The year is 1947; Britain is victorious, but battle-worn. The country is bankrupt and suffocating in post-war depression. Dr Faraday, a Warwickshire country GP, is middle aged and from a working-class background. His patients are often from the rural slums, so he is happy to get a call from the Aryes family at Hundreds Hall. He hopes this is the moment all his years of struggle striving to drag himself up from his humble origins will begin to bear fruit; hoping this is the opening of the door to social strata he has always had his eye on. Dr Faraday’s life from that moment does indeed change, but not in the ways he had hoped, as his life becomes more and more entwined with The Aryes and the strange goings on at Hundred’s Hall.
Faraday is a solitary central figure, a man trapped in a world that is both outside his control and partly of his own making. He is yearning for things – love, acceptance. He is a character familiar to readers of historical fiction, to those who enjoy Victorian and post-Victorian stiff upper lip, to the lover of gothic ghost stories, haunted houses, and to those who know the work of Sarah Waters; we are in familiar territory throughout, and yet we are also surrounded by freshness and vitality.
This is a novel about the decaying last days of the manor house aristocracy. Faraday knew Hundreds Hall as a child, long before the war, long before his striving to get away from his humble origins took its toll. And there he is back, back within the walls of such corrupting memories. He made it somewhere many others with whom he grew up did not, and yet he is distinctly unfulfilled. Always to be the outsider, always to be striving toward that which will inevitably always be out of reach.
The Little Stranger is a deeply rich novel, and just like all the classics of the genre, unsettling not because of the jolts, but because of the way it breathes around you as you read it. The strength of Waters’ narrative voice is everything, and you walk every tentative step through those halls with Faraday. Every ghost story needs a sceptic and Dr Faraday guides us through our own disbelief at the goings on in Hundreds Hall. This is a careful, perfectly crafted gothic spook story, a grandchild of the masters of the art, MR James, Wilkie Collins and (with the Fall of the House of Usher in particular) Edgar Allan Poe. The depiction of the Ayres family dealing with the potential loss of their dilapidated estate is a pivotal force of the novel. The coupling of the decay of the house and the decay of the human mind is woven very tightly into the narrative, and we are left to ask ourselves the question: is this a haunting of a house or a haunting of the mind? Waters revels in the ambiguities so important to the most effective examples of the genre.
And so it is fascinating to hear Waters explain that:
I didn’t plan for the novel to be a ghost story right from the start – I wanted to write a book about the class changes that Britain was going through in the period after the Second World War. But I set the novel in a crumbling country house, and found myself with a cast of unhappy, frustrated characters all in thrall to a world that was slipping away from them… In other words, the novel morphed into a haunted house story more or less by itself, and once I could see that happening, I realised that a novel of the supernatural was the perfect way to address the mournfulness and anxiety of post-war upper middle-class life.
So just as with all great literature, the story carries the values; it is a vehicle for the author’s real preoccupations rather than the central idea itself. Waters here uses the ghost story to explore themes that are recurrent throughout her work, and one of the reasons that The Little Stranger stands so tall is because it stands outside her usual milieu, and benefits greatly from this excitable freshness. It is what changes a chill into a fright, and a good story into excellent literature.
Aside from the critical and commercial success of The Little Stranger, Waters is most commonly labelled a writer of ‘lesbian literature’. Waters found her voice taking historical periods she has openly admitted she knew were attractive to publishers’ trends, such as the Second World War and Victorian London, and inserted into them lesbian story lines. It has allowed her both to make a name for herself, but also to tackle her favourite themes of gender politics. And it cannot be denied (Waters’ certainly doesn’t) that the perceived salaciousness has helped sales and encouraged the television people to come calling (she is quoted as saying that when the BBC came to her to adapt Tipping the Velvet, they did so clearly looking for something to spice up their tried and tested formula of costume drama).
Waters is a canny industry figure, then; she understands the business and has made an exemplary career out of it. Yet she is also entirely committed to her craft, to her themes, to her literariness.
The Little Stranger may not be an immediate work that springs to mind when looking for the Greatest Welsh Novel, but a novel that Wales can be proud of need not be one that is smothered in what could be termed ‘Welshness’. Like others on this list, the influence of Wales on The Little Stranger is perhaps more atmospheric than thematic, if you really want to identify it. Perhaps the tempered measured prose is inspired by the landscape in which Pembrokeshire-born Waters first sunk into her beloved libraries.
But Waters has said of her Welsh roots: ‘I feel a bit of a fraud being labelled as a Welsh writer, because I don’t write about Wales, don’t know about Welsh culture and politics and I’m not part of the Welsh literary scene. I don’t feel English, yet I do feel like a Londoner.’ In a twisted way there is something quite Welsh about not feeling very Welsh, about finding yourself in the great melting pot of London and looking back to see little connection to what the tourist board tells you Wales is. Many of the books on the Greatest Welsh Novel list have a discernible element of loneliness to their stories, a sad quietness that circles the protagonist. There is something of that in much of Waters’ work. It is there in On the Black Hill, Submarine, A Toy Epic, and many of the others. Loneliness is not Welsh, of course not; but being Welsh can be lonely. But this may be stretching it, I admit. The main reason why The Little Stranger should make it on to the list is because it is a scintillating, terrifying, beautiful read, and it is by a Welsh writer, and it should be celebrated by the Welsh literary establishment as such.