Frances Wray and her widowed mother are rattling around in their big Victorian house after the war, and because they desperately need the money, they decide to take in The Barbers, a young married couple. They call them “paying guests” instead of lodgers, since it is a much nicer term and will sound better to the neighbours. So much of this book is about “keeping up appearances” and though the Victorian era may be just over, a lot of the class distinctions and worrying about manners and how people should behave, are at the centre of this novel.
Frances pictures herself as merely the landlady in charge of the welcome shillings that the new arrangement will generate, but she is unprepared to become quite so involved with her new tenants. This is the first book I have read by Sarah Waters, and I must say she did have me hooked into the dark and atmospheric sensual story of lies, secrets, adulterous sex, and murder. This is a very long but compelling melodrama and quite slow in movement, but it certainly is a nail-biter at the same time. The ending did leave me feeling empty and I wonder if that was the author’s point. As one reviewer put it, it “left me feeling like a wrung out dishcloth” and with this I must agree. I won’t say more because that would spoil it.
Shortly after finishing the book I ran across a BBC article which talked about roller blading in the Victorian era. Roller blading does feature in an episode in the book. The sport was fun but it also allowed couples to actually hold onto each other in very intimate ways, right in public, and no one would mind! Here is a link to the article: The Victorian Craze that sparked a mini-sexual revolution
Just yesterday the shortlist for the Baileys’ Prize was announced and this book is on it. Personally, I am disappointed that Elizabeth is Missing or Station Eleven did not make the cut, but then so often the award winners we wish would win are not the ones that get picked. I am grateful, as always, for the Baileys’ long-list, which always highlights so many good reads, including this one.