Sarah Waters moves away from lesbian literature for this novel, in which she assumes a male persona, writing as Dr Faraday, a Midlands GP, in the period between the end of World War II and the setting up of the National Health Service. It’s difficult to place this latest work in any particular genre as it fits several: love story, ghost story, gothic novel or state of Britain tale meditating on the changes to class and society.
The research taken for the period is meticulous and encompasses the clothes worn in the late 1940s, the concerns for the soon to be born NHS and his unheated car. This leads to an overall sense of the time in which the novel is set and takes us back to a post-war Britain experiencing one of its largest seismic shift in respect of the crumbling upper classes and the demise of the servant classes. Dr Faraday conveys an acute awareness of his own class and juxtaposes his mother’s former employment as a nurserymaid at Hundreds Hall with her employers, the higher born Ayres family, the current incumbents of the decaying Hundreds. His first person narration is somewhat unreliably skewed through his perspective and leads to the question of whether he intends to repair his own working class background by proposing marriage to Caroline.
Not only does Water juxtapose the classes in her novel, but she names her narrator as Dr Faraday. It’s not enough to have a doctor relating what appear to be supernatural occurences, but she puts us in mind of Michael Faraday, the person we consider responsible for the discovery of electricity; it’s interesting that the narrator of the novel uses electrical therapy to treat Roderick’s wasted muscles. However, the trope of using a scientist to relate a story that supposedly deals with ghosts and poltergeist phenomena is an interesting one as it leaves us as arbiters. Is Hundreds really possessed by the spirit of the dead child, Susan; are the family members mad or is Dr Faraday the agent of the supernatural occurrences?
Is the novel a metaphor for the changes to society that the Ayres were unable to accommodate, or is it a gothic exploration of England in the middle of the twentieth century? Fears of change have been used to examine and interrogate England in the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. Why can’t this do the same job although retrospectively?