The Little Stranger

When ghosts appeared in Victorian Gothic novels, they were often sounding an alarm about blood or money. The dead did not sleep easily in their graves when it looked as if the family inheritance, or its stately home, was about to pass out of the proper line of succession. Keeping things in the legitimate family was the business of the spectre, who made life intolerable for the descendents until order was restored.

How clever of Sarah Waters, then, to set her psychological ghost story at a crucial point in social history, when the Second World War had destroyed so much of the old order of things, massacring the next generation of young men and undermining the class structure. When The Little Stranger opens, it is 1947, and our narrator is one of those men troubling the old class boundaries. Dr Faraday is the son of a grocer and a nursery maid who broke themselves saving so he could have a good education. But although we meet him qualified and self-sufficient, he is far from happy. The National Health Service is already a gleam in the eye of civil servants, and he does not yet know what this will mean for his traditional practice. As it is, he has never quite made it in his native Warwickshire, not quite accepted by the local gentry who still call the shots, to some extent.

But ugly, awkward transition is what this novel is all about. When he is summoned to Hundreds Hall, he remembers it from his first visit, when he was ten. The ironically named Empire Day was in full swing, and he was allowed into the house because his mother was nursemaid there. Overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of Hundreds, he used his pocket knife to cut away a plaster acorn; this small act of loving vandalism has turned out to be the harbinger of a slow and lengthy decline. When he arrives many decades later, the house is in a state of inexorable collapse, a kind of malignant entropy has overtaken all, and his narrative dwells hypnotically on every aspect of its extensive decay. The decline is not just material. The old Colonel has died, and the dairy farm struggles to bring in money. The gracious Mrs Ayres presides as best she can, with her grown children at her side. Roderick has been damaged mentally and physically by the war, whilst Caroline, hearty, sensible, plain, has been brought back from brief independence to hold the family together. The doctor’s patient is in fact the one remaining maid, 14-year-old Betty. ‘My mother, my sister and I tend to manage without doctors as a rule,’ the embittered Roderick tells him. ‘We muddle through with colds and headaches. But I gather that neglecting servants is a capital offence these days; they’re to get better treatment than us, apparently.’

But Betty’s illness is a blind. Dr Faraday figures out quickly that she is malingering, and probes for reasons why. It turns out that Betty doesn’t like the house; it gives her ‘the creeps’. But Betty is only a servant, and old attitudes prevail. Superstitious fancies are for the lower classes, who lack the education and good sense to see through them. Once he has his feet under the table, however, Dr Faraday is in no mind to leave. He offers to treat Roderick’s wasted leg with the latest electrical technology for free, and in no time at all he has insinuated himself into the family circle.

The social situation is so finely drawn and acutely perceptive that I was almost sorry when the narrative shifts its centre of balance and the hauntings – if the ambiguous disasters that occur can be termed thus – take over the storyline. The first victim (after the family dog, Gyp, I suppose, but I don’t want to give too much away) is the unstable Roderick, overwhelmed by estate matters for which he has little aptitude and already weakened and wearied by the experiences of the war. When he reluctantly confesses the bizarre psychic phenomena that he has been experiencing to the doctor, Faraday is robustly averse to assigning anything other than the strictest medical explanations to events. It’s not long at all before Roderick is dealt with according to the scientific principles of the times. But as the situation worsens at the hall, and more of the family members fall under the evil spell that haunts Hundreds, so the doctor’s imperious medical judgements seem ever more desperate and misplaced. His ‘common sense’ explanations require more imaginative agility to accept than the uncanny itself. I’d heard that the novel is poised in a Turn of the Screw sort of way between the supernatural and the psychological, and yes, in retrospect I can see that is essentially true. Faraday insists time and again that what the family experience is simply fatigue and mental instability. But Faraday is such a blinkered witness, so terribly lacking in insight and unaware of his own prejudices that he came across to me as ever more unreliable. I wanted to shake him. Reading closely, it seemed to me that, Roderick aside (and he was always the weakest link), the rest of the family are by no means terrified by what is occurring; the fear belongs to the doctor, who sees madness wherever he looks. In fact, by the end, I felt that if anyone’s repressed emotions were to be designated the cause of the disturbances, then it was the doctor himself of whom the family should have been afraid. It was almost as if his attempts to trouble of the line of succession, as an interloper from another class, more bitter and angry at social injustice than he knew, but more idealising of the upper classes than he ever realised, created an implosion in which he could not help but destroy what he loved best.

