Articles, Events

An Evening with Sarah Waters at the Bodleian

Sarah Waters’ new novel, The Paying Guests, came out last week on 28th August, and of course it was amazing. I was very lucky to be sent an early copy, and also that I managed to nab a ticket to the event held last night (2nd Sept) in Oxford. Sarah Waters was in conversation with Viv Groskop at The Divinity School in the Bodleian Library. I saw Donna Tartt there in October (how could I ever forget THAT?) and it is such a lovely venue. It is not only beautiful, but atmospheric and really cool, being the first teaching room ever built at the University of Oxford (in the 1400s!). It looks like this:


And the event itself was just as lovely. I made notes like a nerd, and I’m actually glad I did as it’s helped me to remember all the things Sarah talked about. It was rather a lot really, and I can’t talk about it all here, but I will mention some of the absolute best things. Yes, in bullet points.

  • Sarah’s “kernel” moment when plotting was the question of what would happen if a wife’s affair was with a woman rather than a man. She had been looking at real life crimes of the early twentieth century that were caused by affairs, and she decided to mix things up. And you can’t have a Sarah Waters book without lesbians! (except for The Little Stranger – though someone there might have been a secret lesbian)
  • It was crucial that Frances and Lillian really love each other for the story to have depth and, I think, to veer away from sensationalism.
  • Her fondness for Frances, and the fact that she, in some ways, belongs to the feminism of the suffragette era – but she is also ahead of her time with her defiance and bravery. This is demonstrated very well through her differences with her mother, and also with Lillian in some ways.
  • Class is always a very good way of adding complexity to a historical setting. There were a lot of class shifts in the 1920s and it is a big issue in the novel. Frances was of the last generation of daughters that were expected to stay at home and help (Sarah talked about Vera Brittain giving up her degree to come home and help her parents with housework!), and Lillian is also very tied to her home despite being married.
  • The choice of setting. Sarah spoke about how her novels have grown out of each other, and that the 20s was a good halfway point between her Victorian novels and those set in the 1940s – this also meant that in some ways The Paying Guests has a past and a future in the Sarah Waters universe, which I really like.
  • Really, the novel is about what happens when ordinary lives are interrupted by passion. In my review I spoke about how the characters are ordinary people made extraordinary, so it was great to hear this! It’s something that Sarah Waters works with to great effect in a lot of her work (with passion, but also tragedy and drama).

I could waffle for hours about how brilliant Sarah Waters is. She is one of the most perceptive and intelligent writers I know, and is very down to earth and likeable. I could have listened to her for a lot longer.


A huge thank you to Blackwell’s and Virago, as well as Sarah Waters and Viv Groskop, for such a fantastic evening.


Fiction, Reviews

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Well, well, well… hello again Sarah. We have all missed you.

I don’t remember when I first decided I loved Sarah Waters. We studied Affinity for a course about the modern novel at university, so maybe it was then. I’ve since read all of her novels except one, which I plan to read very soon, and though some were better than others I loved them all. So when I heard a new one was being published I, like most of the book-reading/publishing world, got very excited. What was it about? When was it set? Would it be as good as the others? Would it live up to its own hype? And, perhaps most importantly, will there be lots of lesbian sex?

In a word – yes.

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(2014 Virago poof copy)

As I’m sure you know, whether you’ve read it or not, the novel starts with single gal (‘spinster’) Frances and her mother having to take in some lodgers. It is 1922 and they have lost not only Frances’ father and two brothers but also most of their money and their servants. This bitter combination leaves them with no choice but to take in paying guests. The opening scene sees them anxiously waiting for their arrival, looking at the clock and twitching the curtains. It’s a wonderfully constructed scene, and works perfectly as the nervous prologue before this saga of emotion, drama, and intrigue begins. The book is just over 500 pages, but it is the story itself rather than the length that has caused me to call it a ‘saga’. It so dense and rich, and Sarah Waters manages to capture all the tiny nuances and heartbreaks of life.

Frances is our main character and we stay with her throughout the novel, and see things from her point of view; but I am glad that it is not told in the first person. The events of the book (most of which I cannot share as it would just ruin it for you) are quite dramatic and intense, and Frances has an awful lot of feelings throughout the story. She goes through a huge range of emotions and experiences, but at the same time her world is quite small and she lives quite a claustrophobic life, much of which revolves around the house and her mother. I think if the story had been told in the first person it could easily have become a bit melodramatic and over the top, as well as exhausting for the reader – and I’m sure the writer too. So, it works perfectly that we have a healthy step or two between us and Frances. We observe her closely, and hear snippets of her thoughts and feelings, rather than having to endure and experience everything with her – something for which I was grateful.

