Tuesday, 1 September 2015

An imaginative leap between fiction and fact: Sarah Waters and The Paying Guests.

By Rebecca Borg

British novelist Sarah Waters took us back in time from the minute she started reading from her hit novel The Paying Guests.

Set in 1922, Waters took us to the streets of London after the First World War. There we saw loneliness and the loss of family and a different type of love, as matters of sexuality and how it has changed between now and then were canvassed.

Waters discussed how the issue of sexuality has evolved throughout the decades, and stated that she was “imagining and finding history”. She also told the audience how she’d researched newspapers and novels, written by other authors in the writing of her work. However her research didn’t give her enough information about the history of lesbianism. In this case, she imagined “what it would be like as a lesbian back in the 1920s”, and wrote based on this. She described this as an “imaginative leap between fiction and fact”.

The Paying Guests main character Frances, lived a rough life.

Being the 1920s, homosexual acts were illegal. Waters described Frances’ position as a “tragic, criminal mistake”. This led to discussion of the relationship between Frances and her mother.

Waters stated that although motherstend to know everything”, the relationship “wasn’t as easy going as a normal relationship with your mother would be”. Frances’ mother refused to believe that her daughter was a lesbian, which engendered conflict and denial between the two.

Waters also talked about ‘identity’ saying that while it may be a challenge “you must also be clear about who you are”. You must also be comfortable. She suggests that things have changed somewhat over time and this can be seen as an encouragement to the many people suffering over their sexual identity.

Although not a major theme of the novel, Waters also talked about ‘status’ and how people were, in the past, “ranked by their appearance”. In the 1920’s people had very limited wardrobes. If you wore dark, ragged clothes you were considered poor. If your clothing was bright and clean you were considered rich. This hasn’t changed and continues today.

We judge others upon their appearance.

We always want the latest clothes or brands.

But do our appearances truthfully represent our status? Does our sexuality determine who we are? Waters’ novel and her work continue to ask those questions.

Edited by Vanessa Wiltshire


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