This is a masterful novel, unfolding its vivid scenes without haste, timing the revelations beautifully and treating the reader to a multi-layered narrative written with elegant simplicity.  I loved it.  Sarah Waters rules.

 

 

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50 thoughts on “The Little Stranger

  1. Glad you liked it so much. I have to say I disliked Faraday (named after a famous scientist of course) even though I am in the camp of the common sense he is supposed to represent. Is that not just a position to bully the family from? I feel he is their nemisis masquerading as their defeated saviour. His repressions and attempted certainties seem to lead to their ending. He has a strange link leading up to every demise in the novel, from poor Gyp onwards. I’m especially drawn to the final link in the chain when he is parked in his car near to the hall in the early hours of the night/morning when the woman who has rejected him sees whatever and says ‘You’ [I think according to memory] as the final event unfolds (trying to aviod spoilers here, but should be clear to those who have read the novel).

    • Bookboxed – well I sympathise with your position here – I didn’t like Faraday either, although I went into the novel prepared to embrace the common sense explanation. And I also think he is strangely involved in every incident. Oh and that ‘You!’ at the end is absolutely brilliant, I thought. Just so well done. I particularly like what you say about him being the nemesis masquerading as savior – wonderful phrase!

  2. I quite agree. It was superb. Reading your review was so pleasurable because it chimed with my memory of the book. I think this is one that would really stand up to a re-read, so thanks for the prod.

  3. I loved it , too. I can’t remember — was it you who recommended a book called “Ghost Writer”? The author’s name escapes me at the moment, but if it wasn’t you, you must, must, must look into it. It’s about a very, very unusual epistolary romance, and has many of the same characteristics of “The Little Stranger.”

    • David – ooh, no ‘Ghost Writer’ is new to me, too. I will look it up immediately! Thank you for the recommendation (and so glad you loved The Little Stranger, too).

  4. Excellent review Litlov! I remember being really frightened by this book. I had to stop reading it a few times, when the overwhelming sense of doom became too much for me to bear. I love the ending, especially. I agree with you that the disturbances, real and imagined, begin and end with the doctor.

    • Ruthiella – I really loved the part when I realised what going to happen – in that the family were being picked off one by one. That gave me a real chill down the spine! So glad you loved the book and thank you for your kind comments!

  5. I agree, a greta review…it’s one of those books that I’m fascinated by the views of each reader. There are common themes but everybody draws a slightly different conclusion. Maybe that’s what makes this such a good book…there seems to be no totally waterproof conclusion, it’s the differing interpretations that make this book so haunting!

  6. Oh, how interesting – you have a far more positive reading of Faraday than I did. You call his taking the piece of the building as a child ‘this small act of loving vandalism’ when I read it as the first sub-conscious act of destruction that would culminate in his slowly undermining the house and family, motivated not by love but by jealousy and a spite born of feelings of inferiority. In the end he finally replaces them, and then returns to the site of conquest to haunt the ruins. I found him intensely creepy! The horrible scene in the car when he attempts to seduce Caroline? *shudder*

    Waters is just getting better and better I think. She is so intensely controlled and sparing, which seems quite unusual for a historical novelist. Nothing is wasted, but the experience is still so immersive. Although some friends have said to me that they find her too cold and clinical; a surgeon of fiction rather than a poet.

    • Victoria, I always love your interpretations and this is no different. I think the key for me is the unconscious nature of his hostility, because Faraday also loves and idealises the Ayrses. I’m sort of the school who thinks there is no such thing as an unmixed emotion! And he genuinely admires what the family have, even if that has (and I quite agree that it has) a dark and seriously unpleasant undercurrent to it. That scene with Caroline in the car really is dreadful (and the bit when she kicks out at him is so aggressive and real too). I also like Julian Barnes, who is also considered a cold writer, but then, I like books that make me think as much as they make me feel. No huge fan of catharsis, me!

