Sarah Waters builds on some of her themes from Affinity in the post-World War I novel The Paying Guests. Frances Wray lives with her mother in the family home, a large house that is getting a little seedy. Since the death of Frances’ father, they have had to dispense with servants, and Frances does all the housework herself. Now they have been forced to take in “paying guests,” giving up most of the top floor of their house to be their lodgers’ apartment. The lodgers are a young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber.
Frances did not see her life like this. Not so long ago, she was in love with a friend, Christina, and they planned to make a home for themselves. But after the death of her father, Frances discovered he had lost all his money, leaving her mother nearly destitute, and she decided to stay to help her mother. Now she feels as if Christina and her new friend Stevie are leading the life she and Christina planned.
Class is an important issue in this novel and comes up constantly. Frances and Mrs. Wray feel they’ve been deceived when they take stock of their new guests, who are considerably less genteel than they thought. Frances often refers to them as being in the clerk class, but Lilian’s family is considerably more common. On the other end of the class scale, Frances has to wait to do her housework when her mother is out, because it appalls her so to see her daughter doing physical work. Her mother herself does none.
Different classes or not, Frances and Lilian tentatively develop a friendship. Soon, though, their relationship becomes a love affair. Frances wants them to run away to lead their own lives, but Lilian thinks she is fantasizing. Soon, their plans put them into peril.
This novel creates a fully realized time and place, with reference to many of Britain’s post-war issues. Unemployed soldiers on the streets are a problem as well as a growing sense of a less-ordered society.
I found Frances to be an interesting character but was less interested in Lilian, who seems more formless. I found the story compelling, though, wondering how the women would get through a difficult situation.