Queering The Canon: An Interview With Sarah Waters

by Koa Beck


Sarah Waters is a woman of our year for single-handedly expanding the queer canon — and making it look easy. The Welsh author of notable queer classics like Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith has penned a total of five historical fiction novels. Her newest work, The Paying Guests, takes readers to 1922 London. A widower and her 26-year-old daughter, Frances Wray, are newly renting out their home to a married couple, Lillian and Leonard Barber. Lillian and Frances’s close friendship soon blossoms into a secret romance that must be hidden at all costs, until the two women start to plan to have a life together — openly.

A literature PhD candidate who went straight into penning fiction, Sarah’s understanding of queer historical dynamics has made for compelling stories and significant reminders of LGBTQ existence in decades past. While archives of same-sex relationships remain scant in comparison to heterosexual relationships, Sarah’s fictional work has made for tremendous visibility of queer love through history. Her novels have created detailed records of same-sex partnerships where there simply weren’t many before.

Sarah and I spoke on the phone about the importance of queer archives, secret lesbian communities of bygone eras, and the queering of Jane Austen classics.

Much like your other novels, The Paying Guests focuses on a queer relationship between two women — this time in the 1920s. What brought you to this decade?

Usually when I start a novel, I go to a period either knowing quite a lot — or enough to know what sort of stories I’m going to be able to tell. But with The Paying Guests, I must admit it was not really knowing much about the 1920s and wanting to find out more. It was a slower writing process to get to know the era. It was a question of starting research and seeing what came up.

Why is the 1920s a particularly compelling time for women in London?

It was still so close to the war and yet was the start of…it felt like there was a lot of energy. It was a really mixed era. There was all this exhaustion and grief left over from [World War I], and yet people were beginning to look forward: changes in terms of domestic life and motor cars on the street and things like that.

And women, I think, almost have the best of both kinds of things. Men had suffered in obvious ways, especially younger men through the war and women had suffered too, of course, in losing their men. Nevertheless, women had gained new freedoms in the war. There was a new informality to life for women. They had gained a lot of new job opportunities, especially working class women. I think that had an impact on women’s expectations and confidence. And they had gained a partial vote just after the end of the war.

Pressing financial circumstances bring Lillian and Frances together. Was their domestic situation reflective of many families in London at this time?

Yeah, this was a period in which a lot of middle class families had lost income. The economic slumps had impacted the middle class in particular. They had lost servants precisely because so many women had gone out of domestic service, and although they had gone back into it, they hadn’t gone back in quite the same ways. So, they didn’t want to be live-in servants in the way they had been before, for example. There were housing shortages after the war so people had to share domestic spaces. The concept of “paying guests” is one that comes up quite a lot in post-World War British fiction, precisely because so many people were having to accommodate new ways of living.

When I thought of that as the key to the book, it felt very right for this period,because Frances and her mother are kind of on their way down. And on the other side, Lillian and Leonard are on their way up. For the lower middle class, there was a huge expansion of opportunity in terms of employment. White-collar jobs, I think, tripled between about 1912 and 1922. People of Leonard and Lillian’s class, a generation before, would have been working class and now were in more secure positions with a lot more income and a lot more leisure. It was a real moment, I think, in class terms.

I’ve read that you very much enjoy the research component of each book. Do you seek out queer archives when drafting your characters?

Well, I’m not like a historian who goes rooting around in the archives because I find there’s quite a lot available if you know where to look. And for this novel, I sort of knew enough about lesbian history and this period to be confident that I could talk about lesbian communities. Just looking at writer’s lives, for example, like Daphne du Maurier and her sisters: they all had lesbian relationships as teenagers and they obviously mixed in writing and theatrical circles.

I think the crucial thing about this period was, there was the lesbian experience and information about homosexuality, but it very much depended on which circles you moved in. So if you were kind of arty or perhaps well-off, I think you’d have access to the new kinds of knowledge and information that were available.

We have much less information, and we always do, about the working-class lesbian life in this period.

That was one of my points of interest in The Paying Guests given that queer women of Lillian and Frances’s class didn’t exactly have the time to labor over diary entries and leave a record of same-sex relationships. What sorts of records of queer relationships do you use?

Well, it’s sort of glimpses [into same-sex relationships] really. Fragments. There is Edward Carpenter. He was a sexologist and he was gay. He was upper middle class but lived fairly openly with a working class man all his life. He wrote a book called The Intermediate Sex, for example, that was an early defense of homosexuality, and lots of people wrote to him. The whole Carpenter archives contain letters to him and there are some from women who are clearly identifying themselves as lesbians.

There is one woman who calls herself Frances Wilde who writes to him in, I think it’s 1915, to say that she’s read The Intermediate Sex and she kind of recognizes herself in it and she’s lonely. She wants to meet another woman and find a partner. In that sense she confirms our ideas that gay people in the past were doomed to be lonely. But what she also mentions in her letter is that she’s had a lover in the past, she knows other women who are living together as lovers, so there clearly were lesbian friendship networks, just like there are today.

There are some novels from the period. There is a novel called The Tortoiseshell Cat by Naomi Royde-Smith from 1918, something like that. Maybe a bit later. And that book has a lesbian character in it and it’s a rather negative portrayal of her. But, nevertheless, lesbians were finding their way into popular culture and fiction. And it’s a bit later, 1930, that Sylvia Warner, the novelist, she met Valentine Ackland and fell in love with her. And they set up home together for the rest of their lives.

Ackland had been having lesbian affairs in the 1920s, people like Radclyffe Hall had been having lesbian relationships well before the 1920s, so you know, the information is definitely there.

You have a PhD in literature and reportedly went straight from your doctorate into writing novels. What was your thesis about?

The thesis looked at lesbian and gay historical fictions from the late 19th century and onward. It really looked at the way in which people appealed to the past, either to defend homosexuality, like with Victorian men appealing to the idea of Greek love, for example, or women appealing to the idea of Sappho. Or conversely, people often invoking the past as a way to criticize homosexuality, saying, “Well, look at the fall of the Roman empire.” I was very interested in the way that the past was just continually reinvented as new ideas of homosexuality came along. It left me interested in not just the gay past, but how we write about the gay past and how we claim it or deny it. That led straight into my novels.

What’s your opinion on the queering of classics, such as the queer reinterpretations of Jane Austen novels?

Is that a strong movement? Queering Jane Austen? [laughs]

I know in the past that people have talked about Jane’s relationship with her sister Cassandra as being an almost lesbian relationship and I think it’s really interesting. [Queering Jane Austen] sounds like a fascinating thing to do. The historian in me would want to say that it’s too easy to see loving relationships between women in the past and immediately slap a modern lesbian label on them. We need to be kind of sensitive to the nuances of the historical moment we’re talking about, in which traditionally women have been allowed a lot of freedom in the way they were, physically, with each other and the affectionate way they wrote to one another. Maybe sometimes there was an erotic element to that relationship, but we shouldn’t assume that it’s always there.

Koa Beck is a fiction writer and the senior editor of DailyWorth. Follow her on Twitter.