For Frances does not have the easiest time of it. Not only is she lonely and stuck with endless housework and a fretting mother, she has to adjust to these new people living in her house, just across the hall. Though they are charming and friendly, and Frances and her mother have chosen to take them in, there is still a sense of intrusion and the destruction of the safe, familiar, family home. The house itself could almost be seen as a character in the novel, in a way. It symbolises both the things that Frances and her mother have lost, and the new life that they have no choice but to lead. It also becomes the scene for events that will change Frances’ life, and will take on new meaning, and engender new feelings from its inhabitants.

After we see Frances and her mother twitching and feeling anxious, dreading what might come, we are introduced to Mr and Mrs Barber. Frances and her mother are both horrified and charmed by them as they enter the house with smiles and handshakes, and apologies for being late. Straight away the issue of class presents itself: Frances and her mother are middle class, whereas Mr and Mrs Barber are of the ‘clerk class’, people who come from families with little money and status, but who work to better themselves. To Frances’ mother, and perhaps Frances herself, it is another symbol of how much their former life has faded, and how, in the harshest terms, they have been brought ‘lower’. They are no longer a family, but landladies.

Aside from thoroughly enjoying the plot (it is killing me that I can’t talk about it here) one of the best, best things about this novel is the characters, and Waters’ ability to ‘characterise’ them in such a way that they are not only vivid and real, but that we feel we get to know them as we spend more time with them. She is one of the few novelists whose characters have stayed with me, and continued to exist in their own universe. There is more to these characters’ lives than what we see in the novel, and when it has finished there is a strong sense that their lives will continue beyond the pages, that they will continue on their story – and what a joy it is to imagine what the rest of that story might hold. For me Frances is still there,  living her life and dealing with the consequences of the events of this wonderful book.

I imagine Frances would have worn something like this, from 1922 edition of Fashion Service magazine (image:

I imagine Frances would have worn something like this, from a 1922 edition of Fashion Service magazine (image:

Now. What about the lesbians? This is Sarah Waters. There have to be some lesbians, and they have to do it. And fear not, they do, quite a lot, and it’s pretty fantastic. There is a lot of talk of hips and breasts touching, and some really beautiful descriptions of types of kisses, and the mood and emotions of the – how shall I put it – encounters. ‘Encounters’ feels correct because here the sex is all illicit, secret, often hurried and urgent, which only serves to make it more erotic. Given the circumstances in which it occurs, and the circumstances of the women (yes, one of them is Frances) it becomes only more beautiful. It is loving and affectionate as well as horny and fumbly, and is often accompanied by a communication of deep feelings. At one point it is described as being like drinking water after having been deprived of it. The sex is in no way gratuitous and is not described in detail every time – sometimes it is, but sometimes it is described simply as ‘going to bed’ or something similar, which makes it seem awfully romantic and very sweet.

Surely the triumph of this novel is the analysis, exploration, and deep understanding of the very complex relationships within it. They are mostly Frances’ relationships, with her mother, Mrs Barber (who soon becomes ‘Lillian’) and Mr Barber (who soon becomes ‘Len’). She relates to them all in different but equally multi-faceted ways, and nothing that is said or done is ever (or at least is very rarely) completely honest and transparent. Much like Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters seem to perfectly perceive the delicacies and intricacies of our relationships and interactions; not only that but she is able to to transcribe them in such a way that they seem to be happening right in front of you. Actually, ‘transcribe’ is the wrong word, it is too literal. She moulds these scenes and these relationships out of words and captures them on the page, whereby they are relayed to us, the reader. This story is intensely personal as we see the most private of moments between the characters (I do not mean just the sex scenes – private in every sense) and yet the story and its characters are universal. They are normal, unremarkable people who are made remarkable by their actions and the ways in which they live their lives. We come to love them as we do the people we know in real life. I still think of Sue and Maud from Fingersmith and Margaret from Affinity; I’m sure I will continue to think about Frances and Lillian.

