It is 1925. Charles Ryder is sharing dinner with Rex Mottram. They are discussing the Flytes, an ‘old money’ family who live like the country grandees of old. “They are rich in the way people are who just let their money sit quiet,” Mottram says of them. “Everyone of that sort is poorer than they were in 1914, and the Flytes don’t seem to realize it. […] There’ll be a shake-up coming soon.” Mottram is Waugh’s vulgar upstart, the unwelcome, ugly face of modernity in Brideshead Revisited: he heralds a diminished, tarnished age in which romance is replaced by avarice. “When the upper-classes get the wind up, their first idea is usually to cut down on the girls,” he says without a blush. “I’d like to get the little matter of a marriage settlement through, before it comes.”
Within twenty years of that conversation, World War II would be the final nail in the coffin of the old world Waugh eulogised in his most famous novel. Sarah Waters’s latest fiction, The Little Stranger, picks up from there: set at Hundreds Hall, a derelict version of Brideshead, all unused rooms and peeling plaster, her own noble family, the Ayreses – the matriarch, Mrs Ayres, and her children Rod and Caroline – are at the ruinous end of the path Mottram described; their fortune is gone, their house and estate can no longer run themselves, and the world around them no longer has a place for their sort. It is 1947.
The Little Stranger, which I have no need to spoil in any of what follows, has been described as a ghost story, and there are certainly scenes of creepy horror which no reader will want to read alone and at night: Waters here perfects the art of getting under your skin. Key to her technique, though, is the way in which her narrator – Doctor Farraday, who is never given a first name, and stumbles into the Ayreses’ world whilst on call and never quite wants to leave them – proves to be an overly literal, rational-minded man whose unadventurous spirit pervades every page. One hundred and fifty of them pass, in fact, before we are given even the merest glimpse of a spooky going-on. Even by the book’s close three hundred and fifty pages later, Faraday clings to quotidian explanations. Through this unimaginative prism, Waters works very hard to conjure the austerity of the post-war period, and also the similar effects produced by the Edwardian values of the Ayreses and the repressed resentments and thwarted ambitions of the doctor, a local working class boy done good.
It’s here that the crux of the novel really lies. Discussing the Hundreds Hall case with a colleague, Faraday says, “It’s as if something’s slowly sucking the life out of the whole family.” His interlocutor replies, “Something is. […] It’s called a Labour Government.” Class powers this novel – Faraday is angry that his parents gave everything for an education which has made him only a provincial GP, the Ayreses find their ‘new money’ neighbours distasteful and brash, and the lands of Hundreds Hall must be sold off to the developers of council estates. “The Ayreses’ problem,” Faraday’s colleague shrugs, “is that they can’t, or won’t, adapt.” Rod, the man of the house, parades around town in the tweeds of a country squire; Mrs Ayres insists her party guests don evening wear for dinner (those new money neighbours turn up in lounge suits).
Faraday is in equal parts repulsed and enchanted by this other, dying world. He frequently feels the frustration of a working class man towards the airs and unthinking graces of the Ayreses (their name, of course, redolent of their style), but at the same time finds a new sense of self, a new self-worth, in his frequent visits to Hundreds – and, slowly, his aoption as a sort of family member. He makes himself almost indispensible to the poor lost family, becoming a confidant and physician to an isolated trio who still cannot bring themselves quite to treat their lone remaining permanent servant, Betty, as a fully human being, let alone an equal. As the strange events at Hundreds begin to cause physical and psychological harm to the family, Faraday time and again provides his rational, medical explanations, prescribing treatments and suggesting preventions – and in so doing, of course, further cementing his place in the house.
So it goes. Hundreds can no longer hold the newly socially mobile at bay: first the doctor, then the housing estates, come to the house’s gates and then take root in its lands. Throughout, that narrative restraint fails to interrogate the story; it is left to the reader to realise all of this, to sound the depths beneath the surface. The book is almost Pinteresque in this sense – indeed, The Little Stranger is constantly aware of its antecedents, from the classic ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House – to the country house dramas of DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. A great deal of allusion and wordplay is present in this deeply intelligent novel, and yet Waters achieves a rare virsimilitude, a quite astounding sense of place and propriety, by asking the reader to do all the work: her narrator remains steadfastly unable to see the truth of things even when, literally so in the novel’s final sentence, it stares him in the face.
So is The Little Stranger a ghost story, or are the Ayreses destroyed by their own maddened reactions to a world which no longer has a place for them? Many characters in the book voice the theory that the tensions at Hundreds are somehow bringing into being a psychic force which wreaks malevolent havoc as an expression of its angry confusion. Every one of the Ayreses is at one point or another fingered as the culprit: Rod, the injured war veteran terrified by his inability to keep the estate going; Mrs Ayres, tormented by the death of her young child decades ago; Caroline, the frustrated and eccentric spinster. Only our blinkered narrator, of course, is not considered as the possible cause of any such disturbance, and yet he is as conflicted as any member of the family. In this reading, Faraday is both the symbol and the agent of the crushing change experienced by the Ayreses and their kind.
In Brideshead Revisited, Charles joins a sort of toff militia during the General Strike of 1926. This happens some months after his conversation with Rex Mottram, and Ryder essentially styles himself as a defender of the old order against the workers. He is ultimately disappointed that the Strike fizzles out – “it was as though a beast long fabled for its ferocity had emerged for an hour, scented danger, and slunk back to its lair.” Ryder is denied his moment of martial combat on the side of the old order. But in his desire to defend it, and in his simultaneous distaste for the braying Viscount ‘Boy’ Mulcaster, we see that English ambivalence about the upper class, that repulsion-attraction exhibited by Faraday. It is not enough to save the Ayreses; indeed, that mix of resentment and covetousness is in The Little Stranger what haunts not just them but also the England which destroys them.