Sarah Waters Steps Back into Lesbian Fiction with ‘The Paying Guests’

Sarah Waters Steps Back into Lesbian Fiction with ‘The Paying Guests’

- in Entertainment
Photo: Greg McVan
Photo: Greg McVan

Sarah Waters, the author of the “lesbo Victorian romp,” Tipping the Velvet has produced another novel, The Paying Guests.

In her new book, Waters brings readers back to Champion Hill, a suburb of London in 1922. Both 26-year-old Frances, and her mother Mrs. Wray, have suffered “grievous losses during World War 1,” as two sons have died in battle and Frances’ father died of a stroke. The women are left alone as their servants have left and they are in debt.

Similar to Tipping the Velvet, this new novel has vivid sex scenes, with “the lovingly rendered historical details, the sharp social observations and the complicated relationships.”

Though Waters doesn’t mind being known as a “lesbian writer,” she likes to clarify that she is also an old-fashioned storyteller.

“People really enjoy long, involved narratives, regardless of their ethnicity or sexuality,” she said. “I am not writing for a particular kind of reader but I do know the kind of novels I’ve enjoyed – that intense, readerly escape.”

Not all of Waters’ novels have lesbians in them, which has annoyed her lesbian audience.

“Some of them were quite vocal about it,” Waters said when her novel The Little Stranger focused on class and gender, but had no lesbians. “Somebody wrote to Diva and said they were bitterly disappointed and would never read my books again. Frustrating as that was to hear readers say, I do kind of understand it.”

Waters admitted she did miss the lesbian desire.

In The Paying Guests, Walters had to do a lot of research about women in the 20s. She looked at Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, a young couple that had a love triangle.

“What interested me was that triangle,” Waters said. “The wife, the husband and the lover. I began to think what would happen if the lover was female. It was that basic ‘what if’ thing. It changes everything if the lover is a woman.”

Because looking back into history and finding information about the past can be spotty, Waters has to fill a lot of gaps in herself. However, homosexuality was certainly present.

“There were lesbian communities and networks,” Waters said. “There were pockets of knowledge about homosexuality, but it was kind of restricted to bohemians and intellectuals. To others you were just two eccentric ladies sharing a home.”

Waters thinks that had she been alive in the 20s, she’d have been a teacher.

“There were very limited opportunities for respectable women who were less well off. But teaching was a way you could continue your education and have some independence,” Waters said. “I like to think that, had I lived at the time, I would have been agitating for those changes; that I would have been a feminist, even then.”



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