  7. This was the first Sarah Waters novel that I ever read, and I thought it was extraordinary. I love your observations here about the period. It seemed to me that the novel hinged on the fact that this is a time of transition, with class boundaries collapsing. And I agree about Faraday being the real menace. The question that fascinates me is whether he realizes just how much of a threat he is.

    • Teresa – yes, I completely agree with you. My feeling is that Faraday has no clue at all about his own menace – he loves the family. It’s just that he loves them all wrong, and the dark underside of his love is something he is completely out of touch with. I’ve still got Waters’ early novels to read – must get around to Affinity, which I am sure will be excellent!

  8. I’m sorry, I did not read all of the review as I got it here and will hopefully read it sooner or later.
    What I read sounds great. I wasn’t aware that it is set just post WWII.
    I think this isn’t the first one of her books you liked so much, right?

    • Caroline – you’re right. I read The Night Watch last year and thought it masterful. And several years before that I read Fingersmith and enjoyed it very much indeed. I would love to know what you think of this one if you do pick up a copy!

  9. I love Sarah Waters — a terrific writer — and I loved this novel. And I totally agree with your comments about Faraday. Great review — makes me want to re-read it.

    • Harriet – I often think we like very similar books – although Sarah Waters is such a class act it’s perhaps less surprising than some affinities! Thank you for your lovely comment. This is certainly a novel I’d reread.

  10. I loved this novel, it was utterly captivating and clever, holding my attention like few long books do – but I felt cheated by the ending. Sarah Waters is so associated, in my mind, with clever-twist-endings that the ambiguity of this one made me feel like I’d wasted my time. If she had been conclusive, it would be one of my favourite books. I get the whole Henry James thing, but I don’t think ambiguity served her novel. (Nor do I think much of Turn of the Screw…)

    • Ahh, I am a fan of ambiguity, so we will have to agree to disagree here. That being said, whilst I really love teaching The Turn of the Screw, it’s not a favourite read of mine. Some books are better to write about afterwards than they are in the first experience of reading. That’s why literary critics have more fun than ordinary readers, I think. ;)

  11. Okay, I think it is time that I try reading this novel again. I tried several years ago after Maureen Corrigan recommended it, but I did not get very far. So many people love Waters that I think I must give her another chance. I love how you say “Sarah Waters rules.”

    • Ali, some books just don’t fall at the right moment, and some just aren’t such good fits as others. It could well be that the ‘coldness’ that some readers find in Waters work is putting you off. I know you like a bit of honest emotion in your stories! You might do better with a novel like Fingersmith, which is more immediately powerful.

  12. Count me in as one of those who has to read this soon! I love ghost stories, I guess I didn’t like the association with madness I was finding in the reviews of the book, which annoys me. I full out haunting that doesn’t require hidden emotions or madness – now that would be something! lol that said, I do want to read The Little Stranger very much, because it is atmospheric, and a ghost story, and it does sound good. Wonderful review, Litlove!

    • Susan – I’d love to know what you make of it! It isn’t a straight ghost story, like Edith Wharton or M R James might write. But it is a beautiful novel and the ghosty side is very well done. Thank you for your lovely comment!

  13. Sarah Waters DOES rule! This isn’t my favorite of her books — I like Fingersmith and The Night Watch! — but it is pretty damn good. I actually haven’t read it since the first time, so I need to go back and try again. A book with a prejudiced narrator — I don’t think he goes all the way into unreliable — tends to reward rereading even more than most books do.

    • Jenny – I’d have a hard job deciding between this one and The Night Watch as favourite. And I remember being amazed in Fingersmith by the way she kept up that Victorian voice so brilliantly. I also like what you say about Faraday being prejudiced rather than unreliable – that’s a good distinction.

  14. Thanks for this in-depth review, litlove. I can sense your excitement in appreciating this book, esp. with her style of writing. Looks like Sarah Waters is one aspiring to follow the footsteps of Henry James… I wonder, do her other books follow similar subject matter?

