? HE controls an invisible energetic force (the electrotherapy) that causes an actual physical reaction (muscle changes). Faraday didn't even have to really touch or be near Rod to elicit the physical change, but he did supply the "energy" if you will.

On further reflection, I also enjoyed how so much of the haunting was through servants' apparatus. Really -- it couldn't have been the shutters flapping or the lights going on and off? It had to be the servant's bells and the tube his very mother might have spoken through.

Ok, so many thoughts, not enough time

Cindy said...

GAH! I can't get this book out of my head! I don't know what the author's intention is with it.

Here's what I think - Faraday does things he doesn't remember, amnensia, blacks out or has a split personality. when they are leaving the dance he suddenly and without really thinking turns onto the road leading to the lake - he says it's a place he goes to frequently and enjoys - I'm thinking 'oh, really?' - this is a place he goes to a lot and yet it hasn't been mentioned once? And the next time he is there he falls asleep and imagines or dreams, he doesn't seem sure which, that he goes to Hundreds, etc. Also, he is so broke & complains about not having patients, etc. and yet he's working all the time! Is he? Or isn't he?

I think he was responsible for most of the happenings - the fires in Rod's room, the calls in the middle of the night, killing Caroline (maybe even Mrs. Ayres), I think when he was 'treating' Rod & Mrs. Ayres he was drugging them, etc. I don't think he remembers doing any of these things. It is possible we are supposed to assume there was some weirdness at the house - supernatural or not - but, it's clear Faraday, in flesh & blood perpetrated most of the worst incidents. Ultimately, there was no ghost. However, I don't think Faraday as a narrator is lying - he doesn't consciously remember his actions.

Anonymous said...

Farady - Of course! I didn't even make the connection until a brilliant contributor brought it up on here. And like the Faraday in the novel, the scientist suffered from class envy of sorts. He was not a gentleman like many of his peers were, and he was made to feel socially inferior because of it. I read an interview with Waters where she claimed to be a big fan of the horror/supernatural genre. But she mentioned it so casually, I had no idea she would craft such an intricate, complex story, full of clues and hidden meanings. I thought she would tell a more straightforward ghost story, but she did not. The Little Stranger is a brain-teaser that needs to be read and re-read at least once. My latest analysis, after reading a few posts here, has changed. I now believe that Faraday's use of electromagnetic therapy became a conduit for the spectral energy that already existed in Hundreds Hall. And those who were very sensitve to it, like Betty, already could sense something there before Faraday blew the whole thing wide open.

Phil Kafc said...

Perhaps it is a case that the doctor has too become a victim of the house, as Rod was, as Mrs Ayers was. The only person who was able to get away from the power of the house in the Ayers family was Caroline. On reflection after finishing the book, it seems the poltergeist was a unconscious creation of the doctor. There were no footsteps before Caroline fell. From that we can assume that Waters wants us to know that Caroline was alone as a physical presence. The doctor at the time was asleep in the car nearby, and part of his mind went towards the house. Again Waters is telling us that part of the doctor was at the scene of Caroline's demise. The fact that Caroline says "You" to someone, tells me that this person must be the doctor. She sees few other people, and she would probably only be this rude to the doctor, who by this stage was acting rather annoyingly to her. Waters also tells us in the last few words of the book that the doctor feels a presence in the house, and turns and sees only his reflection in a broken glass. A reflection of himself. Again, Waters is telling us that when the doctor looks to see the poltergeist, he only sees himself.

Anonymous said...

Waters is a great author, i loved her previous novels. The little Stranger came no-where near to her other books, in fact I was bored throughout. I felt she was writing a screen play for the next film to be made out of this book. Leave it to the masters Sarah, Heyers, Dumaurier true experts at suspense.

Kate said...

I just want to put out another angle that hasn't been addressed... Faraday's mother was the nursemaid. The noises are coming from the nursery that Mrs Ayres eventually becomes locked in. And at the end, there's talk in the village that the ghost is a servant that was wronged by Mr Ayres.

