The Little Stranger is Sarah Waters’ fifth novel, but the first I have read. The genre (a ghost story set in a decaying country house) and the historical setting (post-war Britain) appealed, as did Waters’ reputation as a good story-teller. In all these aspects the novel doesn’t disappoint: Waters’ faithful recreation of the old fashioned, atmospheric tale of a haunted house and her convincing portrayal of the beginning of social change in the years after the Second World War are two of the novel’s successes.
Unlike many stories which mix the supposedly supernatural with madness (The Tell-Tale Heart, Confessions of a Justified Sinner), The Little Stranger is narrated by its most rational character, Dr. Faraday, who rejects throughout any explanation for the strange goings-on at Hundreds Hall that is not strictly scientific. Faraday is a doctor from a humble background, a symbol of the weakening of class barriers. He is linked to the Hall from the beginning as his mother once worked their as a servant, and the novel opens with his memory of visiting the Hall for an Empire Day fete as a child where his mother’s previous position allows him brief access to the inside of the house: “The thrill of it was astonishing.” In his desire to possess something of the place he breaks of a plaster acorn form a wall decoration, something echoed throughout the novel in the physical decline of the house, and perhaps also in his relationship with Caroline.
When he next visits the Hall, it is as a doctor to treat the young servant, Betty, and it is then he first makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Ayres, and her children, Caroline and Roderick. He is “appalled” at the house’s deterioration, and it is clear that the family are struggling with its upkeep, an effort that falls largely on Roderick’s shoulders and is best represented by his “desk with a mess of papers on it”. Faraday’s friendship with the family grows when he offers to treat Roderick’s wounded leg and this culminates in his invitation to a social gathering they decide to hold to welcome the wealthy Baker-Hydes, who have bought a neighbouring country house, into the county, an event that turns out to be a final, futile effort to recreate the grand events of the past. Faraday is clearly an outsider – when one of the guests recognises him she says: “No-one’s unwell, I hope?” The assumption is that he is there in a professional capacity. His professional skills are soon called upon, however, as the family dog, Gyp, savagely bites the Baker-Hydes’ daughter. The dog’s subsequent death is the first in the slow emptying of the house.
Thereafter the novel follows a pattern of inexplicable events and growing madness. When Roderick confesses to Faraday that he saw objects moving of their own volition on the night of the party and feels his room to be haunted, Faraday assumes that the strain of running the estate is too much for him and has him committed. (Roderick already has a history of mental illness. When Mrs. Ayres has an episode where she is locked in the nursery while alone in the house, he worries for her sanity, but she commits suicide before he can have her similarly placed in care. By this point he and Caroline are engaged, and when she calls off the engagement and tells him she plans to leave the Hall, he is concerned about her state of mind, something that seems to be justified when she falls to her death shortly after. By the final death we are dangerously near those haunted house horror flicks where a group of unsuspecting victims find themselves taking refuge from a storm only to die one by one; however here the deaths are not of strangers to the house and are thematically relevant.
As in all ghost stories, there is a stand-out suspect when it comes to identifying the ghost: Mrs. Ayres’ dead daughter Susan. When writing appears on the walls it seems to spell her name, and Mrs. Ayres is convinced she hears her voice. However, Caroline feels that the problem is not a ghost but a poltergeist, and clearly the leading candidate for this is Faraday himself. Throughout the novel, it becomes increasingly obvious hat he is more attached to the Hall than the family: when Caroline jilts him, he is more shocked at her decision to leave than to call off the wedding. The first instances of anything strange occur on the night of the party, when Faraday is first accepted into the Hall as an equal, but at the same time is under the strain of feeling an outsider. The attack on Mrs. Ayres comes after she finds out about Faraday and Caroline’s engagement. And, of course, the final death occurs after Caroline has decided to give up both Faraday and the Hall. Her final word – “You!” – overheard by Betty, is as likely to refer to Faraday as anyone else. There is perhaps a clue in the novel’s final lines:
“If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn and am disappointed – realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distorted from it, baffled and longing, is my own.”
He is also the only character in the Hall who is a stranger. When Gyp barks at him on his first appearance, Caroline says, “He thinks every stranger’s come to cut our throats and make off with the family silver.” Faraday’s emotional torment would, of course, be disguised by his narration, making what seems like the most reliable of narrator’s, unreliable. Thematically, the poltergeist activity represents the tensions created by the violent shift in class sensibilities at the time, a visceral presentation of the often neglected violence of this change. Waters has chosen her genre wisely. It is not a ghost story, in which the house is haunted by the past, but one in which the supernatural activity is created by the social change of the swiftly arriving future – of which Faraday is possibly more afraid than the Ayres. As Caroline says, commenting on the council houses being constructed on their land: “Like the sounds of a battle.”
This is an entertaining, if deliberately old-fashioned, tale, but also a sympathetic portrayal of a redundant class unable to save itself.