The Paying Guests is classic Waters (drama, intrigue, period setting, lesbians, sex, single women, feminism) but it is also entirely new and modern. Though it has similar elements it doesn’t feel like anything she has written before, which is wonderful. I wish, wish, wish I could talk more about details of the plot, but has I had no idea of them when I started reading I think it would ruin the reading experience for anyone else. Though if you’ve read it I am dying to talk about it! Get me on Twitter.

So there you have it. Another amazing, beautiful novel from Sarah Waters. If you loved her other novels you will love this one too, but you will also love it even if you haven’t read the others. There’s a bit of something for everyone, I think, as the novel as so many different elements and facets, so many different types of story within it. I loved it.

Published by Virago (UK) on 28th August 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Fiction, Reviews

The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

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Katherine Clements takes the real life figure of Elizabeth Poole, and transforms her into her own character in The Crimson Ribbon. Poole was known during her life time (1622 – post 1668) as a religious activist and later as some sort of prophet. Though she began as a tailor’s daughter her religious belief grew and she became convinced she heard messages from God, prompting her to protest the trial and execution of King Charles I. Her fervent and sometimes blind faith is a critical issue in The Crimson Ribbon, altering her life, and the lives of those close to her, forever.

Our narrator is Ruth, born a maid in the country household of Oliver Cromwell. She knows him as her and her mother’s benevolent master, a farmer who has gained influence and money. Only once she is an adult does he become the powerful, controversial man we know him as. He appears only a handful of times, but he is a constant presence behind Ruth; he is her connection to some sort of power, some way to get out.

Ruth’s mother dies at the start of the book, in the most horrible of ways. Ruth is witness to it all – not only the horror and sadness, but the deep injustice. Her mother is a maid but also a healer, a collector of herbs, and a midwife. Accused of witchcraft, she is murdered by a mob. Ruth is left to watch. Afterwards, Cromwell’s mother Old Bess urges Ruth to leave and travel to London, to put distance between herself and her mother’s attackers. She flees in the night, travelling by cart. She meets an ex-soldier on the road, Joseph, and they form an unlikely and uneven friendship that brings more to both of them than they might expect.

Clements keeps up the pace well as Ruth is thrown into her new life, navigating the dangers of the open world and the streets of London. Old Bess places her with Elizabeth Poole’s family as a maid, serving her father. From this point The Crimson Ribbon took on a bit of a Sarah Waters tone for me, which I liked as I love Waters’ books. Ruth and Lizzie become fast friends, and throughout the novel their relationship is brilliantly constructed and drawn. It is rather complex and both their roles change as the book goes on, but it is entirely believable and you see how it is buffeted about and changed by both circumstances and feelings, both of which evolve through the story.

In London Ruth meets Joseph again as she becomes more involved in Lizzie’s world. Lizzie writes political and religious pamphlets, and Joseph is involved in the printing. The use of printing is very interesting as it something that we now take for granted but was difficult, arduous and expensive back then. The scene with a description of how a printing press works is excellent, and conveys how much work and effort went into printing every page. The importance of printing within the novel also demonstrates what an impact and influence the printed word can have, and how it can be used. Here it gives women and revolutionaries a voice that they otherwise would not have. This is vital as it allows Lizzie to print her pamphlets – something that could either make or break her.

Both the English Civil War and the suspicion and fear of witches constantly exist in the background of the story. Clements very clearly demonstrates the power of religious belief and fervour, both in terms of Lizzie’s blind faith and in the way it is used by the authorities to single out and penalise those seen as dangerous. It is interesting because at this time in the 1640s, as Clements makes clear, neither Parliament nor the King had absolute power and so the only true law came from God – but that did not stop those with some power using it to their advantage. At various points the use of this power is made painfully clear, as with Ruth’s mother’s death, and these scenes really inspire feelings of anger and frustration as the zealots use the women’s words against them and twist the situation to their advantage – you feel that the justice of God is not present and the persecutors are doing anything they can to twist Scripture to suit their plans. These people are immoral and unchristian – and yet they have all the power and authority.

My only criticism of The Crimson Ribbon is that the pace was a little uneven. It begins very quickly with Ruth travelling to London, but then the mid section is overly long as Ruth and Lizzie spend time in Abingdon. On their return to London things happen very quickly and I felt the dramatic climax and ending was a bit ‘squeezed in’ and happened a bit too fast.

Other than that this is a beautifully written novel about an incredible time in England’s history, with a cast of intriguing and excellently drawn characters who seem entirely real. The Crimson Ribbon is very impressive for a debut novel, and I very much look forward to what Katherine Clements does next.


