Uncovering Secrets

DEC 2, 2016

Sarah Waters

The centrality of lesbian relationships to Sarah Waters’ work—she cheerfully characterized her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, as a “lesbo- Victorian romp”—could have consigned her to the “gay fiction” niche. And her appropriation of earlier “lowbrow” genres, such as sensation fiction and the ghost tale, might have left critics cold. But Waters has a rare talent for engaging the mind and the emotions while keeping readers’ pulses racing. Her novels have been shortlisted multiple times for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, and her popular recognition includes a novel in development as a feature film, four well-received adaptations for British television and two more for the stage, including the dramatic adaptation of Fingersmith, her 2002 novel.

Waters never dreamed of becoming a writer when she was young. Born in 1966 and raised in the small seaside town of Neyland, Wales, she most vividly remembers building models out of Meccano together with her father, an oil engineer. “I remember that more than I do reading,” she said in a 2009 interview in The Scotsman. “I think back on it when I look at my novels, because I see them as constructions, about getting the right thing in the right place.” Her early passion for precision and structure accompanied wilder imaginings. She watched Gothic horror stories endlessly on TV and replicated their ghosts and grisly plotlines in poems and stories of her own.

Waters began to discover who she was both sexually and creatively when she left for university. There, she fell passionately in love with a woman and with the heady world of mid-1980s lesbian feminism. She received her MA from Lancaster University then went on to complete a PhD in gay and lesbian literature at the University of London. Studying for her graduate degrees, she says, spurred her to try fiction-writing as an adult.

The topic of Waters’ first book grew out of her academic research. The late 19th century was a time when a modern gay subculture was just gaining visibility; what, she wondered, might have existed for lesbians of the time? The resulting “romp” through London’s demi-monde, Tipping the Velvet, follows the fortunes of an oyster-girl-turned-male-impersonator-turned-socialist-activist. The story combines rich period detail with deliberate anachronism as Waters imagines spaces where lesbian desire, invisible in public fin de siècle culture, might have been experienced and expressed. The novel was rejected by every publisher she approached, until Virago Press finally reconsidered the work and published it in 1998 to wide acclaim.

Waters would set her first three novels in the Victorian period. Affinity (1999), darker and stranger than Tipping the Velvet, pulls its readers into the unsettling spaces of séances and female prisons. Fingersmith examines dreams and desires that connect London’s underclass and the rural upper class, spinning through a series of twists and turns as it illuminates the intersecting worlds of ladies, servants and thieves.

Waters’ previous academic research had made these worlds familiar; she found them easy to conjure up on the page. But she was also attracted to Victorian era-writing’s basic pleasure in plot. In her own stories, Waters called up the Victorian past by adopting its novels’ extravagant investments in detail, in exciting surprises, and in multiple layers of narrative.

Waters also delighted in the period’s Gothic tradition; she adopted its pattern of secrets and revelations for her own ends. “The 19th century, as we’ve understood it, has often presented itself as a sort of psychological landscape,” she says. Its isolated spaces—madhouses, lonely mansions, locked rooms—hint at hidden transgressions, unorthodox identities suppressed. Waters believes that the modern fascination with the 19th century offers “a way of addressing issues that are still very, very current in British culture, like class and gender and submerged sexuality. Things that we think we’re pretty cool with, and actually we’re not at all.” Her books further that process by making explicit the hidden and hinted-at. Women’s dissatisfaction with the roles assigned them, class inequality, and lesbian desire all become visible.
If Waters’ Victorian novels delve into closed and secret places, her later works examine the wreckage and newly opened spaces left by worlds blown apart. Her 2006 novel The Night Watch explores four lives intertwined during the London Blitz in the 1940s. The Little Stranger (2009) unfolds just after the War’s end, and The Paying Guests (2014) takes place in the period of dislocation following World War I. These novels note that both world wars gave many women the chance to explore unconventional roles and identities, sexual identity being one among many. Both wars also disrupted the class system, laying bare social discontents and offering new scope for middle- and working-class ambitions. In both her Victorian and other novels, Waters investigates the ways that people in turbulent times struggle to find purpose—and love. She is particularly inspired by contemporary culture’s complicated, constantly-shifting relationship to the past. “We get attached to cultural and social systems in a very negative kind of way,” Waters says. But “these things are always in process; they’re not fixed, and gender’s never fixed, and how we feel about women changes all the time. How we feel about sex and sexuality and class, these things change all the time.” History is a process, she says. “A good historical novel is a celebration of that.”


Judith Rosen was research dramaturg for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Fingersmith. This article was originally published in Illuminations, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s season guide.

Image Credit:
Sarah Waters: Pal Hansen

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