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The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters, 2009)


The following response to the book contains significant plot details.

There’s nothing like doing an English literature degree for dampening your love of reading novels. And nothing like doing a PhD and the subsequent years of futile academic jobhunting to stamp it out altogether. (That’s how it was in my circumstances, anyway, and I commend anyone who refuses to let that happen.) Having said goodbye to that career path and clawed back my health, I’ve been slowly and with difficulty overcoming the guilt of not working every minute of every day and am reading the books that have for years been silently screaming for me to wipe off the dust and give them a good going through. One of those books is Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (Virago, 2009), which I’m excited to have learned is being adapted as a feature film directed by Lenny Abrahamson – whose work I greatly admire – due out later in 2018. What a gripping, carefully-written tale it is. And what an underlying scathing examination of male self-entitlement and privilege the book presents through its narrator, Dr Faraday, who is unwittingly central to the paranormal activity that destroys the last vestiges of an old upper-class family.

Virago book cover

In the summer of 1947, Warwickshire country doctor, Faraday, becomes entangled in the fates of Hundreds Hall and its inhabitants, Mrs Ayres and her adult children, Caroline and Roderick, who are the last generation of 200 years of the family’s occupation of the big house. There are hints throughout Faraday’s recollections that his lasting impression from when he visited with his servant mother as a 10-year-old boy in the 1910s are at the heart of the trouble the family experiences. To an extent, in the end Faraday gets what he unconsciously most desires: unbridled access to the decaying house with the key he cut for himself. As a child, he wanted ownership, laying claim to part of it by cutting loose an acorn wall decoration, much to the shame of his mother who was nursemaid to Susan, the first child of Colonel and Mrs Ayres.

Having attended a county fête at Hundreds while his mother worked there, the book gives early clues that the little stranger of the title is Faraday and not the malevolent spirit of Susan as many characters suspect due to the nature of the strange occurrences that escalate across the year in which Faraday becomes involved in the household. Susan became ill and died, perhaps, unbeknownst to him, due to the young Faraday’s unconscious manifestations which are most clearly attributable to him as the final tragedy occurs, and when he senses a presence long afterwards only to be confronted with his own reflection when he is finally an inheritor of sorts of the house. Before that, in explicitly becoming the family’s self-made and designated hero while they fall increasingly into illness and states of victimhood – which Caroline strongly resists to her bitter, horrific end – Faraday’s narrative is implicitly one of the long-term, undetected abuser willing to go to any lengths to get what he wants, whether he realizes it or not.

It is the sensitivity of Betty, aged around 13 or 14 when she begins work as the hall’s only live-in help, to the dormant ‘bad thing’ in the house that draws Faraday out in the first place. She and Mrs Bazeley, the daily woman, consistently refer to the presence with male pronouns even when Mrs Ayres comes to believe that it is Susan, who died before Caroline and Roderick were born. And it transpires that they were only brought into being to help Mrs Ayres get over the loss of the child she adored. (The difficulty of considering Susan as their sister is touched on.) This is a loss which occurred not long after the young Faraday’s initial destructive visit to Hundreds, and a loss which made his nursemaid mother’s services no longer required. That the projections materialize in ways that cast suspicion on Susan’s ‘ghost’ (such as the childlike scribbles of SUKEY, her nickname, emerging from under the paintwork) suggest a jealous, resentful diversion on the part of his subconscious. The deaths of Faraday’s parents, Susan and Colonel Ayres during the early part of his life also indicate a complicated inter-family, inter-class Oedipus complex in which the young Faraday’s phantasmal projections attempt to eliminate every person who prevents him from becoming master of the house, initially as Susan’s replacement, then as the Colonel’s, and then as Roderick’s by becoming Caroline’s husband.

Faraday convinces himself that he loves Caroline, when, reading between the lines of his earnestly-written text, it is in fact the house and all it represents that he wants to preserve and have as his own. This doctor of working-class roots with notions of grandeur is unwilling to accept in the way the Ayres family do that they and Hundreds are relics of a past that has no place or function in a post-World War II England with a Labour government redistributing wealth to rebuild the country. Caroline realistically and maturely knows that the way of life she was born into is becoming extinct. When she becomes free of familial binds, she makes full preparations to sell up and leave, planning to send for her brother – incarcerated in a mental institution by Faraday when Roderick’s attempts to stave off the malevolent presence in the house overcome him – when she is settled elsewhere and he is recovered.

