Sarah Waters’ fifth novel, The Little Stranger, opens in 1919 with a glimpse of Georgian mansion Hundreds Hall in full glory “with its handsome brick faces, and its cool marble passages, each one filled with marvellous things.” The young narrator, Faraday, desperate to possess a piece of this grand house, chips a plaster acorn from a decorative border in the hallway, not realising that this minor act of vandalism marks the beginning of a long period of decline at the Hall. Almost thirty years later, when he returns to the house as a doctor to treat one of the servants, he is shocked by the changes that have taken place at Hundreds Hall: “Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away […] Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like tangled rat’s-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams.”
Dr Faraday is fascinated by the decaying house and its three outdated occupants, Mrs Ayres and her two grown-up children, Caroline and Roderick, who are struggling to maintain their gentrified lifestyle in post-war poverty. But the Ayreses have more than just keeping up appearances to worry about: as Dr Faraday grows more involved in life at Hundreds Hall, it becomes clear some dark force is unfolding within its crumbling walls.
Recently I had the privilege of being in the audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival while Sarah Waters talked about the inspiration and research behind this, her most recent novel.
“To call it a ghost story isn’t strictly true,” Waters says. “Increasingly strange and frightening things happen at the Hall; that’s the supernatural element.” The title of the novel is taken from a Victorian term for an unborn child and Waters explains that “something inside the house is almost being given birth to.” It is also significant that “all of the characters can be called strangers at some point. The family themselves are made to become strangers in their own home by the things that happen to them.”
Waters didn’t have a specific house in mind, either real or fictional, when she created Hundreds Hall, although she visited as many country houses as she could to look for inspiration. “Hundreds Hall ended up being a bit of a collage of bits of other houses I had seen. It’s got things that are architecturally impossible, like this central staircase that goes over two floors. It is a psychological structure as much as anything else: something that contains the anxieties and frustrations of the people that live there.”
But are the sinister events taking place at Hundreds Hall physical manifestations of those anxieties and frustrations? Waters describes how she became fascinated with poltergeists while researching ghosts for the novel. “I’m just really taken with them. When you look at these stories there are often odd family dynamics going on. How many of us might produce a poltergeist? We’ve all got repressed emotions.” She catches herself and laughs. “I’m talking like I believe in them!”
The Little Stranger is set during the 1940s and the post-war shake-up of the old class system is a major theme in the novel. “The middle and upper classes thought that Britain was going down the pan. This feeling of dread, of gloom, about where Britain was going fuels The Little Stranger. There was a real sense of moral loss to people after the 2nd World War, which I was very happy to exploit to create this unanchored, uneasy world at Hundreds Hall.”
At first Waters thought that the class conflicts of the time would be best observed through the eyes of a maid beginning her working life at Hundreds Hall, “but funnily enough, I ended up being more drawn to Dr Faraday. I gave him his own complex class history and his uneasiness is just one more bit of uneasiness to add to the mix.”
Dr Faraday is initially wary of the Ayreses, resenting slightly their privileged background. As he gets to know the family better, he grows fond of them, particularly of the daughter, Caroline. “Faraday develops this awkward relationship with Caroline. I think they are drawn to each other. The main problem with their relationship is that he sees her as a way into the Hall and she sees him as a way out of the Hall.” Waters admits that she too has a soft spot for Caroline. “Caroline is funny. You can always tell when I like the characters because they get the best lines.”
It was important to Waters that the dialogue in the novel was an accurate representation of how people spoke in the 1940s. She watched films and read diaries from the period to get a feel for the way that people used language. “I knew I had an extra responsibility to get things right so long as it was still in living memory. I felt I had to be respectful. [The language] belongs to the people who lived then.”
The plot of The Little Stranger creeps along slowly, paralleling the gradual deterioration of way of life at Hundreds Hall. “Pacing is crucial, especially with novels like mine which are very plot based. I suppose I liked the drip drip approach with this novel.” Waters begins writing her novels with the plot already in mind and develops the characters as the story progresses. “It’s getting to know the characters that’s the exciting part, and finding out how they feel about things.” She explains that she did not write the scene with the plaster acorn at the beginning of the novel until quite late on, “after I’d figured out [Faraday’s] relationship with the house and what I wanted to say about it.”
When asked about future books, Waters admits that The Little Stranger is “very claustrophobic” and she is “determined to write a more upbeat novel next.” Her first three books were set during Victorian times, the latter two in the 1940s and she laughs as she tells us, “People have asked me if I’m going to write a present day novel, as though they’re saying, ‘Oh, you’ll get there one day!’ Funnily enough, now that I’ve written The Little Stranger, it’s made me think about moving into present…not that I’m doing it with my next book!”