Published in the UK by Headline on 27th March 2014. My copy was very kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Part of this review was quoted in the 2014 edition.

Fiction, Reviews

Best of 2012: The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

The Pleasures of Men was one of the few books this year I actually bought of my own volition, having been too late for the review copies. It appealed to me so much that I wanted to read and review it regardless of its publication date and press campaign.

The cover was what struck me first. I think covers are extremely important in terms of establishing the tone and feel of the novels behind them – they can be as evocative as a piece of art (and in some cases they can be considered art in themselves). The cover of The Pleasures of Men instantly tells you the setting is Victorian (from the woman’s dress) and there is a murder mystery (big bloody knife) – but there is also the question of gender. The cover depicts a woman holding a bloody knife, but the title implies that either a man is the murderer or the woman’s murders are the result of the ‘pleasures’ of men, i.e. some sort of revenge for the treatment of women at the hands of men. None of this is clear and so we are intrigued and want to find out more. See how important covers are?

2012 paperback cover. Image:

2012 paperback cover. Image:

And what a fitting cover it is. Central character Catherine is an orphan living with her frankly weird old uncle in his house fully of creepy artefacts and dusty old books. We slowly discover more and more about her past, and why she believes herself to be evil. Meanwhile a spate of murders occur across London, all apparently committed by the same person. Catherine becomes obsessed with the killer, and follows the murders in the newspapers – even going so far as to visit some of the crime scenes to try and imagine what must have happened to these girls.

While the set-up of a Victorian serial killer preying on housemaids and prostitutes isn’t very original, author and historian Kate Williams takes the story down a new route by adding in Catherine’s obsession, and her own psychological issues. This is more like a modern detective novel or TV series in which the detective – amateur or professional – gets too caught up with the crimes and their story becomes as important as that of the murderer and the victims. The story focuses on Catherine as a person rather than the murderer – it is her story over anyone else’s.

Kate Williams. Image:

Kate Williams. Image:

Williams is also an expert at depicting in vivid detail life in Victorian London. We see all the grime and dirt, the sickness and disease, the poverty and misery. Catherine lives near Spitalfields – not considered a nice or safe area – and when she is obliged to attend social functions we see the different layers of London society and the different faces of the city.

As you can tell I really enjoyed this novel and tore through it quite quickly – I just had to find out the truth! There is the question of the identity of the murderer, but also Catherine’s past. Like the novels of Sarah Waters this is real ‘page-turner’ that is also expertly written and researched, and steers clear of trashiness or cliches. Definitely one of my favourite books of 2012.


The Pleasures of Men was published in 2012 by Penguin. You can read my original review here.

Fiction, Reviews

The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

Another great book by a graduate of and now lecturer at Royal Holloway (where I went). Must be something in the water…

I’d been eyeing this book for a while on Amazon and GoodReads, and finally bought a copy in Waterstones. As a huge fan of Sarah Waters and a good unreliable narrator, this is just my sort of thing. Plus there’s a haughty, faceless Victorian lady on the cover holding a bloody knife. And that title…  all very intriguing, if unpleasant.

2012 Penguin paperback edition

First of all, Kate Williams is amazing. She is one of those super-duper amazing overqualified people that have spent their life at university and are highly respected and praised and revered… and to boot, she’s also a great writer. This is her first foray into fiction, having previously worked on historical biographies (I particularly want to read England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton, and only partly because I first heard of Hamilton in Blackadder the Third) and academic hoohah. She has a DPhil and two MAs and now teaches an MA, as well as all her writing and researching and appearing on the BBC looking amazing and knowledgeable. Jealous, moi?

Kate Williams

Now, to the book. The Pleasures of Men is set in 1840s London and centres around Catherine, an orphan living with her mysterious uncle on Princes Street near Spitalfields, one of the most dangerous parts of a very dangerous city. 1840s London was not a nice place to be. An economic crash left the city’s inhabitants with little money and even less hope, meaning that the entire place was uncared for and desperate. Catherine has a mysterious past and her uncle pays her little attention. The house is ‘rambling’ and covered with African masks and various other souvenirs from her uncle’s youthful travels to Africa and the Far East. Catherine has few possessions and her only friend (if you can call her that) is the maid, Jane. She tells the reader early on that she grew up in affluent Richmond, and we wonder how she ended up where she is, and what happened to her family.