Caroline throughout is hindered by her position, not only as the daughter and inheritor of this dying, decrepit legacy, but as a free-spirited woman who had a full, useful working life with the Wrens during World War II, only to become her injured brother’s carer in its aftermath. She apologetically believes that she led Faraday to think she was as keen on their union as him – or so he indicates in what he quotes her as saying. However, she never once consents, but rather succumbs, to his actions towards her. Every time she says no, he approaches and stifles her and often she physically pushes him away or retreats in fear after her lack of consent is ignored. An example is the upsetting near-rape in his car when he’s driving her home late at night after a dance at which she had enjoyed herself with people her own age while he seethed with jealousy and overreacted to a colleague’s assumptions about his relationship with Caroline. 

Having enjoyed her night of freedom and letting off steam, and not wanting to return to the house that was such a source of restriction and endless duty and chores for this 27-year-old woman, she asks Faraday (perhaps around 13-15 years her senior) to stop somewhere quiet for a cigarette. Sensing a more sexually-forward suggestion, he pulls in somewhere quiet and remote – the place in which he would later have a fitful night’s sleep, dreaming his entry into the house the night Caroline falls to her death after seeing someone she recognizes on what ought to have been their wedding night.

On the chilly night in January some months before, he immediately begins an aggressive sexual advance that Caroline fights off in an uncomfortable scuffle. Even his later marriage proposal is anything but. Needing the comfort of a friend when the issues in the house escalate with concerted attacks on her mother, Caroline becomes more physically open. That is, she takes his hand and rests her wearying head on his shoulder, at which he decides they are to be married and pushes the issue, including announcing it to everyone he meets even though it’s clear she’s got more pressing concerns and needs space. While she exhibits great affection for Faraday, she seems to only go along with the idea of marrying him as he has made an impression on colleagues in London who effectively offer him a position, and she sees the potential for a new life far away from Hundreds and its pressures. But his ambitions lie elsewhere; her spirits fall again when he won’t entertain the idea, and it becomes clear life with him means never leaving the Hall and becoming a put-upon country doctor’s wife like the others described by him as little more than child-rearers and husband-facilitators.

It is possible that Caroline suspects Faraday’s unwitting involvement in the house’s problems. She echoed my suspicions around halfway through that the problems had equally begun around the same time Faraday came on the scene when he implicates Betty as a prankster by way of producing a rational explanation for the strange happenings. It seems instead that it was Betty’s ability to perceive a lingering dormant presence perhaps left behind from Faraday’s boyhood encounter with the house that initiates the latest round of tragedies. Even the Colonel had died of an aneurism in Faraday’s youth a few years after Susan, who died not long after Faraday’s mother burned the acorn decoration he had prised from the hall during the county fête, thereby initiating the hall’s and the family’s deterioration at his unwitting hands – the hands of someone striving for social mobility. As Faraday himself points out in the final chapter, he and Betty were the only survivors of the events at Hundreds that year. What he doesn’t explicitly state is that they’re also both outsiders from the serving class. Their combined paranormal abilities, his to project and hers to sense, as indicated in the cracks in his sceptical text, finish off this family representing the last bastion of the dominant British gentry while they instead thrive in a new economic climate.

It is Faraday and his fascination with the upper-class way of life the house represents but is failing to uphold that brings its occupants’ downfalls, perhaps due to him unconsciously considering himself at heart to have earned his belonging amongst them. He is always conscious of his background and seems to resent it. By implication of his dismay, it is the young adult generation of the gentry who accept their fate and proactively try to take positive action to relinquish past ties and become useful members of society, especially after having a taste of this in contributing to the war effort. Overcoming his class restrictions to become a good physician – at the expense in more ways than one of his father – seems merely a stepping stone in the plans of his subconscious mind. He, too, in a way falls victim to these plans, given that he is oblivious to the possibilities of his own underlying ill-will towards anyone who gets in the way of his occupation of Hundreds – to be ‘promoted’ to the upper class through marriage – a marriage that would have been achieved due to him ingratiating himself into the Ayres family by making himself indispensable as their physician when they are at greatest need of help – a need he himself unknowingly creates. Instead of becoming squire and master of the house as planned, Faraday’s attempts to help inadvertently exposes the house and family to the spectacle of the haunted old hall, left derelict, unsold and being steadily consumed by its grounds.

The overall messages in the book include an examination of class mobility – the potential destructiveness of ‘bettering’ your class perhaps representing an anxiety at the top that the only way is down. However, this is complexly integrated with a man’s sense of self-entitlement so powerful that it violently destroys the women in his life, skilfully written from an unwitting insider perspective in Faraday as narrator attempting 3 years after the main events to understand the story. His controlling self-entitlement does not allow the natural and accepted decline or ‘demotion’ of class for Caroline as she is his ticket required for entry.

