In Sarah Waters’ latest, World War II has only recently ended. In England, life remains dreary, London still damaged, the rationing of food and fuel still in effect (the English would endure food rationing until 1954). In Warwickshire, one Dr. Faraday, a county doctor, plies his trade, worrying about the new National Health System, which he is certain will put him out of business. A bachelor in his 40s, Faraday is as set in his habits as an ancient clock, moving methodically amongst the ailing, often ignorant villagers of Lidcote.
His dull life takes a turn when he is summoned to Hundreds, the once elegant, now dilapidated estate belonging to the Ayres family. This is not Faraday’s first visit: as a small child, he partook of a village fête with his parents on the Hundreds parkland. Because his mother was once a servant there, he was allowed into the kitchen with her, where the servants fed him jellies and “cold shapes”. All his life the enormous, exquisite estate has held sway, not only over him, but the entire village of Lidcote. But as the Ayres family died off and funds dwindled, the once-magnificent house began falling into disrepair. So it is when he arrives to tend young Betty, the only live-in servant, who is complaining of stomach pains.
Faraday examines Betty, only to diagnose a rather timorous homesickness. The Ayres show their gratitude by inviting him to tea in the “little parlor”. one of the few rooms kept open. There he becomes better acquainted with Roderick, a wounded veteran struggling to keep the estate afloat, Mrs. Ayres, Roderick’s aging but still lovely mother, whom Faraday recalls from his long-ago visit, and Caroline, Roderick’s elder sister, a 27-year-old spinster, plain, resolutely unadorned, and sharply intelligent.
The Ayres are warm, friendly, a bit embarrassed by the disrepair surrounding them. A tour of the house, courtesy of Caroline, is a saddening journey: the wallpaper is peeling, water damage is everywhere, old volumes are ruined, good furniture is precariously covered by inadequate sheeting. Yet Faraday is drawn to the family, and proposes a course of treatment for Roderick’s damaged leg, one that ensures he keeps visiting the house.
Waters is often called “Dickensian” by critics, and it’s hard to avoid the comparison, for here is a writer of great detail—Hundreds is described literally to the doorknobs, and the class divisions that mired England for centuries (and perhaps still do) are well evidenced. One need not be familiar with the history of England’s grand estates and their entailments—that is, who inherits what—to understand that the Ayres were once a family of great standing, now fallen to a shabby gentility, the last of England’s ancien regime. Yet they still cling to the old ways: Faraday, for all his helpful kindness and many cups of tea, is considered a sort of tradesman.
When a wealthy family moves to the district, Mrs. Ayres decides to throw a drinks party in the saloon, a once-gorgeous room now subjected to a thorough scrubbing from Betty, Caroline, and Mrs. Bazely, the daily woman. Scoured to a shine, lights blazing, contraband alcohol in abundance, Hundreds is visited by the nosy local gentry and the new family, the Baker-Hydes, who appear not only with their young daughter, but Mrs. Baker-Hyde’s bachelor brother. The family turns out to be a vulgar group, the brother rude, the child ill-behaved. But then disaster strikes, leaving one guest terribly injured, touching off a series of events that lead everyone but Faraday to an obvious conclusion: Hundreds is haunted. And the ghost is not a friendly one.
Roderick is first to fall. Having suffered both mental and physical trauma during the war, his increased ranting and heavy drinking are easily put down to what was then called shellshock. But when his room catches fire, only Faraday can find—and believe—a logical explanation. Roderick is moved into nursing care, where he loses whatever was left of his sanity.
Faraday, meanwhile, draws closer to Caroline and her mother, becoming a regular visitor, his tradesman status bumped up a bit in Roderick’s absence.
When the district hospital dance rolls around, Faraday invites Caroline as his escort. His intentions, at that moment, are purely friendly, but over the course of a decidedly odd evening, his feelings change. The ungainly, homely Caroline is a wonderful dancer, blossoming once removed from Hundreds’s oppressive atmosphere. But the night ends awkwardly, forcing Faraday to recognize his increasing feeling for Caroline.
Hundreds grows livelier—burn marks rising through the ancient plaster, writing appearing on previously bare walls, sounds of footsteps and flutterings. The Ayres women and the maids are all alarmed, certain the ghost is Susan Ayres, who died in childhood from diphtheria. But Faraday is ever-ready with mundane explanations: birds trapped in the countless, crumbling chimneys, the house settling, the markings simply previously unnoticed. Even when confronted with evidence to the contrary, Faraday will resolutely stick the scientific. And it will be his undoing.
Waters does a wonderful job with Faraday: he is the perfect unreliable narrator, certain of himself as a modern man of science, silently chafing beneath constant class insults from his colleagues, who are of better background. When his proposal to Caroline is accepted, he is overjoyed, envisioning himself country squire, munificent doctor, and (finally) respected owner of the restored Hundreds, with the able Caroline at his side. And though Caroline is decidedly unenthusiastic about the wedding, he puts it down to nerves. When she recoils from his physical advances, it is merely the behavior of a virgin spinster, suffering the strains of managing Hundreds and caring for the ailing Mrs. Ayres.
Waters is also successful in breathing life into an exhausted genre. To read The Little Stranger is to be drawn in an increasingly ominous place, a place where the very air is unpleasantly thick. The novel builds steadily to a crescendo both surprising and saddening. Without spoiling the plot, I can say that the haunting is never truly resolved; as for Faraday, he is left to wander the halls of Hundreds alone, a man whose narrowness leaves him no wiser at the end than the beginning.