Satisfyingly, a lot of questions about Catherine’s past are answered for the reader, but she remains mysterious in herself and hard to pinpoint. It becomes clear she has spent some time in some sort of psychiatric hospital, and, as they say, the plot thickens. Keepsakes were taken away from her there, and she has never got them back. Left alone and an outsider, Catherine lives with her uncle – a last vestige of family, of somewhere to go; but she is lonely and lives in a bare room. The reader feels sorry for her, but also wonders why she is her current situation and whether it is best for her or not – could she lead a normal life with the ladies of society and one day marry? Or is she destined to remain alone in a rambling house in a bad part of town?

London, near Spitalfields, 1840

A series of murders capture the attention of the London press. The murderer is dubbed The Man of Crows after the plural noun – a group of crows is a murder of crows. He picks on young working class girls, and leaves them mutilated, their chests open and their limbs splayed to make them look like birds. Everyone is scandalised and fascinated by the gossip, Catherine included. Her past has convinced her that she is evil and bad (for reasons the reader will discover), and she decides that by taking an interest in The Man of Crows and trying to discover his motives and who he is, she might be rid of her own evil. She convinces herself that her past sins will protect her from him. As she hears about the murders through newspapers and gossip, she begins to imagine the story of each girl and how they felt as they were stalked and cornered by The Man. She writes her ideas down, as if it is a novel, and becomes more and more fixated on the mysterious killer.

Catherine is a brilliant creation. With her family gone and her blaming herself for all her misfortune, she is tormented by her ‘dark thoughts’ and bad dreams and is fascinated by the pain and suffering of others. Her uncle is creepy and strange, his house dark and full of odd objects. Even Catherine’s room has African masks staring out from the walls. Catherine is at times afraid of him, at others bored by his talk and his nagging her to try with visitors. Early on the Janissers visit with their son Constantine, hoping to make a match between him and Catherine. Suffice to say it does not go well. Everyone in society thinks Catherine is strange and though they pay her attention you get the feeling they shake their heads and laugh at her after she is gone.

Spending almost all her time alone, Catherine is swept away by her own imaginings. She becomes obsessed with the dead girls, picturing their faces and their hands, the blood on their clothes and in their hair. She imagines The Man of Crows as he plans which girl to choose, watching groups of them on the street. They are prostitutes, shop girls, maids, and he hates them. Catherine tries to get inside his head, and she gets lost inside her own.

Romola Garai as Victorian prostitute Sugar in the BBC adaptation of Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White

Williams’ writing really is brilliant. Catherine is so vivid, so real, that the reader feels as she does and gets so wrapped up in her thoughts that there is no time to feel emotion for her plight other than her own sadness. The sections that are extracted from Catherine’s manuscript on the girls and The Man of Crows are just as vivid and at times really rather frightening and unnerving. Williams knows just how to make her readers uneasy and nervous, roping them in to the scenarios and putting them right there with the frightened girls and the deadly Man.

Two chapters are narrated by Catherine’s now-missing maid, Grace, while she was at her previous job with the Belle-Smyths, whom Catherine knows. She and Catherine each describe their first meeting at the Belle-Smyths’ house. Catherine is enchanted with her, a pretty girl and so skilled and graceful. Grace is likewise intrigued by Catherine, and soon comes to work for her. Initially, from Catherine’s narration, it seems that her relationship with Grace was a very significant part of her life, but as the story progresses it fades and is placed amongst Catherine’s other memories and the fears of her current existence. Grace is interesting. Even though she narrates, we discover little about her and her motives, only that she is manipulative and Catherine thought her better than she was. In the end, her role is more as part of Catherine’s psyche, another lost girl for her to obsess over. Towards the end of the book Catherine convinces herself that The Man of Crows has killed Grace and insists on telling everyone this, but she actually seems to think about her less as a person, more as an image of a girl murdered in her youth, with so much more life to live.

More than anything this is Catherine’s story. We find out about her family and the evil thing she is convinced she has done at stages throughout the novel, and her character takes shape. Her obsession with the dead girls at least means that she begins to think about someone other than herself and her own misfortune. She has suffered greatly, but not like these poor girls who were murdered in alleyways. Her experiences in the novel are a harsh reconnection with the world outside her family and the psychiatric hospital, but in the end it does her good. She is a troubled girl, but her obsession with evil forces her to look at and analyse the supposed evil within herself.


Published by Penguin in January 2012.