Published just after (like months) the first season of Downton Abbey began, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger shares the basic plot features of the show (well, sort of): British aristocratic family falls on hard times after the end of the War (this time, WWII) as they are without fortune, but more importantly without a ‘place’ in a world that has moved past the need for lords and ladies.
Place is significant in The Little Stranger as the deteriorating manor house that forms the claustrophobic setting for the novel parallels the degradation of the family’s wealth and social standing. As a good gothic tale, the creaking house is a character in its own right, taking action – at first to protect and then to threaten – the family and any guests. Further gothic elements of maidens in distress, haunting figures and would-be heroes, The Little Stranger is as much an exercise in genre as it is an exploration of the consequences of changing social mores brought about by economic and political turmoil.
That exploration, while complicated and rich in the abstract, is captured in the novel in the minute interactions among characters, casual glances, waylaid gloves and dogs barking at the wrong time. That is to say, the fascination of changing social attitudes falters under the microscopic and magnified lenses of the novel. I am not ordinarily drawn to pages and pages detailing a parlour visit and the composition of the tea tray. Nor was I drawn to it in this instance. I suspect that if you have interest in the time period, or in ghosts and haunted mansions (or in considering how ghosts might be manifestations of our own interests) and mysteries, you’d enjoy the read.
My complaints registered, I should say that I found the mystery element compelling: how/whether the doctor-hero was, in fact, a murderous villain bent on protecting and seizing both the bodies and ideas of the aristocracy. And appropriately haunting. I’ve come back to did-he, didn’t-he in the days since finishing the book, more as wonder of how deceptive first person narration can be and how capable we are of deceiving ourselves – and the pleasure that comes from both.