Countdown to The Paying Guest

Sarah Waters’ new novel is out this month. I can’t wait personally. But what better way to celebrate than to rank her published works from worst to best?

Waters is best known for her lesbian literature. She began with her novel Tipping the Velvet, the product of the vast research she conducted for her PhD, set in 1890s Britain and in 2014 after a far too long wait we are to be blessed with The Paying Guests.

In at number 5…

The Night Watch

The Night Watch. First published in 2006, this novel  is set in the 1940s. Excellently written, and by no means a *bad* novel, this just did not entice me in the way that any of her others do.


This is the story of four Londoners – three women and a young man with a past, drawn with absolute truth and intimacy. Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war and lived life at full throttle, now dresses in mannish clothes and wanders the streets with a restless hunger, searching. Helen, clever, sweet, much-loved, harbours a painful secret. Viv, glamour girl, is stubbornly, even foolishly loyal, to her soldier lover. Duncan, an apparent innocent, has had his own demons to fight during the war. Their lives, and their secrets connect in sometimes startling ways. War leads to strange alliances…

(Taken from: [08/08/2014]).

I think my main barrier with this is the war element. When I want to read a novel set during the Second World War I want it to be written by Michelle Magorian, the fantastic novelist who captivated my imagination way back when I was just starting secondary school with novels such as A Little Love Song, and my favourite of hers, A Spoonful of Jam. (Both definitely worth a read).

Number 4…

The Little Stranger

I actually love this novel. I almost wove it into my ghost-focused dissertation. As the doctor enters the house you just know that something is amiss and can’t stop turning the pages. I read it in one sitting. But, the main issue is that when it comes to ghost stories, Sarah Waters hasn’t a patch on Susan Hill. I know I shouldn’t be comparing authors like this, but I can’t  help it. Dolly had me so transfixed that I finished it on the 90 minute bus ride after work one evening. The Woman in Black not only contained a haunting, but haunted me for weeks after I first read it, despite having seen it on the stage first and The Small Hand just about explains why children are creepy, sending shivers down my spine as I imagine just how it would feel to have a hand, unseen, grab mine like a child.


In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own.

But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.

Prepare yourself. From this wonderful writer who continues to astonish us, now comes a chilling ghost story.

(Taken from: [accessed 08/08/2014]).

Number 3


In the middle of the pack we have my first encounter with Sarah Waters. A touching story of two women, one of wealth, the other of imprisonment. It is the supernatural element brought into the novel by spiritualist Selina that made this novel fascinate me. Thought by no means as graphic as Waters’ first novel, the connection that the two women share in the narrative touches me in a way that I don’t think any other novelist has ever succeeded in creating. It is rare that I feel for characters and get entwined into their lives so much that I have stopped expecting it, and I now use it as a benchmark for an exceptional novel. Not forgetting, of course, getting a First on an essay comparing Waters’ novel to Hill’s The Woman in Black in my second year. [Question set was: Ghost narratives exist only to demonstrate and problematise the cultural anxieties of the period in which they were created. Is this true? Make your case with reference to at least TWO of the cultural anxieties manifested by two texts studied on this module.]


“Now you know why you are drawn to me – why your flesh comes creeping to mine, and what it comes for. Let it creep.”

From the dark heart of a Victorian prison, disgraced spiritualist Selina Dawes weaves an enigmatic spell. Is she a fraud, or a prodigy? By the time it all begins to matter, you’ll find yourself desperately wanting to believe in magic.

Set in and around the women’’s prison at Milbank in the 1870s,Affinity is an eerie and utterly compelling ghost story, a complex and intriguing literary mystery and a poignant love story with an unexpected twist in the tale.

Following the death of her father, Margaret Prior has decided to pursue some ‘good work’ with the lady criminals of one of London’s most notorious gaols. Surrounded by prisoners, murderers and common thieves, Margaret feels herself drawn to one of the prisons more unlikely inmates – the imprisoned spiritualist – Selina Dawes. Sympathetic to the plight of this innocent-seeming girl, Margaret sees herself dispensing guidance and perhaps friendship on her visits, little expecting to find herself dabbling in a twilight world of seances, shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions.

(Taken from: [accessed 08/08/2014]).

…Drum Roll Please…

Number 2…

Tipping the Velvet

Another novel that achieved me a First on an assignment (this time a presentation in third year) at university. If I can write on female sexuality/ Sarah Waters, I will. Every single time.

The only issue with Tipping the Velvet is one that Waters herself acknowledges in an interview with Kaye Mitchell in 2012, and that is that it ‘parades history’. I love historical fiction, and I am interested in exactly what Waters has done here, by injecting lives that existed in the background straight into the foreground of the period. The multiple encounters that Kit has with various people and identities of her own are too numerous for this to work perfectly as a piece of fiction, but as a historical fictional work it does the job, and despite this flaw, it makes its way into the number two slot of my list.


“Piercing the shadows of the naked stage was a single shaft of rosy limelight, and in the centre of this was a girl: the most marvellous girl – I knew it at once! – that I had ever seen.”

A saucy, sensuous and multi-layered historical romance,Tipping the Velvet follows the glittering career of Nan King – oyster girl turned music-hall star turned rent boy turned East End ‘tom’.

Nan is captivated by the music hall phenomenon that is Kitty Butler, a male impersonator extraordinaire treading the boards in Canterbury. Through a friend at the box office, Nan manages to visit all her shows and finally meet her heroine. Soon after, she becomes Kitty’s dresser and the two head for the bright lights of Leicester Square where they start an all-singing and dancing double act. At the same time, behind closed doors, they admit their attraction to each other and their affair begins.

(Taken from: [accessed 08/08/2014]).

Which leaves us with…

Number 1…


I absolutely adore Fingersmith. I was taken into the Victorian streets by this novel, and it was very much alive. Its title alludes far more to the sexual element of the novel than Tipping the Velvet (a euphemism for cunnilingus/ oral sex performed on a woman, but is not one known to many). I have nothing but praise for this novel, and shall offer nothing more than the summary as provided on Waters’ website and a recommendation to go forth and read the novel!


“We were all more or less thieves at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it … We could pass anything, anything at all, at speeds which would astonish you. There was only one thing, in fact, that had come and got stuck – one thing that had somehow withstood the tremendous pull of that passage – one thing that never had a price put to it. I mean of course, Me.”

London 1862. Sue Trinder, orphaned at birth, grows up among petty thieves – fingersmiths – under the rough but loving care of Mrs Sucksby and her ‘family’. But from the moment she draws breath, Sue’s fate is linked to that of another orphan growing up in a gloomy mansion not too many miles away…

(Taken from: [accessed 08/08/2014]).

So there it is! My run down of novels by Sarah Waters. If you haven’t read any of them, I would recommend that you go ahead and check some out of the library. And now we just need to wait for the drop of an Amazon pre-order through the letter box.

All images in this post were taken from


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