The Little Stranger
Sarah Waters’s The Little Strangerher fifth novel and the third to reach the Booker Prize shortlistbegins on Empire Day, 1919, “the first summer after the war.” This misdatingEmpire Day was celebrated, from 1902 through 1952, on May 24, a full month before summer startedmay be nothing more than a bit of seasonal license, or it may be the first subtle sign that Waters’s narrator is not entirely reliable. His memory may not be altogether accurate, despite his scientific training. In any case, the local celebration that year was held at the Ayreses’ ancestral home, whose very name, Hundreds Hall, implies both its rootedness in English history and its obsolescence, the geopolitical term “hundreds” having lost its currency long ago.
“There were no trips inside of course,” the narrator, Dr. Faraday, explains. That is, there were no official tours. Dr. Faraday’s mother, however, had once been a nursery maid at Hundreds Hall before marrying a grocer’s delivery boy (“a back-door romance”). She still knew some of the servants working there, and she was able to sneak her son inside. “The visit impressed me deeply,” he says, both “the thrill of the house” and the thrill “of trespass.”
Faraday comes away from that visit not only with an Empire Day medal given to him by Mrs. Ayres but also with a plaster acorn that he secretly pries from a decorative border. From that tiny acorn, a mighty desire grows within the sedate Faraday, leading to the events recounted in his lengthy narrative of his year in the life of the Ayreses. This narrative constitutes Waters’s remarkable novel.
Faraday’s desire, born of class differences, lies more or less dormant over the next thirty years. It slowly festers until the day that Faraday, quite by chance (his partner, the Ayres’ regular physician, is busy), is called to Hundreds Hall to attend to a servant. Faraday is shocked by the decay that he finds there: The grounds are untended, much of the house is closed up, and the servant corps has been reduced to one fourteen-year-old girl. The girl feigns illnesses, but the family cannot afford to lose her, knowing they would not be able to find a replacement. (Conditions in post-World War II Britain may have been austere, but workers were in demand as the nation began rebuilding itselfon a quite different, more egalitarian basis than before.)
The three remaining family members are virtual recluses: the now-widowed Mrs. Ayres; her decidedly plain daughter, Caroline, in her mid-twenties; and her slightly younger son, the aptly named Roderick, who was badly injured in the war and now spends his time tending the family’s dwindling finances. The hall resembles Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. It is literally walled off from the changing outside world, a Britain far more interested in the National Health Service than in National Heritage sites.
Faraday’s interest in the Ayreses, or, more accurately, in Hundreds Hall, represents a combination of envy and resentment. Unlike the other locals, who “had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief” in the house, Faraday remains perversely steadfast. He enjoys a slightly elevated position as a medical doctora position that his parents paid for with their lives, the financial burden of his education contributing to their early deaths. He uses that position to enter Hundreds Hall, a world that he previously could only glimpse from afar, other than on that fateful Empire Day.
The quiet manner in which Faraday insinuates himself into the Ayres family’s lives and house is fascinating. Accessing the family for him seems to be little more than a means for accessing the house. Faraday, moreover, possesses a remarkable capacity for self-deception that makes him seem more comical than sinister and that precludes his ever becoming an English version of Nick Carraway, the ultimately detached and evaluative narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Unlike Nick, Faraday wants to be part of the aristocratic lifestyle too badly to gain any perspective on it.
Faraday thinks of Hundreds Hall as a patient in need of medical care, to be saved from decay and restored to its former glory. Its fate is in his hands. To gain weekly access to the house, he offers to treat Roderick’s leg injury for free, knowing the Ayreses could not otherwise afford his services. He seems incompletely aware of his own motives, however. Part of his unconscious plan is rescuing Caroline from the spinsterhood into which she has already settled and from which she appears to have no other means of escape.
Mrs. Ayres’s one attempt at matchmaking for her daughter goes horribly wrong. She seeks to match Caroline with the brother-in-law of a nouveau-riche neighbor. No sooner does the neighbor tell Faraday that Caroline is too unattractive even for an “ass” like his brother-in-law, however, than the Ayreses’ usually good-natured dog, Gyp, attacks the neighbor’s daughter. Faraday saves what remains of the day by stitching the girl’s badly mangled face.
Putting Gyp down, the price the Ayreses pay to avoid the cost of threatened litigation,...
(The entire section is 2124 words.)