Could it be that by going in to Hundreds Hall that first time, Faraday not only awoke the spirit of his mother but also something dark within himself? I don't think he was ever physically present. But it feels like their is a culmination of energies occurring. I think when Mrs Ayres is locked in the nursery, Faraday is at a conference in London.

And Caroline would remember her old nursemaid if she saw her before being pushed. We never actually find out what happened to Faraday's mother. There seems to be a lot of repression that is unleashed as soon as he goes in the Hall.

Belinda said...

I agree with Kate's ideas about Faraday awaking 'something dark within himself' and the 'culmination of energies occuring' Something else that isn't addressed is Faraday's almost reverent collection of items (you could almost call them icons)from the house..this is definitely weird and starts when as a child he steals a piece of plaster acorn..this alongside his medal, a photograph, the whistle and keys which he conveniently holds onto represent his desire and longing for the house, a life and a social standing he can never possess. Caroline also becomes a possession of the house that he has to own.

He resents the fact that his parents have had to sacrifice their lives to fund his education and this is manifested in his spiteful outbursts which occur during conversations with Caroline. His only other romantic encounter was also ended due to his social class, or lack of..there seems evidence of deep seated almost unconscious resentments which are always lingering near the surface.

I definitely think there was some kind of evil manifestation present in the house which is created by Faraday's arrival and fueled by other malevolent forces. He even admits at his first meeting with the family. 'the faintest stirring of a dark dislike'. These are some of my thoughts ...I really enjoyed the book and its ambiguous ending.

Aleksandra said...

Wow, I just finished the book, and I didn't know what to do with my thoughts. I am so glad I found your blog Abigail!
First, I have to admit that I set out to read Little Stranger as a genre book, a ghost story simply, but it proved to be something more then that and for a while I thought that it is a ghost story only "by the way" and so I focused on the mainstream theme of the book. Though I am not British(I'm Polish) I found the read about post-war Britain, the decline of the upper class, the deterioration of great estates and the associated sociological transformation and psychological traumas very compelling. But the ending got me thinking again, I am not so sure about the by the way quality of the supernatural in this book, I am trying to place the ghost motif in the overall meaning and I think it is essential to both the structure and the meaning of the book.
Cursorily enough, I agree with both Abigail and Dan. I fully appreciate the book's "sense of unease, its own inability to fully account for itself" that Dan writes about, nevertheless I agree with Abigal that the ending with it's rebuff of any attempt to resolve the supernatural thread was in a way disappointing and annoying. I felt that it lacked some final touch, and I am not saying that the explanation was supposed to be given to us straightforwardly, like in a second-rate horror movie, but some kind of follow-up on the supernatural motif would have been rewarding for the reader. After reading other comments however,I am starting to appreciate the postmodern quality of the book's ending : "the unstoryableness of reality" that it implies.

My understanding is similar to that of Fran and Belinda: that there was something molovelant in the house before Faraday, feeding on the weaknesses of the Ayres's, but Faraday's presence made it grow and become more purposefully evil against the family (I agree with the theory of a manifestation of his suppressed inferiority, his longing to upgrade his position and maybe to compensate for his mother's inferior position in the house, and his desire to posses the house).
I didn't make this connection myself , but it's a very interesting observations that the electrotherapy of Rod's leg might have amplified the power of the evil presence or created a channel through which the energies of the people in the house house could get out.

It's also a very interesting angle, the one Kate addresses: that the ghost might have been Faraday's mother's. It makes some sense, although I think it would be too simple. But maybe it adds up to the other manifestations of Faraday's negative energy, as his anger and guilt associated with the fact that his mother worked as a maid at Hundreds (anger towards the Ayres and guilt towards his mother).

Anyway, it was a great read and this is a great site to discuss books! Thanks.

CallieK said...

Faraday's mother wasn't Caroline's nursemaid- she worked for their grandmother therefore would have been their father's nursemaid. Mrs Ayers says at one point that his mother was there "slightly before my time" at which Faraday comments that his mother left in 1907

Dee said...

