The Paying Guests

Last updated
The Paying Guests
First edition
Author Sarah Waters
Cover artistDuncan Spilling
CountryUnited Kingdom
Publisher Virago Press
Publication date
August 2014
Media typePrint
ISBN 0-349-00436-6

The Paying Guests is a 2014 novel by Welsh author Sarah Waters. It was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction [1] and named "Fiction Book of the Year" by The Sunday Times who said that "this novel magnificently confirms Sarah Waters' status as an unsurpassed fictional recorder of vanished eras and hidden lives." [2]


Plot introduction

The book is set in 1922 in Camberwell. [3] where spinster Frances lives with her genteel mother Mrs Wray and mourns the death of her brothers in the Great War. Her father has died leaving considerable debts and they are obliged to take in lodgers: Lilian and Leonard Barber of the "clerk class". The guests bring with them colour, fun and music but also stir dangerous desires in Frances.


Waters wrote "Having set my two previous books in the 1940s I thought I’d venture back a couple of decades, and in the pursuit of information about British domestic life in the interwar years I began looking at murder cases; I went to them purely, really, for the sake of their incidental detail. But two cases caught my attention, that of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters in 1922, and of Alma Rattenbury and Percy Stoner in 1935 – both cases involving a husband, his wife and her young male lover, in which a moment’s reckless violence had fatal consequences for almost everyone concerned." [4] And in an interview with The New York Times "I thought how interesting it would be if the lover was a female lover". Waters continues "The impact of the First World War was to shake things up enormously, loosening up old mores, fashions and behaviours. The early ’20s were like the waist of an hourglass. Lots of things were hurtling toward it and squeezing through it and then hurtling out the other side." [5]

"I wanted The Paying Guests, above all, to achieve two things: to evoke, convincingly, the intricate fabric of interwar domesticity; and then to set that fabric thrumming with desire, transgression and moral crisis". [4]


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  1. BAILEYS Women's Prize for Fiction » Shortlist. Retrieved 2015-11-09.
  2. "The year's best fiction", The Sunday Times, 2014-11-30. Retrieved 2015-11-09.
  3. 1 2 "Satire meets costume drama", The Guardian, 2014-08-15. Retrieved 2015-11-09.
  4. 1 2 "Sarah Waters: ‘I wanted The Paying Guests to be sexy without being a romp’", The Guardian, 2015-06-06. Retrieved 2015-11-11.
  5. "Weaving a Tale of Love and Death in London", The New York Times, 2014-09-09. Retrieved 2015-11-09.
  6. "The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, review: 'eerie, virtuoso writing', Sarah Waters’s sensational novel won’t disappoint her legion of fans", The Telegraph, 2014-08-30. Retrieved 2015-11-09.
  7. "The Paying Guests review: Sarah Waters' 'raunchy and romantic' novel is 'unputdownable'", The Daily Express, 2014-08-29. Retrieved 2015-11-09.
  8. Novel tackles big themes but lacks bite, The Independent, 21 August 2014 Retrieved 2015-11-09.