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Specters of the Victorian in the neo-forties novel: Sarah Waters's 'The Little Stranger' (2009) and its intertexts

Heilmann, Ann ORCID: 2012. Specters of the Victorian in the neo-forties novel: Sarah Waters's 'The Little Stranger' (2009) and its intertexts. Contemporary Women's Writing 6 (1) , pp. 38-55. 10.1093/cww/vpr003

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The Little Stranger is a ghost story with a twist. This is something we have come to expect from a Sarah Waters novel, given the author's mastery of the narrative tease. The UK's leading contemporary female historical fiction writer rose to prominence with her lesbian romp Tipping the Velvet (1998) and her subsequent neo-Victorian novels Affinity (1999) and Fingersmith (2003). With The Night Watch (2006) Waters turned to the neo-forties, at the same time moving away from a focus on lesbian characters. The Little Stranger continues her interest in the forties, with a difference. The interpretative conceit for which her fiction is so conspicuous here does not rely on any sudden revelations arising from shifts in perspective or temporality but, rather, on the complexity of the historical framework adopted, for Waters embeds neo-Victorian Gothic within her forties context. In exploring the post-war transformation of social relations, Waters combines the twentieth-century theme of the demise of a country house and family with the Victorian trope of the Gothic mansion engulfed by the past. The project of the nostalgic/traumatic return is played out in a multifaceted mirror game with our contemporary period's rememorizations of the dual legacies of the “golden age” of the Victorians and the “broken age” of the immediate post-war period. Waters's novel plays with our recognition of the interpretative instabilities raised by her synthesis of the two genres. The ancestral home acts as both an emblem of the literature of our dual Victorian and war-torn past and a site of intertextual experimentation. In The Little Stranger, the second of her novels set in the 1940s, Sarah Waters reconfigures, to chilling effect, key preoccupations of her previous historical fiction: neo-Victorian Gothic (Affinity), the claustrophobia and insurgent spirit(s) summoned by the disciplinary regimes of institutions (the prison, the family), class relations (Tipping the Velvet); psychopathological sexualities (Fingersmith); and the upheavals caused by war (The Night Watch). The novel opens with the narrator's memory of the Empire Day commemorations he attended in 1919 at the local country estate Hundreds Hall, “an absolute mansion” in the ten-year-old village boy's stunned eyes (The Little Stranger1). First implemented on 24 May 1902 (the birthday of the recently deceased Victoria), Empire Day served to induct British youngsters into an unquestioning allegiance to traditional models of authority and to the principles of patriotism and imperialism. In Waters's ironic use of the occasion, the day intended to celebrate the post–World War I restoration of Victorian values and social hegemonies (the latter encoded in the open house with all its entrances barred by ropes, a prohibition soon breached by the narrator) in actual fact marks the “last grand year” of the estate, with both the stately home and its owners about to start their “steady decline” into extinction (4). By the close of the text some thirty years later, after another world war, the wrecked house stands abandoned by all but the narrator, its few surviving family members having fallen victim to a series of calamities: casualties of war, though of a different kind. The subtleties of this “other” war – spectral, sexual, (para)psychological, class inflected – and Waters's complex negotiation of intertext (the integration of a wide range of literary sources), subtext (the layered nature of the text's narrative hauntings), and context (the play with a dual historical framework, the Victorians and the 1940s) are the subject of this essay. Our appreciation of the fabric woven from a patchwork of literary references to both periods inevitably influences our interpretation: as I argue, we will read The Little Stranger differently, depending on whether we focus on the forties or Victorian paradigms or are mindful of both.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISSN: 1754-1476
Last Modified: 21 Oct 2022 10:07

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