Sarah Waters (2009) The Little Stranger

I like a good ghost story. And you can see from the number of re-prints and  the way that The Little Stranger in no stranger to the shortlist for the Man Booker that this is a good.  The book begins after The First World War then jumps thirty years to the end of the Second World War, with Dr Faraday and Hundreds Hall. The Hundreds Hall is in itself not just a Gothic backdrop but a major character in the book. It opens with Faraday an intelligent ten-year old boy being taken by his mother to the Hall for Empire Day fete. He dutifully salutes with the other Boy Scouts while Mrs Ayers and the Colonel present them with the commemorative Empire medal. Afterwards, they sat with their parents at long tables on the south lawn for a good feed. Mrs Ayres is twenty four, or twenty five, the queen of all she surveys. As a special treat, and because Faraday’s mother worked as a nursemaid in Hundreds Hall, her son is sneaked into the house to admire its opulence, and he makes his mark, stealing a decorative wooden acorn. But like the British Empire, Hundreds Hall has reached its nadir.

Dr Faraday is the third-person narrator –with the ability to recall precisely what other characters heard, or saw, or smelt, or what they said to each other – which is useful trait for any family doctor in the small and insular English village of Lipicott.  He is now an old man and bachelor of fortyish, worried what this new-fangled NHS will destroy his practice and his livelihood and leave him unable to pay debts he’s run up training to be a doctor and buying into a practice. The call out to Hundreds Hall is a welcome distraction. He has fond memories of its grandeur. But the grounds are overgrown and the stately home falling to bits.  He’s met by no one and enters the house unannounced.  Gyp, the Ayres’s family watchdog, barks and comes scuttling to announce his presence, followed by Roderick master of the house, aged twenty-six or twenty-seven, but with a gamy leg, and burns, having done his bit for the war effort, he’s at the end of his tether.  He’s followed by his sister, Caroline, a few years older. Thirtyish, unlikely to marry, but called back to duty at the Hall and to care for Roderick. Dr Farady, has been called to treat Betty, fourteen, the Ayres’s only live-in servant, but the house and its inhabitants is his real calling. Betty is feigning stomach pain and appendix problems.

Bump in the night go Gyp and the caretakers of the ancestral pile almost in the order Dr Faraday meets them. Roderick is shipped off to a private lunatic asylum, another drain on the estate’s meagre resources. But as a medical man Dr Faraday provides the voice of reason, the rational voice, to the hysterical outbursts from the women. Betty’s illness isn’t so much she wants to go home, because home is an even more dispiriting place than Hundreds Hall, rather she wants to escape the malign influence of something she can’t see, but knows is there and calls it an ‘evil servant’.  Mrs Ayres acts a mother-like figure to Betty and this allows her to manipulate the girl and cover up the little stranger’s attacks on her, the mistress of the house. Stiff upper lip, set an example and never complain is Mrs Ayres’ downfall. She believes the little stranger is her deceased first-born daughter, Susan, calling to her, metaphorically and literally, through the old pipes in the nursery. Caroline believes its poltergeist activity, a belief shared in their own way by the housekeeper and Betty. Caroline suggests the malign presence is the house is systematically targeting each of the resident’s weaknesses. She points out that the invisible attacks on Rod came in his office, which doubled as his bedroom, a place where he worried over money and how to maintain the house and estate.  Faraday’s more rational explanation for each event lacks common sense. Even his colleague suggests all that incipient sexual energy may be playing a part.