    • Arti – Waters is in fact one of those authors who does quite different things in her novels. Fingersmith is a Victorian pastiche, and The Night Watch is about WW2. So she’s very interesting in the way that she experiments. Do try her if you can; she is definitely worth a go.

  15. Oh, no. I just and only read your last line. And now I want to get my hands on the book again. I had checked it out from the library nearly 2 yrs ago. Then someone told me not to read it. I’d be too scared. (Let’s just say I can easily suspend my imagination and find myself running from the couch to the stairs to get to our bedroom after watching or reading something ghostly/suspenseful).

    But no. Given your wrap up sentences, I must leap into the ghostly fray and give this a whirl. Surely it would be a fine companion of a book on a wintry night by the fire?

    • Oh I didn’t find this one particularly scary. I could have read it alone and in the evening without any trouble – if that helps at all! It’s more subtle in that it’s a story that might be about ghosts, or it might not. It really is beautifully written, though, so you might like it for that alone. I’d love to know what you think if you do get hold of it again!

  16. Something I really admire about Waters is that her books are not predictably like each other. As it happens, this is not my favorite of them–that is definitely Fingersmith, but I’m influenced by my reading/teaching in Victorian sensation fiction. But The Night Watch is a complete formal departure as well as different in setting and themes, and same with The Little Stranger. She’s just a superb storyteller.

    I was thinking that Hilary Mantel has the same virtuosity in styles and ideas: I’ve read a half dozen of her novels and not one of them is really like any other. On the other hand, A. S. Byatt–whose novels I also hugely admire and mostly enjoy–seems more consistent, but that’s OK too, because she too is just very good at what she does.

    • Rohan – that’s a very interesting line of inquiry. There are authors who, despite some alterations in circumstances, do write the same sort of thing over and over, and others who have a voice that crops up persistently across their work. But I do find I have extra admiration for writers like Waters who can do anything they put their minds to! I confess that I have yet to read Hilary Mantel. But I’ve got Wolf Hall on my really MUST read soon list. I will get to her, I will….!

    • nymeth – I felt desperately sorry for Faraday, although I agree he is very creepy, too. That’s what makes him so interesting – he’d have been much less if he had simply been a villain. So glad you love Waters, too!

  17. Do you see a link between his emotions and the ghost by any chance – like a psychic energy reverberation of Faraday’s feelings, which destroys?

    I also found Faraday creepy, but I also find myself feeling a little odd about my intial reaction to him (apart from his attentions towards Caroline, which ick). On the face of it Faraday can be read, in his own twisted way, a class warrior who upsets the natural order of society by the end of the book by being a class interloper. Still, I guess, by the end he’s also proved that he doesn’t so much want to right the balance for the middle classes, as perpetuate an act of revenge and place himself in just the same higher position the Ayres previously occupied.

    • Yes, Jodie! That was my take on The Little Stranger. Faraday was the cause of the negative psychic energy haunting the house and he was not even aware of it. The last line of the book just nailed it for me. I love the fact that the ending is ambivilant enough for other readers to draw other conclusions, but that is how I interpreted it.

  18. Jodie – I agree in that I felt the negative charge of Faraday’s emotions was unknown to him. I felt sorry for him, as much as I felt repulsed by him. He goes too far, he doesn’t know how to behave (he works from thoughts rather than feelings) but I felt he genuinely loved the Ayrses, even though he loved them all wrong. I agree with you and Ruthiella that the end of the book is just class.

  19. Wasn’t this a marvelous story? I like all of Sarah’s work, but I think this is my favorite. I had no idea about the ghosts sounding the alarm over blood or money–that sheds more light on it all. Your post makes me want to reread this now and I will soon have to start rereading her books (I only have one unread SW novel left) unless she publishes something else soon! Reading through all the comments (always so interesting hearing other readers’ thoughts), I was surprised by how much I also liked the ending. Sometimes I don’t deal well with ambiguity, but I think I like her and the story more for it not being too pat–as if that would simplify it all and there was so much more to the story than any simple solution could offer!

  20. Pingback: Best Books of 2012 | Tales from the Reading Room

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