I just finished reading this book and haven't stopped thinking.. I must admit I am not a fan of open ended books, where the close is left to your imagination.. but this book has got me thinking for days on end.. I cannot come to believe that this is a ghost story.. if anything it describes the stark reality of post war impacts on the minds of individuals who were a part of it in some shape or form.. coming back to the plot I very much suspect Dr. Faraday, since he keeps harping on the fact that all the Ayres's family members are tired and keeps giving them sedatives, so its quite possible for everyone in the family to fall prey to hallucination in a a constant state of sedation.. Dr. Faraday has very cleverly played on the weaknesses of every character and seeks his revenge in the end or justice as he calls it..

Karina said...

I just finished this book this morning after being practically unable to put it down, and it is a huge relief to find this discussion - I am full of questions!

Is it ever mentioned what became of Colonel Ayers (he died, but how?) Was Faraday's mother Colonel Ayers' nursemaid? How was she mistreated by the family - is it ever spelled out, or only hinted at? Or is it purely the class difference that makes Faraday humiliated on her behalf? Faraday wishes he had treated his parents better...he feels guilt and self-loathing about his parents low position in society and his own aspirations which ultimately don't raise him very far...

I am inclined to think Faraday is behind it all in some way, not any ghost - I probably have to re-read it to confirm this - although the book itself is extremely haunting. I can't believe one poster said they were bored - I was on the edge of my seat through all of it and initially dismayed by the ending, finishing in my edition at the very bottom of a right-hand page - I was amazed to turn the page and find it blank, I couldn't believe that was the end!

Alexander said...

Just read this based on your review, the first Waters I've read. I found it fascinating and deeply engaging, a book I almost literally couldn't put down.

purplemikicat said...

Somewhat later....I recently finished reading the book and it's so playing on my mind that I searched for discussions and came across this.

Most of the comments have confirmed what I concluded myself - that Faraday was the "Little Stranger" but not in a physical sense. I believe that the incidents were supernatural and that they were caused by Faradays kinetic energy. This was put into motion way back when as a child, he coveted a piece of the house by cutting away the plaster acorn. This little piece of destruction was the root from which the seeds of the infection set in: when Faraday returns to the house years later, he sees how that one small piece of damage has spread with the rest of the plaster crumbling and blown, and the rot has set in with the rest of the house.

The mention of Faraday's mother being the ghost; that I don't agree with but it set me wondering whether Faraday was the product of a "below-stairs" affair? His mother, we're told, suffered numerous miscarriages. What if Faraday was the only child to be born because of a different father? Would this in someway account for his feelings of resentment towards the family, his obsession over the house, his frustration at his place in society and his aspirations to fit in with the more upper class? He clearly associates his mother with house when he hopes to hear her voice over the speaking tube.

The first suggestion that Faraday is the catalyst is when he falls asleep in the car by the pond and has an out of body experience...however I can't decide whether he was making his way to the house to protect Caroline or to attack her as when he reaches where the house should be he sees only darkness. Does this mean sub consciously he knew he'd created something and another part of him was trying to redeem it? Or is it a case that having reached the house, his mind blanked out what really happened? I'm undecided.

At the court, he is questioned over Caroline's state of mind, yet he feels he is on trial himself and experiences feeling of guilt. Another indication that he is the cause of the "infection".

When Betty tells the court she heard Caroline utter the word "You" I felt this was Caroline's moment of realisation, the moment the penny dropped. Caroline also realised that what she was seeing was not Faraday himself but some supernatural and dark element of Faraday.

Although Faraday comes across as a rather staid, boring man he nevertheless is a rather forceful character. Caroline is obviously not in love with him yet somehow she goes along with his marriage proposal through sheer force of his persistance, until she finally finds the strength to call it off. Then Faraday throws the ring at her - we're told a crack appears in the pane of glass yet not that the ring hit it. Another piece of evidence of kinetic energy feeding from Faraday? I also think it's telling that Caroline dies on what should have been the night after the wedding.

Of course, there's the last paragraph where Faraday sees his own reflection in the glass.

Obviously there's far more to this book than the supernatural element and I really enjoyed this story as a whole. I've read every book by Sarah Walters with the exception of Tipping the Velvet. This one I found to be the best written so far and enjoyed it the most. The fact that I'm still pondering it speaks for itself.


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