Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

This is an amazing work: equal parts Turn of the Screw and Brideshead Revisited, with a dash of Daphne DuMarier's "Rebecca" for spice. Narrated in the first person by Dr. Faraday, who like the second Mrs. de Winter has no first name, the book concerns the fall of the Ayres family and their estate, Hundreds Hall. Sometimes this book is marketed as a ghost story, which it is, and most reviewers are aware of its depiction of class resentment. I think the book is primarily about the change of class structure after WWII, and the ghost story is itself a metaphor for the changing social landscape--which makes the book, in my opinion, even more worth close reading.

The opening set piece sums up the entire plot: Dr. Faraday's first memory of Hundreds is from a 1919 public event for "Empire Day." At that time, the hall is inhabited by Colonel Ayres, his lovely young wife, and their seven year old daughter Susan. He, along with a number of other boys, receives a medal from Mrs. Ayres. Because Faraday's mother was once a nursery maid at Hundreds, she takes him inside the mansion while she visits with her former co-workers. Young Faraday is allowed a brief peak at the family's part of the house (as opposed to the servants' areas) and is overcome with the desire to possess a piece of the grand home. He prises out a plaster acorn from a decorative frieze, but is disappointed that it doesn't come cleanly, but trailing strings. His theft is discovered by his mother at home, and the acorn is taken from him and put on the fire, where it smokes and melts, ruined but not utterly destroyed.

You have just been given the condensed version of the rest of the book. Waters is very good.

The story picks up again some thirty years later. Faraday is now a doctor, both his parents dead, WWII just over. The colonel has also died in the intervening years, as had the Ayres' daughter Susan, of diphteria when she was eight. Hundreds was requisitioned by the army during the war, and the family has now fallen on hard times. Only Mrs. Ayres and two grown children live at Hundreds, with a single teen aged maid and a daily cook to support them. They have been forced over the years to sell off most of the land, and are struggling to survive on their small remaining farm. Faraday is not the Ayres' usual doctor, but since Graham is busy on an emergency case, Faraday comes to see to the ailing maid, Betty.

The maid, it turns out, isn't actually ill, but she doesn't like being alone in the house and claims there is "something bad here." Faraday is rather kind and understanding: Betty is lonely and frightened in her new position, having been there no more than a month. Faraday orders a day of bed rest, and speaks to the family about getting her a wireless to keep her company, and letting her avoid the servants' staircase that frightens her.

The family is presented like refugees from a disaster; they only use a few rooms of the house, and huddle together in the small parlor around an inadequate fire, unable to heat even one room adequately. Mrs. Ayres is elegant but visibly impoverished, her children more devolved. The son, Roderick, was an RAF pilot who survived a plane crash that left burn scars across his skin and damaged one leg. Caroline was in the Wrens during the war, but was called home to nurse Roddy. She dresses shabbily, with bare and unshaven legs. She lounges in her chair, stretching her bare toes to run them through the fur of her old dog Gyp.

Waters' book is heavy with metaphor and symbolism: the family is living like Gypsies in their own home, wearing salvaged and tattered clothing, clinging to their elevated status even in the face of visible privation. Yet they continue to be gracious and charming to the doctor, even while denigrating the rise of the working class. Rod is rather bitter about the fact that the family does without calling in a doctor, but apparently they can't expect the servants to do without. He also claims that the "pirate class" is just waiting for the word from Attlee to rise up and loot Hundreds and all the other "county families."

Having gotten his foot into the door, Faraday manages to insinuate himself into the Ayres' lives, initially by using an experimental electrical treatment on Roddy's leg--not that the Ayres can afford the treatment, but Faraday offers to do it as research for a paper on the technique. This allows him entrance to the family on a weekly basis, but he's soon there more often. Fatefully, he is invited to attend a "drinks party" Mrs. Ayres has decided to give in honor of their new neighbors.

The preparations for the party are harrowing: Caroline and Betty on their knees scrubbing the marble entryway; Caroline pinning up the yellow wallpaper in the saloon. The cook complains of all the work, all for just a "drinks party." The party itself is, of course, a disaster. None of the Ayres have really appropriate evening wear--it's all out of date, the wrong size, threadbare and patched. The new neighbors are horrible: they arrive in "lounge suits," not proper evening dress; they have brought along a ill-mannered and badly raised eight year old daughter; they have also dragged along a visiting brother. It turns out that Mrs. Ayres, at least, expected the brother, as she is obviously trying to make a match for Caroline.

Things start to go badly when Rodrick fails to show up. At first Betty is dispatched to find him, then later Mrs. Ayres goes and returns with the news that Rod isn't feeling well and won't be joining them at all. Caroline gets insulted, and then the nasty little girl ends up behind a curtain with Gyp, and gets bitten. Dr. Faraday stitches her face in the kitchen, then rides down to the neighbors' home to get the girl settled. The next morning, he goes to check on his patient, only to find that they have called in their own doctor, and Faraday feels himself humiliated--replaced because they felt he wasn't good enough to continue to treat the girl.

