Feudal grandeur and its loss prove to be painful for more than the immediate family in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. The dissolution of the house and the family that inhabits it marks a transition from the lost romance of an older era and the challenges of adjusting to what is new.
The courteous and somewhat stiff narrator, Dr. Faraday, takes the reader through the final chapter of the British estate Hundreds Hall. It is an emblem of the past in his small pastoral town and one that does not always have positive connotations. His mother worked there as a maid in its glory days and Faraday is drawn to the place for a number of reasons: nostalgia, awe, envy.
Since the years following the Second World War, the estate has slowly been broken down into pieces and plots. The patriarch is dead. His son Roderick Ayres is a nervous young man, badly damaged by the war. His older sister Caroline is the heroine, too plain and spirited to make a match that might salvage the property. Her mother, Mrs. Ayres, is a fragment of dilapidated glamour from the past. The three of them are in charge of the beautiful but deteriorating house. They have neither the money nor the strength to resurrect it.
By chance, Dr. Faraday appears at Hundreds to offer his services to the family’s only maid. He is not sure he likes the family exactly, but his visits become a regular part of his routine and slowly the doctor integrates himself into theirs. Underlying the development of these relationships, Waters brings to light the inherited and outdated class divisions. Dr. Faraday’s growing friendship with the Ayres suggests a breaking down of boundaries. There are moments when the differences of background become obvious and cause discomfort, marking the awkward and often reluctant abandonment of the implicit and imbalanced divisions of the past.
The propriety of the family and the failing beauty of the house are well constructed. Waters sets a good pace and the reader gamely follows where Dr. Faraday leads. It isn’t until a third of the way into the book that another element surfaces to complicate the fairly straightforward plot. Hundreds is already tearing at the seams and this is initially what is supposed to have rushed Roderick’s collapse. But by Roderick’s own estimation something else is at work in the grand old house. He does not point to existence of a bona fide ghost, but speaks of a haunting presence that urges malevolence. Dr. Faraday is a man of science and doubtful of such conjectures. He has a hard time swallowing the odd stories of the Hundreds’ inhabitants, and in time all of them mention or believe something extraordinary is at work. As the events grow more frequent and damaging, rational explanations seem to have less and less bearing on what unfolds.
The novel never quite sinks into the classification of a spook story. Waters maintains an excellent tension between straightforward, scientific logic and other less believable possibilities. She plays on whatever superstitions the reader might possess and writes convincingly of bumps in the night. Dr. Faraday continues to evaluate the existence of a malevolent force as preposterous, but as the novel draws to a close, his conclusions seem increasingly stubborn and narrow.
The reader isn’t rewarded with answers. Waters’ narrator might want to push one in a certain direction, but after a novel inside Dr. Faraday’s discerning if narrow head, one can’t help but ponder the other possibilities. Change works as a double-edged sword and the reader witnesses the measured need for a balance in the hands of The Little Stranger.