The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters

Published by Virago UK, Riverhead Books US

576 pp

Reviewed by Zoë Fairbairns 

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Your home is your castle, but only if you can afford it. Otherwise you might have to hand over parts of it to strangers and live with them, for better or for worse.

Set in a south London suburb in the aftermath of World War One, The Paying Guests is gloomy with grief and sour with snobbery. The married couple who move into the home of bereaved and cash-strapped Frances Wray and her mother are disparagingly referred to as belonging to ‘the clerk class’ (though their money is good enough).  Meanwhile, ex-soldiers in the unemployment queues evoke limited sympathy from their social betters who take the view that not only do working-class men demand unrealistically-high wages, but they ‘had had to be conscripted into defending their country while the sons of the gentry had willingly lain down their lives.’

The Wrays do their best to adapt themselves to space-invaders Leonard and Lilian Barber.  Mrs Wray goes out a lot, usually to visit the vicar, leaving her daughter to attend to the housework. It’s hard labour, in this overcrowded, servantless household. When not clearing soot from the kitchen flue (scrubbing her hands clean afterwards with lemon juice and salt), or clearing the fireplace of clinker which resembles ‘the greasy black nuggets one might find at the bottom of a roasting dish’, Frances falls in love with the delectable Lilian.

The pair have magnificent sex in this house which is the territory of both of them and neither of them, and where every creak on the stair may mean discovery by Lilian’s husband or Frances’ mother.


When the lovers are discovered and condemned, insulted and threatened by Lilian’s husband Leonard, they kill him and dispose of the body. A local man – unprepossessing but innocent – is accused of the murder and brought to trial.

The Paying Guests presents a detailed, colourful and vivid, if over-long, view of life in an era when, despite the culling and maiming of a generation of men, and the achievement of a kind of emancipation for many women, patriarchal values still held sway. But the sympathy the reader might feel for the star-crossed lovers, is diluted by the realization that, rather than admit from the start to their own roles in the murder, they allow an innocent man to stand trial for a crime for which he could be sentenced to death.

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