Up at Hundreds, the family is sad and confused. Gyp was never the sort of dog who bit anyone. Of course they felt badly for the girl, and simply cannot understand why Gyp would have behaved that way. There is even the intimation that the old county families would have seen it as an unfortunate accident. The Baker-Halls, however, are threatening to involve the police and want the old dog destroyed. After some objections by the family, eventually they see there is no choice, and Dr. Faraday is asked to "destroy the dog."

Poor Gyp--not only is he an old dog, Caroline's sole companion, but he is also a stand in for the very class the Ayres belong to: pedigreed, well-bred, well-trained, amiable and unthreatening. Betty blames the dog's unusual behavior on the "dark thing" in the house that had frightened her before, and Roddy ends up confirming this opinion. What is carefully never articulated is what I assumed: that the foul child had teased and provoked the poor dog until it lost it's temper and snapped. She was a thoroughly provoking child, after all, spending nearly the entire time begging for wine and brandy, "which she always drank at home" and insisting that she had a right to smoke if she wanted to and no one could stop her. While the local families were all appalled at her behavior and her parents' permissiveness, the Baker-Halls simply gave in to her demands. Waters has deftly illustrated the coming social changes, in which the privileges of adulthood were demanded and granted without any of the attendant obligations. And as Waters demonstrates with Gyp, when this licentious behavior creates an unfortunate effect, there is no consequence to the provoker.

You can see how the values of the Ayres generation is overrun by the demands of the new people. No one at Hundreds believes Gyp is to blame, but they have neither the resources or appetite for an confrontation, and acquiesce in the demand for Gyp's death. It simply isn't the done thing to litigate, or accuse the child of causing her own injury, and the Ayres take the blame for something that wasn't their fault.

Waters writes compassionately about the old dog's death, but it is hard not to see the death of the old way of life, and the Ayres family, encompassed in the situation. The dog follows Dr. Faraday, who gives him a shot and waits until the heart stops beating. It's a gentle death, but it changes the life of the house--as the death of the gentry class changes the life of England. The people still think they hear him walking around the house, and the cook found herself even putting out his dinner. The emotional tenor of the house has changed, although it takes some time for the inhabitants to actually realize he won't return.

It is at this point that the ghost story kicks in. Rod becomes more and more erratic, barely leaving his room. He eventually reveals to Faraday that there is a presence, "an infection" that will leave the rest of the family alone if he stays alert to prevent it. Rod believes that this ghost left his room and caused Gyp to bite the Baker-Hall girl. There are "accidents" and a dangerous fire that started in five or six locations in his room while Rod slept. Eventually, Dr. Faraday becomes concerned, and Rod is bundled off to a mental hospital--one that the family finances can barely afford. Perhaps it is a recurrance of his earlier breakdown--the one that happened after his plane crash, or maybe it was caused by the strain of trying to keep up the estate with no staff, no land, no support.

Of course, I was wondering--why not just sell off everything and move? Surely there are better ways to live than locked up in a freezing house, huddled around an inadequate fire? Rod says repeatedly that he is trying to keep the hall "for the family," but there isn't really any family left. There is just the three of them, and no real prospects for Rod or Caroline to marry. The Ayres are fighting off the inevitable--there is no real way to go back to the glory days of the house, and no real future for it either.

Once Rod is gone, the work of running the estate falls to Caroline, who seems to be better suited to it than Rod ever was, although there is no way to really make things better. It is at this time that Faraday starts to see Caroline's charms, and he begins to court her. He has also published his paper on the electrical treatment of Rod's injuries, which lead to some interest in him by a London hospital. It is apparent to the reader that Caroline sees Faraday as her escape route--there is no one else for her to marry, and if he relocates to London, she is safely away from Hundreds. Unfortunately, it starts to become obvious that Faraday sees Caroline as a way to gain Hundreds Hall for himself. He's gotten to be a regular visitor, often letting himself into the house without waiting for the door to be answered. He imagines marrying Caroline, living at Hundreds and restoring the house, without ever really calculating how impossible that would be on his limited doctor's income.

The ghost is back as well--making noises in the speaking tube between the kitchen and the old nursery, knocking on walls, leaving scribbled letters on the walls behind large pieces of furniture. Mrs. Ayres becomes convinced that it is her lost child, Susan, dead these forty years, trying to get her mother to join her. The noises have thoroughly unnerved Betty and the cook, and Mrs. Ayres is beginning to show welts and cuts that she blames on Susan. There is even a frightening scene where Mrs. Ayres was locked in the old nursery, a sequence that pays brilliant homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story of The Yellow Wallpaper.