The saddest part for me is that Faraday throughout is repulsed by Caroline. As perceived by Dr Seeley, a colleague Faraday views as a rival even though Seeley often compliments his work, Mrs Ayres was a potential target for Faraday’s affections. The descriptions of her in the early chapters denote attraction and admiration for her upkeep of her looks compared to his disgust to the point of irrational anger at Caroline’s lack of attention to her appearance. According to his descriptions, which seem to be corroborated by the quoted remarks of others, Caroline is ‘at best plain’. Her legs are unshaven, she wears no make-up, wears practical, comfortable clothes, never brushes her hair, and seems to be asexual – and possibly non-binary – in a world that has labelled her a spinster at 27. She is strong, fit and tall, not a conventional, heavily made-up 1940s beauty, and possesses a level head, a largely friendly, caring nature with no tolerance for incompetence or time-wasting. Her dog, Gyp, was her best companion, and the first to be disposed of by Faraday when, it seems, the phantasm’s assaults on Roderick as master of the house failed, instead transferring to the placid dog who responded by violently attacking a child visiting the house.

Faraday attempts to shut down Caroline’s investigation into the strange incidents, preventing her from reading books on phantasmagoria. Explicitly, this comes from the side of him that is a sceptical man of science. It is also likely due to possession from his phantasm which doesn’t want to be caught out and stopped, as the weaker-willed Roderick attempts to his detriment. I was going to suggest the phantasm was behind Faraday’s often unreasonable – by his own admission – responses to Caroline’s words and actions throughout the story, but this gives the character a deflection, an out, when in fact his emotionally-manipulative tendencies are that of what we would today consider a textbook abuser. Indeed, Faraday’s descriptions of his own irrational anger and violent impulses, shocking even to him, combined with the descriptions of his fitful dreams in which he imagines himself in the house suggest that while in a hypnogogic state his phantasm takes over to put in motion the events that put him in his 'rightful' place, explaining why strange things continue to happen even when he is disengaged or absent from the house.

It is possible that only-child Faraday’s spiteful phantasm targeted his own mother, who he describes in the first chapter as having many miscarriages after his birth, the last of which, when he was aged 15, killed her. That the women he claims to care most about meet violent deaths involving excessive bodily harm signifies an underlying misogyny in him of which he is oblivious and that emerges in almost every one of his encounters with and descriptions of Caroline Ayres. By his own admission, he also seems to have caused his father’s early death, as his father had worked himself to the bone to fund his son’s medical education. In his parents’ deaths and the miscarriages experienced by his mother, he effectively ‘kills off’ the lower working class at the same time as the upper class, paving the way for gentrified middle and working classes as indicated in the final chapter and his last encounter with Betty, now 16 with a boyfriend and a factory job that grants her leisure time.

Making and often acting on assumptions he projects onto others, and often creating self-fulfilling prophecies like the morbid spectacle of Hundreds after Mrs Ayres’s and Caroline’s perceived suicides, Faraday exhibits a chip on his shoulder about his modest upbringing. He at times seems ashamed of his parents’ background as servants and labourers while also being irked when the Ayreses appear (perhaps due to his own paranoia) to forget his roots, speaking to him as an equal. He never comes across as proud of his achievements or thankful for his father’s sacrifice for him, instead opting for self-loathing and ignoring the career-building opportunities that come his way. Still, things work out for him. His practice not only survives but thrives when the NHS is established in 1949, and he continues to freely access Hundreds Hall, not seemingly affected by the traumatic loss of the family therein, but rather regretful at the building’s deterioration.

For me, The Little Stranger begs the question of who really presents society’s major problems. Is it the upper classes/the wealthy, or men performing overbearing toxic masculinity? How much more detrimental is it when the two are combined in some way? And even more so when they are unaware of the utter wrongness of their own forceful actions? This thoroughly-researched historically-set novel very much presents questions highly pointed and relevant for twenty-first-century culture and society.

Reading The Little Stranger has rekindled in me a love for devouring and talking about works of literature, but in reading it I’ve also encountered a disappointment. I chose it above other books which have languished unread in my possession for much longer because it was written by a woman, and I wanted something different and unknown to me. Sadly – and I am ashamed to admit this – it is the only non-academic book in my possession (not counting what’s on the kindle app I haven’t touched for about 3 years) written by a woman. (I gave my copy of Frankenstein away last year and I’ve regretted it ever since.) I’m so bored with male dominance that I can’t even bear to read books by authors I love. While The Little Stranger’s narrator is a man, he tells his story with such an unwitting truth that it feels that only a woman – specifically Sarah Waters – could provide his words. I am hungry for more, and very much looking forward to the adaptation.

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