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7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters



I just finished the book this afternoon--it left me in a weird mood. It was a very disturbing book. If you’re hooked on the psychological novel and don’t want spoilers, stop here till you’ve read the book.

I've never been enamored of Waters. I liked Night Watch, maybe largely because London during the Blitz has always fascinated me, but I generally don't like novels that work primarily via some kind of psychological intensity. Or I don't like them as much as I like novels that are more cerebral, more aware of themselves as fiction. I liked Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence much better at the end, when "the narrator" turns the material over to "the author" and we are brought face to face with the fact that this is a fiction.

I suppose one could say that something similar happens here since Dr. Faraday is so obviously a naive narrator who reveals himself far more to the reader/listener than he realizes. He thinks himself in control of the tale, while the reader sees quite clearly that "the author" is pulling the strings.

The situation is this: Dr. Faraday narrates the entire book. The time is the immediate post WWII period in Britain. Faraday is a doctor in a small town in Warwickshire. He’s conscious of his own working class origins; he’s belatedly aware of how hard his parents worked and how much they sacrificed for his education. He’s called out one night to the Hundreds, a nearby estate, to attend the only servant, fifteen-year old Betty, who turns out to be faking illness because she’s afraid of ghosts. There he meets the family: the widow Ayres and her grown children—Roderick who’s physically and probably psychologically damaged by the war and Caroline who had some independence during the war but has come home to support mother and brother. Faraday narrates his first experience at “the manor” when as a child the good lady of the manor presented him with a medal and his mother took him to the servants’ hall to reminisce with her former co-workers. Coming back as “the doctor” is significant for him.

But as a doctor, he is not predisposed to believe in the supernatural. When at a drinks party, the child of some up-and-comers who come dressed casually to a do even the doctor recognizes requires evening dress is disfigured by the bite of the family dog, Faraday sees only a tragic accident, though he acknowledges the dog is a friendly one. He “saves the day” by sewing up the wound on the kitchen table.

He soon makes himself indispensible by convincing Roderick he can treat his leg with electricity for free, that it will be a favor because he needs data for a paper he’s writing. He comes weekly and gradually makes himself indispensible to the two women, especially when Roderick begins to act more and more erratically and finally burns up his room.  Roderick is afraid of whomever or whatever started the fire, a possibility the doctor (rational creature that he is) doesn’t entertain for a moment. In fact that claim causes him to bundle the brother off to a rest home, making the women even more dependent on him.

Even though at first he describes Caroline as big, awkward and unattractive, he’s thrown together with her often, and when he takes her to a medical ball, a courtship between them begins which progresses to an engagement.

Dr. Faraday cares for Caroline but I don't think he’s very self aware and while he recognizes some class-consciousness in himself, he doesn’t realize the extent to which it permeates his thinking—and feeling. He never forgets that medal he got as the child of a former servant and the idea that he could rise to be the lord of the manor is attractive, even compelling to him—something he never acknowledges—not even in his despair when Caroline throws him over—maybe especially not then. He acknowledges that it's embarrassing that the wedding is called off and that people will say it's because he was "not of her class" but that's as far as he goes. Caroline, by contrast, seems to be thinking quite clearly: it’s time to give up Hundreds and leave, maybe even leave the country.

Before Caroline makes up her mind to break off the engagement she asks him how he expects they will live at the manor; she says he's talking as if when they are married there will be all kinds of money to do what needs to be done. He doesn't answer her but he also doesn't question himself. At some level he's so fixated on living as the lord of the manor that he's thinking much less realistically than Caroline.

I find Faraday tedious, full of prejudices men used typically to have about women, particularly if they found themselves in some position of authority. Today I don't hesitate to disagree with my doctor and to tell him I'm not going to follow his advice on something, but 60 years ago, I doubt many, especially women, did that. At many points in the novel I found myself furious at the way he dealt with women and sick people, as if being a doctor gave him some general moral authority. Throughout the novel he used that moral authority (which he himself doesn’t question either) to manipulate everyone at the Hundreds: Roderick because of his war injuries, Betty because she was a child, Mrs. Ayres because she was elderly and then sick or disturbed, and finally Caroline also. He doesn't see it as manipulation—he sees that as his responsibility—but the author standing behind him certainly does.

What fascinated me most about this novel was Water’s ability to link the possibility of the supernatural with the idea of class and with the social changes taking place in Britain at that time. Faraday, doctor or not, is permanently marked, in his own eyes and to some extent in those of others, as the child of the servant. The Ayers family are gentry who no longer have a place because they no longer have the wealth to maintain the estate but also because Britain is broke in the post-war period, governed by Labour who have raised taxes even though it may tax a whole class out of existence and leave many a manor like Hundreds to waste away or possibly to find new life as an hotel or a school. The Ayres really are being attacked. A way of life is being attacked and one that affects the whole society, from professionals like Dr. Faraday who have an exaggerated respect for the gentry to young girls like Betty who would at one time have had no other alternative for work than “service”. Is it so hard to believe that all the psychic energy caught up in these changes could manifest itself in some way that might be called ghostly or supernatural?

I cannot answer the question of whether the events at the Hundreds were the work of a poltergeist or some such, the malevolence of a long-dead child, or the “unsound minds” of the Ayres. Nor does Waters, wisely, attempt to, though she allows many possibilities.

In the end, there’s the inquest into the death of Caroline where Dr. Faraday is encouraged to label her death “suicide while of unsound mind”. As the family doctor, only he can verify that. Betty’s testimony about ghosts is not taken even remotely seriously, but if the Ayres actually believed any of “the nonsense” then the coroner has an out and can label them all nuts, preserving the rest of society from having to deal with their experiences. Dr. Faraday does so because, rational man that he is, he always thought the ghost talk was nonsense. Less charitably also, maybe because he’ll be seen as having made a “lucky escape” rather than being jilted by the gentry.

5 Comments:

OpenID whisperinggums said...

Nice review ... this is only my second Waters, though I did see Fingersmith. I too liked The night watch a lot, partly because I'm also interested in World War 2 stories but also because I thought it was structurally interesting.

This one, though, is an intriguing book and one that you keep thinking about for some time (I think!).

4/04/2010 03:09:00 AM  
Blogger rtfgvb7802 said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

4/05/2010 10:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Tom Cunliffe said...

A good review.

I began to wonder whether the doctor was an "unreliable narrator" who actually committed the murder!

4/08/2010 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger Susannah said...

Hmmm. I definitely think he's an unreliable narrator, but I don't think he committed the murder. (I did wonder if someone was going to accuse him.) I think Waters' is more interested in people's attitudes toward the supernatural than turning this into a murder mystery.

4/08/2010 12:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Diane said...

I finished listening to The Little Stranger today and finally allowed myself to read your review. Dr. Faraday reminded me so much of my Uncle "Doc" who died in 1962. The whole family deferred to him. We thought he knew everything and treated him the way Dr. Faraday expected to be treated. It was such a different time and I was so young then, Betty's age. I enjoyed the book very much and also thought about the possibility that Dr. Faraday could have gone to Hundreds in his sleep. He dreamed about trying to get there. Stranger things happened at the manor!
I would like to read her other books. I do like psychological novels with unclear endings.

4/13/2010 01:35:00 PM  

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