What Happened, Sarah Waters?

Has everyone’s favorite gothic lesbian author lost her mojo?

Once upon a time, I wrote a writer’s love letter to Sarah Waters. It was terribly overwrought. “You have rewritten the past with me in it,” I gushed. Perhaps that wasn’t quite true; after all, I wouldn’t last an hour as a rent boy in London in 1890. But Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith were queer answers to the books I had read as a child. Books, Jane Eyre in particular, which had lit my imagination on fire ever since I was old enough to turn the fragile pages of the very old editions sitting on low shelves in our living room. Those wood block print illustrations of Jane and the other orphans were the literary images of my childhood. And now I had discovered Sarah Waters, and here were characters just as developed and tragic, pragmatic and unique, as Jane herself…and they were also queer.

Sarah set the books I loved in nineteenth-century London, a terrible place to be a young woman by all accounts. And these were no manic pixie dream girls: these were the real thing. They found themselves in situations, they reacted to them, they did what they had to in order to survive, and they retained their sense of self and prevailed in the end because, after all, this wasn’t Les-fucking-Miserables. They lived, they sought out pleasure. None of them seemed to have much time to be ashamed of their desires. There were other pressing matters at hand.

Oh, how I admired her creations.

The Paying Guests was released in September. I had pre-ordered the book and eagerly awaited its arrival. On the happy day that it showed up on my Kindle, I read it quickly, cover to electronic cover. And yes, it was a page turner. The dread and the suspense were there, certainly. The protagonist was queer. Check, check check.

But where was the joy?

Where was the excitement?

And where, oh where were the twists?

Fingersmith’s Sue Trinder’s narrative voice insists that you like her. She’s uneducated, but the things she notices, and the way in which she notices them, make her very special, more intelligent than anyone  would give her credit for, downright witty. At the end of the first act, when she is thrust helpless into misfortune with no escape in sight, and all those whom she trusted have put her there, it is utterly shocking. We feel the dread of her situation deep in our bones, and we read on because she must escape. She has to escape. And we have to find out how this happened.

Tipping the Velvet’s Nan King falls head over heels for a girl of the stage and follows her all the way to London. When the relationship ends suddenly, Nan is destoyed–and reinvents herself a thousand times on the mean dark streets. She throws her past from her in every way she can, until finally her desperation leads to the comfort of a port in the storm that proves to be very much more. The things she does along the way are absurd to think about, when we know where she began. (Isn’t that always the way, when we fall?) We watch breathless as she pulls herself out of the holes she has dug, but we love her for digging them. It could not have been any other way, not for her.

And what of The Paying Guests’ Frances Wray? There is almost nothing to recommend her. The men of her family died in the war; as characters, she and her mother are almost as ghostly. There is no compelling reason for Frances to pace this stage. Literally the most interesting thing about her is that she has an ex-girlfriend somewhere in London that she secretly visits when her mother is out. She falls for the new married renter; their friendship deepens into something else, and a chain of misfortunes ensue. But honestly, all that kept me reading was loyalty to the author. I certainly felt no loyalty or kinship with Frances, who, unlike Sarah’s other characters, is deeply aware of the transgression of her queerness, and mopes about the dark house doing chores, all knotted up inside. I read to the end to see what happened, and the loose ends were tied up, but it never felt like there was payoff. (Actually, it seemed like a pale shadow of Emma Donahue’s excellent book The Sealed Letter, which was inspired by actual London court records from that time.) At the conclusion of The Paying Guests, the book ends with no real surprises, no real joy, and nothing in particular to recommend it.

There must be so much pressure to deliver when you are a beloved writer. But come back, Sarah Waters! Bring back the puzzles I didn’t see coming! Bring back the joy! Your plots used to be sooty London back alley sideshows, with beauty and heart in the strangest and the most ordinary places. I miss those books. Write another one! Please?

Until then, I’ll be hanging out with Sue Trinder. I could re-read Fingersmith a million times.

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