61 pages 2 hours read

Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


Welsh historical-novelist Sarah Waters’s sixth novel, The Paying Guests (2014), tells the tale of a mother and daughter in 1920s London who must take on lodgers to afford their house. The result of taking on these paying guests is a devastating love affair and a terrible crime. The novel was nominated for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, became a New York Times Best Seller, and was ranked as the best book of 2014 by several prominent US papers. It was praised for its strong research and realistic dialogue.


The novel’s themes include the strictures of class, the political construction of a judicial system, and the subjectivity of women. Waters tells the story in the third person from the viewpoint of the protagonist. In interviews, Waters has said that she was inspired to write about lower class people in 1920s England after reading writers, such as Virginia Woolf, who generally did not focus on lower class people.


Plot Summary


At the beginning of the novel, Frances Wray and her mother, Mrs. Emily Wray, have decided to take in lodgers, Lilian and Leonard Barber, to help cover their expenses. Previously upper crust, Mr. Wray had mismanaged the family wealth, leaving them with next to nothing upon his death. Frances is the sole housekeeper and has given up the promise of a free life with her secret girlfriend Christina for a domestic life of household chores and taking care of her aging mother. Frances maintains a close friendship with Christina, who has moved on to a steady relationship with a woman named Stevie.


The arrival of the Barbers marks a strange change in Frances’s life, which is, at first, difficult to adjust to. Leonard’s personality sometimes grates on her, but she does not dislike him. Frances quickly takes a liking to Lilian, however. Frances begins to develop feelings for Lilian, and Lilian, too, begins to value Frances’s friendship. She invites Frances to a family party and gives Frances a makeover. Because of the intimacy of the makeover, Frances admits to Lilian that she has had a relationship with another woman in the past. The revelation shocks Lilian, and the two do not speak for several days.


During the course of this time, Frances endures her mother and a family friend, Mrs. Playfair, trying to set her up with a veteran, Mr. Crowther. Leonard invites her to spend the evening with him and Lilian. Frances and Lilian’s relationship is still strained. During the course of the evening, the three grow more and more drunk. Leonard bullies Lilian, and the two argue; their marriage is not a happy one. They play a modified version of snakes and ladders, which involves Lilian stripping. They smoke strong, foreign cigarettes together.


Though Frances had fun, she feels great shame for her behavior the next day. Leonard and Lilian apologize in turn; they are ashamed for involving Frances. However, the evening fosters a greater intimacy between Frances and her paying guests.


Lilian and Frances attend the party together, and even dance intimately. Frances realizes that Lilian has become attracted to her. When they return home, they find that an unknown assailant has attacked Leonard. Though he has suffered only a black eye and broken nose, the event ruins the intimacy of the evening—until Lilian sneaks from bed. Lilian and Frances have sex for the first time in the kitchen scullery. Frances openly admits to loving Lilian; Lilian reciprocates sometime after. 


Frances and Lilian begin a secret relationship, made difficult by the presence of Mrs. Wray and Leonard in the house. Toward the end of the summer, Lilian and Leonard are to leave on vacation. The week separation seems unbearable to the two women. Lilian surprises Frances with a visit to the skating rink before she goes. Frances awaits a letter from Lilian, almost becoming disenchanted with their relationship. Eventually a letter does come. Lilian is miserable; she misses Frances and wishes to leave Leonard.


When the Barbers return, Frances pressures Lilian to leave Leonard; they will run away and live together, working for a living. Lilian reveals a complication to this plan: she is pregnant. To Frances’s horror, she plans to get an abortion. Lilian tries to reassure her; she has had an abortion before, early in her marriage. She purchases pills and plans to finish the process on a Friday on which both Leonard and Mrs. Wray will be absent from the house.


Lilian takes the pills over the course of the week. By Friday, she is sickly and begins bleeding heavily. It turns into a painful, all-day ordeal. Leonard returns unexpectedly to find Lilian and Frances in a panicked state, covered in Lilian’s blood.


Leonard’s concern quickly turns into suspicion: he knows Lilian has had an abortion before. He finds the pill packet and flies into a rage, accusing her of cheating on him with another man. Frances, in a frantic state, reveals that she is the “other man.” Leonard tries to force her from the room, and the two struggle together. In a state of panic, Lilian swings a heavy stand-ashtray at the back of his head. He crumples to the floor and dies.


Frances and Lilian deliberate whether to go to the police; they eventually decide against it. The two (mostly Frances) haul Leonard’s body out of the house, through the garden, and into the lane. Frances rests his head on a rock to make it look as though he slipped and fell. Frances returns to the house and begins to cover up the crime scene, cleaning up blood and burning what she can. Lilian is physically exhausted and still bleeding. The two spend one last night together. Outside, it begins to rain.


A policeman comes the next day and tells Lilian and the Wrays that there has been an accident and it is likely that Leonard is dead. Mrs. Wray is horrified. Lilian is asked to go to the morgue to identify the body, and Frances comes along. Frances and Lilian are wracked by panic and guilt. They are asked to go to the police station for questioning.


Sargent Heath and Inspector Kempe question Frances and Lilian, taking their statements about their whereabouts the night before. Lilian has a breakdown and rushes for the bathroom. Kempe questions Frances alone. Lilian’s mother, Mrs. Viney, arrives, and the police doctor inspects Lilian. He determines that the shock of Leonard’s death brought on a miscarriage. They are allowed to go home so Lilian can recover.


The next weeks are fraught with guilt, anxiety, and fear for Frances and Lilian. The news spreads throughout town through rumor and newspaper speculation. Frances and Lilian are largely separated; Lilian insists on going back to her familial home, Champion Hill, because Lilian’s mother and sisters will not leave her alone. The strain Frances feels causes friction between her and her mother. She begins to believe that her mother suspects her.


While she is spending time with Christina, Frances learns that a man has been arrested for Leonard’s murder: Spenser Ward, whose girlfriend, Billie Grey, had been having an affair with Leonard. The news of Leonard’s infidelity causes a rift between Frances and Lilian. Frances learns that Lilian found out about Leonard’s affair during their vacation. Leonard had taken out a large life insurance policy shortly before Lilian killed him. Frances feels betrayed by Lilian’s lack of honesty with her, and she begins to suspect that killing Leonard was not an accident.


In the police court hearing, Frances sees Spencer Ward for the first time. He is a young, lower-class, irreverent man who has the perfect motive for killing Leonard. Frances begins to consider the prospect of turning herself in; it seems impossible. However, Spencer’s alibi, corroborated by his mother and a veteran neighbor, proves convincing: he was at home with a headache on the night of Leonard’s death. To Frances’s immense relief, the jury acquits Spenser of all charges. The moment is very painful for Leonard’s family.


Frances leaves the courtroom alone before she can be caught up in the crush of the onlookers and media. Walking out into London, Frances is struck by the pointlessness of all the suffering she and everyone else involved in the trial have endured. She pauses, thinking of throwing herself off of the bridge she is crossing. Instead, she sits and closes her eyes. When she opens them, Lilian is there.


Lilian explains that while she regrets what has happened, she does not regret kissing Frances. They sit together as dusk falls over the city.