Warning: Once you start reading Sarah Waters, you may not be able to stop. Her books are thoroughly immersive, full of historical minutiae that bring her stories to life so viscerally that finishing them feels like waking from a particularly vivid dream. I don’t think I’ve ever blown through an author’s entire oeuvre so quickly and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Her debut novel was Tipping the Velvet, a story about a young woman who falls in love with a male impersonator in Victorian London. Waters was working on her PhD in Lesbian and Gay Historical Fiction at the time and wrote the novel around the tantalizing glimpses of gay women she found in her research. These were stories that hadn’t been told and she was the one to tell them.
After meeting with almost unanimous acclaim, she followed her first book up with two more Victorian novels.
First came Affinity, a gothic thriller about a woman from the Upper class who develops a relationship with a mysterious young spiritualist on her charitable trips to the local jail. Then, there was Fingersmith, a rollicking Dickensian adventure story with more twists than a pig’s tail. After that, Waters jumped forward several decades with The Night Watch, a heart wrenching novel that moves backwards, exploring life for both women after and during World War II.
The Little Stranger, my first Waters novel and her only novel without a lesbian plot, is a gothic ghost story also set in the 1940s. It tells the story of the crumbling, possibly haunted Hundreds Hall and the family that owns it as they struggle to adapt to a quickly-changing world. Though some readers have read Caroline as a closeted lesbian, Waters herself says she had no such intentions when writing the character.
The lack of a gay storyline enraged many of her fans, but she quickly returned to her roots with The Paying Guests, which she describes as “the big lesbian love story. I wanted to throw everything at it. In the end I put way too much sex in, so I had to take some out.” Set in post-World War I London, it is about an Upper class woman who is forced to rent out rooms in her house and is met with the feelings that quickly spark between her and one of the new lodgers.
Waters explores themes of gender, loneliness, and class in her work, but most of all, she writes about times of great upheaval and the women who got lost in the cracks of history. She speaks to women because she gives voices to the unheard. According to Independent, she pays attention to “women’s history, their secret history and lives, acknowledging meaning in their domestic lives.”
She is currently at work on a novel set in the 1950s, which according to The Guardian, is “a kind of cousin to The Little Stranger, but with working-class people”. Whether this means we should expect another ghost story is unclear, but whatever journey Waters wishes to take us on next, I’m ready to follow wherever she leads.
Featured Image via The Independent