Faraday convinces Caroline that her mother also needs mental care, but the morning she is to be sent away, Mrs. Ayres is found hanged in her bedroom, the door locked from the inside and the key thrown out the window. It is at this point that Faraday starts to become quite obnoxious to the reader, although he sees himself as perfectly rational. He begins to badger Caroline to set a date for the wedding, and when she doesn't make any plans, Faraday makes them for her. Matters come to a head when he shows up at the house with a wedding dress, flowers, and a ring. Caroline cancels the engagement, making clear that she will sell the house and even emigrate to get away from Hundreds.

Faraday loses it, clumsily arguing with Caroline, trying to guilt her into staying, roping his friends into making his case to her. It is increasingly clear that Faraday is more afraid of losing Hundreds than he is of losing Caroline. He puts padlocks on the gates to the park; he has some reason, which I have forgotten, but the feeling is that he is trying to keep his hold on the house. Caroline, on the other hand, seems stronger and more purposeful then ever, as she boxes up possessions, sells what she can, and readies the house for sale.

One fateful night--I have forgotten whether it was the date Faraday had set for the wedding, or the day Caroline was going to leave Hundreds--Faraday is out late and falls asleep in his car out at Hundreds. He dreams of going into the house, passing like smoke through the locked gates. The next morning, Caroline is found dead at the foot of the stairs. Betty says that saw Caroline on the landing, and just before she fell, she said "You!" (I may be the only one who draws this connection, but I was struck by the similarity of Caroline's death with that of Amy Dudley, the inconvenient wife of Robert Dudley--the man widely believed to be Elizabeth I's lover. She was found dead at the foot of the stairs at the Dudley country home, and her death might have freed Robert to marry Elizabeth, but the mysterious manner of her death created a scandal that tainted her husband and left Elizabeth free to stay single.)

The book ends with Dr. Faraday more or less haunting the house, keeping hold of his keys, sweeping out rat dung, catching sight of himself in the reflections of the old glass.

Waters leaves the ghost story unresolved. Faraday missed most of the overtly supernatural events, and never believed they were real. As our first person narrator, our insight into those events is severely restricted by Faraday's rational insistence that they never happened. The specters or phantasms experienced by the Ayreses are very different: Rod's ghost moved small objects and left burn marks on the walls and furniture; Mrs. Ayre's ghost made noises and cut her. There is reason to believe that Caroline was killed by Faraday's jealous anger, projected out of his body and into Hundreds and causing her death. Her exclamation of "You!" could have been caused by recognizing Faraday, who may or may not have actually been present in the house.

Which has lead to a great deal of discussion on the internet about what "really" happened, and in at least one interview, Waters has admitted that she didn't really wrap up the ghost story. Which can be frustrating, but is less so if (as I do) one reads the ghost story as a metaphor for the class conflict that pervades the novel.

Faraday himself is an outcast--raised by education and training out of his own working class roots, he fails to fit into any other class. He resents that the gentry don't make him their doctor, and he feels invisible. He is ashamed of his lack of progress in his field, jealous of his partner's success, ambivalent in his feelings about the sacrifices his parents made for his education. The childhood desire to possess a piece of Hundreds lives on in the man--although never articulated, one can see that Faraday believes that he can gain social acceptance through his position at Hundreds. And that he naively believes that by marrying Caroline, he will magically restore Hundreds to the place it occupied back in 1919. But there is no longer an English Empire, so no more Empire Day celebrations. The best future for Faraday lies in accepting the invitation to practice in London--there he can escape the class limitations he experiences in the country. Caroline sees her future in the (relatively) classless societies of America and Canada, but Faraday doesn't want the future--he wants to go back to the past, but occupy a privileged position there.

Mrs. Ayres' death can be seen as the pull of the past on the present. She, like Faraday, preferred the past, embodied as her greater love for the dead Susan than she had for her living children. There is no future for those who prefer the past--Mrs. Ayres dies, and Faraday ends up trapped by it. I'm not certain I can explain Caroline's role in the extended metaphor, but as I think about this novel, I am reminded of Bertolucci's movie The Last Emperor. Born into unbelievable opulence and treated as a god, Pu Yi ends his life in modern China as a gardener, riding a bike and wearing plain cotton Mao jackets. Caroline might not have thrived in a classless society.

Some final thoughts: the family name is a pun on class consciousness: Ayres is pronounced as "airs" or even "heirs." By the end of the book, there are no Ayres left, no heirs to the old properties. I think the book would have been better named "A Little Stranger," as the book and Dr. Faraday each grow a little stranger with each passing episode.

Waters writes beautifully, and the ominous mood is masterfully set forth and sustained. I listened to this on audiobook, and Simon Vance does an outstanding job with the narration. The book might be a little slow for some, but the accumulation of details is what makes the mood so gripping. A worthwhile read, a credit-worthy listen, and an author I will come back to.


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Heather said...

Thank you for your excellent review and thought provoking insight.