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.