Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which I recently read, is a book that works on two distinct but interlinked levels. On one hand it’s an atmospheric haunted-house story, on the other it’s about the blurring of the class divide in post-WWII Britain, and the effect this has – materially and psychologically – on both the old rich and on upwardly mobile members of what used to be the servant class.
The setting for this clash of cultures is a once-grand mansion called Hundreds Hall whose inhabitants – the elderly Mrs Ayres and her two children Caroline and Roderick – used to be landed gentry but who are now casualties of a changing social order. The vastness of the house they live in – most of its rooms ill-maintained and in disuse – is perversely disproportionate to their actual financial standing and lifestyle; it almost seems to mock them. (As a reader one can sometimes forget the book is set in 1947, the Ayres appear ossified in a much earlier age.) Into this world comes the book’s narrator, the middle-aged Dr Faraday, who had seen Hundreds Hall once before, as a child – his mother used to work there as a nursemaid. Faraday tentatively crosses the class divide, becoming the Ayres’ friend and a regular visitor, but he can’t quite understand why the family is so terrified of the house, and the hold it has on them. Surely there’s a commonsense explanation for all those strange noises and mysterious markings?
This book is underscored by personal tragedies, minor and major. There’s the tragedy of a family struggling to survive in a world that no longer has place for their “type”; the tragedy of a woman who lost a little daughter decades earlier and has never come to terms with it; a war-scarred young man who has been forced to grow up too soon, and a plain-looking young lady with few prospects. But what struck me most was the theme of people clinging to the past, afraid to let go, even when presented the choice of a better future. “I expect you think what most people must think when they’ve seen Hundreds as it is nowadays,” Caroline tells Faraday at one point, “that we’re absolutely mad to go on living there, trying to keep it the way it was...[but] the truth is, you see, we know how lucky we are to have lived there at all. We have to sort of keep the place in order, keep up our side of the bargain.”
“Keep up our side of the bargain”...even if you’re swallowed up in the process. This idea is central to the book. Caroline’s words reminded me, poignantly, of Norman Bates telling Marion Crane in the parlour-scene in Psycho that he couldn’t abandon his mother, because “the fire would go out...it would be cold and damp like a grave...if you love someone, you don’t do that to them even if you hate them”. The relationship between the Ayres family and Hundreds Hall is intense, deeply ambivalent and mutually dependent; you can tell that neither is going to let go of the other.
Part of what makes The Little Stranger such a tantalising read is that we share the vantage point of an unimaginative – or perhaps obdurate – man. Dr Faraday is deadly dull, so blinkered in his rationalism that even the most rational-minded reader will yearn to see him proved wrong (“Give him a real scare!” one wants to shout out to any ghosts that might be lurking in the dark corners of Hundreds). But on occasion one also senses a shadowiness in his motives. At one level, it’s possible to read this as a story about a man who has been accepted as a friend and near-equal into a house where his mother once worked as a servant, and whose (inappropriate) presence sets off a violent chain of events – events that he, subconsciously at least, contributes to. In a sense he and the house are in perpetual conflict, even if he doesn’t realise it.
But Waters’ book remains open to multiple interpretations. Who or what is the “little stranger” and what exactly is the strangeness in question? It’s possible to say that we learn the answer to these questions on the last page – in fact, in the very last sentence. But it’s equally possible to say that we never learn it at all, and finally that adds to the book’s enigmatic quality. I closed it thinking it had been a moderately good read (if I were inclined to allot “marks” to books - which I'm not - I would probably have rated it a 7.5 on 10), but in subsequent days I found that it had crawled under my skin and I couldn't stop thinking about it.