In the end it doesn’t matter.  Building tension from Gyp tearing at a little girl’s face to Dr Faraday standing alone in Hundred Hall relies on uncertainty and belief. Both rely not on the suspension of belief but a shared vision of what is happening on the page is possible, or impossible dependent on what is shown and held back, and what we believe the characters are capable of. Waters has a head start here. Previous novels set in big county piles, play rich against poor. It’s no great surprise when Mrs Ayres admitted that while she’d come to rely on Dr Faraday, she hoped Caroline would make a match from someone that was not Dr Faraday.  But Caroline seems to know her own mind. When accompanying Dr Faraday to some dreary village dance, she meets a friend, whom she doesn’t like much, but worked with as a night warden  (cameo of The Night Watch). On the way back to Hundreds Hall, Dr Faraday and Caroline have their first tryst. They park at Lemmington for a bit of backseat grappling which come back to bite. This is mirrored at the end of the novel when Dr Faraday is called out to treat an unregistered patient that has stomach pain and, unless treated, a ruptured appendix, like Betty’s phantom pains, but which would kill him and he parks again at Lemminton. By that time the parvenu Dr Faraday’s engagement to Caroline has been called off and she is selling Hundreds Hall and escaping abroad. The beauty of the ending with Dr Faraday inside tending to the Hall is the bittersweet question is he –perhaps inadvertently- not the innocent narrator he portrays himself to be, or is he too being sucked in by the house.

It’s a The Little Stranger danger that cannot be avoided.  Hundreds Hall is not the type of house you’d like to spend a night. But turning the pages night after night, well, that’s a different story.  Worth reading. Sure to be a screenplay and film.

Why I hate Downton Abbey

I know it’s the last series of Downton Abbey. It sells big in America where people like former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin things we live in stately homes.  Lots of people here watch it. It’s won sacksful of awards for best drama. I’ve never seen more than a clip of an episode, yet Downton Avenue has me reaching for my Kalashnikov.

There’s nothing down town about Downton Abbey. It’s a showcase of beautifully dressed people with impeccable manners showcasing all that was great about Great Britain. Let’s start at the top. Take away the gold frame from around the jug ear of Prince Charles, our future king, and perhaps someone can explain what particular skill set he, or his forebearers brought to the Industrial revolution, or to the modern world? There’s no answer to inherited land and inherited wealth. The people that own the land, like those portrayed in Downton Abbey, also owned the people on the land. Attend the right sort of schools. The right sort of University. Pull on a graduation robe and take the prizes of  public office and the trappings of power and the promise of yet more wealth. Look no further than our Prime minister and his Chancellor of Exchequer.  As Thomas Piketty, among others, have shown in the modern world wealth begets wealth, in spite of, not because of who owns it. Briton is a good place to be rich.

It’s not a good place to be poor. The antithesis of programmes such as Downton Abbey show mainly on channels 4 or 5 with the tagline ‘benefit’ attached. Type it into a search engine and see how many hits you get. Then add the Jeremy Kyle effect. There’s a Victorian cruelty to these programmes, a type of bear baiting, in which the working class are prodded and poked and made to dance and squeal for our master’s entertainment.  Upstairs, Downstairs, and while they are in the ascendency we’re downstairs where we belong, read the subtext, because we’re thick and left to ourselves would be primitive savages, what right wing commentators Charles Murray call a ‘feral underclass’. A recent poll at the Edinburgh Festival found the majority thought  Waynes and Waynettes and foul mouthed Vicky Pollard are not seen are representatives of Little Britain, but embodiments of the working class. But it fits a larger narrative.

To paraphrase R.H.Tawney (1913) what rich people call a problem of poverty is what poor people call a problem of riches.  A general post-second world war consensus and belief in a subsistence minimal under which no individual living in the UK should fall. The level at which national assistance or supplementary benefits were set as a monetary equivalent of a poverty line. Even then, in the 1950s, one in twenty household were said to be below it. And when Peter Townsend’s seminal work Poverty in the UK was published in 1979 seemed to be a call to arms. With empirical data, our Labour government would right a great wrong.

Yet, as Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack show in Breadline Britain in 2012 three in twelve fell below the poverty line. And the problem of child poverty has been solved, by our Eton-educated betters, by re-categorising it as a problem of poor parenting that can be solved by parenting classes. A moral problem. A story many of us are familiar with.

