How do you find lesbians in 19th-century London? For her first book Tipping the Velvet, three-time Man Booker Prize nominee Sarah Waters went looking for women cross-dressers in police and prison records. There was other evidence too: medical histories, love letters, records of women living together as long-term companions, all of which provided rich fodder. For her latest novel The Paying Guests, Waters tells me that she read transcripts of court cases, tracked newspaper headlines, looked at advertisements for kitchen gadgets and waded through histories of bathrooms, all in the service of her story.
Waters has made a career out of unearthing facts in unusual places, and then filling in the gaps with a novelist’s imagination. Her diverse interests have ranged from prisons, spiritualism and the Victorian era (Affinity, 1999) to orphans, conmen and erotica (Fingersmith, 2002). Her sentences are masterpieces of lyricism, subtle yet potent; her plots corkscrew into ever-deepening tension as they imagine the effects of sudden violence on ordinary lives, and the worlds she creates are built with a craftsmanship that ensures historical detail immerses rather than intrudes. The Welsh writer’s books have been thrice adapted by the BBC, and have won her critical acclaim with favourable comparisons to iconic writers like Charles Dickens and Daphne du Maurier.
Visiting India for the first time, for the Jaipur Literature Festival, Waters, a petite blonde with a predilection for suits, is discovering her books speak to a fair number of Indian fans. She is often asked if it takes courage to embrace her lesbian identity, both in literature and in the media spotlight. She says: “I’ve never been a brave person, I could only do it because other people have been brave before me.” Nevertheless, Waters is among only a handful of modern authors to tackle the subject, who have garnered an audience that spans the spectrum from homosexual to heterosexual and everyone in between.
Ironically, she accomplished this in part by writing fabulously, and often, about sex. “Sex can be exciting and erotic, funny and uncomfortable all at the same time, or it moves from one thing to another very easily,” says the author, explaining that she strives to capture that very complexity. Back home in the UK, she sees “sex on the telly all the time,” and finds it boring and dishonest because “it’s always perfect, it’s always successful.” For Waters, reality is untidier and much more interesting than that. “Sex is in here, really,” she says pointing to her head, “rather than down there. For me, it’s about paying attention to that — not so much to what your characters are doing but what role that moment plays in the story. It’s capturing the emotion.”
Her latest offering The Paying Guests is set in 1922, a time of great transition post-World War I. During her research, Waters found herself pausing over the infamous Bywaters murder case. Edith Thompson, her husband and a young man named Fredrick Bywaters formed the three points of a love triangle. Edith flirted with the idea of killing her husband and by all accounts encouraged Freddie to do it for her. When the case went to court, she was charged with incitement, found guilty and hanged. Waters saw it as ‘The’ crime of the period, incorporating as it did gender, class, media frenzy and the politics of the suburbs.
Reading the transcripts she began to wonder, “‘What if the lovers were female?’ How would that affect aspects of the case?” Waters suspected that being lesbian would both expose her characters to danger as well as shield them from suspicion.
Waters has already sold the rights of the book, and is looking forward to seeing it adapted on film. It’s likely to only boost the author’s reputation — after all it was the salty, audacious BBC adaptation ofTipping the Velvet that first catapulted her to fame in 2002. Before that she was a humble academic, who had just completed her PhD thesis on lesbian and gay historical fiction from the late Victorian period onwards. She has since written five very successful books, finding the transition to novelist a “joyous” one.
Waters’ personal life and her choices have become politicised, a part of the wider conversation about gay rights. The author who describes herself as ‘serial monogamist’ wears a simple gold wedding band. She and her partner, copy editor Lucy Vaughan, have been together for over a decade. With typical British understatement, she describes the escalating attention as having been “quite alarming” at times. However, as she speaks of being comfortably middle-aged, it is clear she has made her peace with fame.
Now, in 2015 there are some things we can bet comfortably on: a Waters’ book will win more than one literary accolade. An adaptation will be considered (she’s seen three BBC adaptations, one by ITV and the rights for her latest have already been bought) and will earn her a Man Booker Prize nomination. In fact, we’ll soon know if The Paying Guests will make the 2015 shortlist and her fourth nomination, but few would argue she doesn’t deserve to take this one home.
Published in The Hindu Businessline on January 30, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Jaipur Literary Festival.