Sarah Waters has been gradually moving forward in time. She started out specialising in lesbian Victoriana, but her fiction has moved into the twentieth century and into hetrosexuality. The Night Watch was set during WW2, going backwards in time to pre-war era. The Little Stranger is set in the immediate post-war austerity period, leading up to the launch of the NHS in 1948. By chance, my non-fiction reading at the moment is Austerity Britain, 1945-1951, covering the same period.
Faraday is a country doctor, the son of a servant at Hundreds Hall, who may have been educated out of his Warwickshire accent but is still looked down on by the middle-classes in his neighbourhood. As a child, he was captivated by the Hall. As an adult, when he is called in to treat a servant he becomes obsessed with it as well as its occupants, the now down-at-heel Ayres family. Mrs Ayres has the faded beauty of a rich socialite, even as she does what she can to keep the now wild garden from encroaching on the Hall or sits huddled under shawls in one of the few rooms they still use. Her daughter Caroline, a plain outdoorsy girl, had to return home from life in the WRAF to nurse her younger brother Roderick, who was badly burnt when his plane was brought down. The servant girl, Betty, claims the house is haunted. Roderick starts to see things in his room, and mysterious marks start to appear on the wall. Then the first fire breaks out…
Waters has written a haunting story, strongly in the style of real post-war fiction such as Du Maurier. The reader hesitates between real and unreal explanations. Our narrator in this world is a doctor, a man of science, who provides rational, psychological reasons for events. The strange events are related to him by various members of the Ayres, so we get them second hand. Yet they are so strongly evoked that, having read Roderick’s haunting at my own bedtime, I had to think of something else for a while before I could sleep. Is Betty playing trick on them? Is the house haunted by Mrs Ayres’ first, long dead, child Susan? Or is the house itself malevolent, trying to reject the family that inhabits it?
The book is also about that change in British society. In Austerity Britain, there is a telling anecdote about how attitudes to the upper classes was changing: a porter, being addressed as “my man” by a public school boy, replies “there’ll be no more of that”. The Ayres, along with the other families of their class in their pocket of Warwickshire, fear the new socialist government and think they are being drained by them. The doctors, including the once working class Faraday, think the arrival of the NHS will destroy their practices. Hundreds Hall, once a proud symbol of the country’s social hierarchy and the Ayres’ place at the top, is falling into ruin. Damp has seeped in, the gardens have gone wild, and the parade of live-in servants has been reduced to one maid of all work. Without the working classes that ran the house, it has crumbled. Betty doesn’t even want to be in service, she wants to be a factory girl.
So, what is wrong at the house? Tricks, pyschodrama or a real ghost? Is the house dying in the brave new world of a socialist Britain, and trying to take the Ayres with it? Like all truly good ghost stories, the novel refuses to reveal a reality or provide an explanation. And that, along with Waters’ classic simple prose and clear narrative drive, makes it a damn good read.
I have my own theory. The Little Stranger is a euphemism for an unborn child. If there was a ghost, someone that haunted the house, it was Faraday himself and what he accidentally represents. Faraday, as a child, stole a tiny acorn from a plasterwork frieze in the main hall of Hundreds Hall. During the novel he becomes haunts the Hall, calling on the Ayres all the time. In the epilogue, Faraday keeps being drawn back to the Hall’s location. Faraday, a working class child turned middle class professional, symbolises the new society growing in the ashes of WW2 despite his own dislike of socialism. He – and all his baggage – is the real ghost.