I’ve got a mate that’s got cancer and I’ll expect will die this year. He’s been knocked off the sick, told he’s fit to work. He’s appealed that decision. But in the meantime has zero income. His housing benefit is no longer paid. Local authority housing employees send him threatening letters demanding increasingly larger sums of money. He’s been told by his medical consultant to eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids. He’s a causality, one among the many. Classifiable in that old throwback to Victorian society and notions of the deserving and undeserving poor. The underserving poor where those thought able to work and not willing to work. Those like my mate.  And the place for them was prison –for vagrancy – or the poor house, cast in with the old and sick where they’d be made to work. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, trailing and documenting these spikes prior to the Second World War, showed what little work there was for the men (and it was mostly men), wasn’t worth the cost of administration or effort, but it had to be seen to have a salutary effect as not being a soft option. Language we are familiar with today.  Weighty matters such as how much salt should be added to the gruel and whether sugar was a luxury inmates would come to depend upon where debated at parish level. Scotland was the most frugal of nations here.

The privilege of being rich and owning land and the servants on the land as they do in Downton Abbey extends to a policing role of the morals of the lower classes. Sarah Waters gives a fictional account of this in her novel The Little Stranger set in a decaying aristocratic pile, Hundred Hall, just after the end of World War Two. Doctor Faraday who visits the Hall, in a professional capacity, recounts to Lady Ayres how her mother had worked as a nurse maid in the same house in which they were sitting. She wore an identical uniform to the other nurse maids and had to stand with her hands out each morning while the housekeeper examined her fingernails. How the former Lady Ayres would often come unannounced into the maids’ bedrooms and go through their boxes one by one.  Dr Pamela Cox in the BBC programme, Servants – the true story of life below stairs, shows that such experiences were not unusual. It really was an us-and-them world. In 1911, one and a half million worked as indoor servants. Cox suggests that few in Britain would have an ancestor that was not a servant. When I watch clips of Downton Abbey I don’t see the leading actors, I look for subterranean tunnels, damp basements and attic rooms. I look in vain for a serving class on their feet and at the beck and call of their masters for sixteen hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week. I look for servants that cringe at the behest of the master and mistress and are urged to make themselves invisible – until needed. I rejoice that those days are gone, but mourn the lesson of two world wars have been forgotten and they have returned under the guise of neoliberal orthodoxy and extended choice.

Linda Tirado, who works –among other jobs –as a waitress, in the introduction to Hand To Mouth, feels the need to remind readers, ‘I’m a human after all’ and most poor people start their day in debt and end their days in debt and in between isn’t much fun either.  Her chapter titles show where the fault line in the propaganda war against the rich has been lost and the poor routed and tagged with epithet worthless, subhuman, scrounger.

‘It Take Money to Make Money.’ This is not Thomas Piketty telling the reader that money flows from the poor to the rich at an increasing rate, but a working- mother’s view from the bottom rung, two jobs, living on fresh air and foodstamps. No matter which way you cut it, isn’t going to make any difference. Her car gets towed and she can’t afford to pay to get it out of the compound. You need money for that. More than she makes in a day. Martin Ford shows a different pattern. Waltmart is busiest at midnight when food stamps are first issued. Stores are least busy in the week before food stamps are issued. The end of the month is the end of the line for tens of millions.

‘We Do Not Have Babies For Welfare Money.’ What Tirado does not say is that she has the wrong kind of babies. Babies that are born poor, are likely to grown up to be poor as Robert Putman, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, shows.  She admits this herself. ‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive.’ They don’t swear like that on Downton Abbey, but then again, perhaps they don’t need to. Tirado in her penultimate chapter sums up where the propaganda war has been won and lost, ‘Being Poor isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’. Let’s be as honest as Tirado, when you’re the servant of the rich you’re going to get screwed, whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Rich men hold all the trump cards and they have a big stick at their back. The propaganda war was lost a long time ago. Hunker down or rise up. Winners such as those in Downton Abbey write the history and talk about traditions. It leaves a sour taste, but I don’t have to watch it – not yet. But it’s hard to hold your tongue or listen to such claptrap getting cheered.