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Sarah Waters, Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. Kaye Mitchell

London: Bloomsbury, 2013 (162 pages), ISBN: 978-1-4411-9941-6.
Fanny Delnieppe
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Sarah Waters, Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. Kaye Mitchell, London: Bloomsbury, 2013 (162 pages), ISBN: 978-1-4411-9941-6.

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1Since the publication of her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, in 1998, Sarah Waters has quickly become one of the most prominent authors of her generation. She enjoys both popular and critical acclaim as the introduction to this issue of Contemporary Critical Perspectives reminds us. First pigeonholed as a lesbian neo-Victorian novelist, Waters’s reception has evolved to include attention paid to other aspects of her works. Her fourth novel, The Night Watch (2006), consensually marked a turning point in the writer’s literary career, as it did in the critical readings of her texts. As Kaye Mitchell, who edited the volume, explains in the introduction, if critics used to focus on the playful self-conscious appropriation and reinvention of the Victorian novel, which obviously surface in the early novels, and interpret them through the lens of queer theory—referring, in particular, to Judith Butler’s concept of performative gender—, critical writings on Waters’s literary production are now more centred on the ambiguities of the novelist’s treatment of the issues of feminism, sexuality and class, as well as on the evolution of her attitude to history as a source material.

2The avowed purpose of this collection of essays written by scholars from the UK, Europe and the USA, all specialists in contemporary British literature and, in particular, in the fields of historical fiction, queer writing, women writers and gender theory, is ‘to go beyond the parameters of the neo-Victorian as a framework for reading Waters’ fiction’. Even if little attention is devoted to Tipping the Velvet, all of Waters’s novels are covered except for the latest, The Paying Guests (2015), which went to print two years after the volume was published. Each chapter—apart from chapter four—focuses on one novel, and there emerge two main recurring devices or themes through which the volume studies Waters’s take on class, sexuality and gender which gives her novels a political dimension and a relevance to the contemporary period.

3One of these perspectives takes the form of a self-consciousness about the constructed nature of history, of the novel in general, and of the historical novel in particular, and how these affect our perception of identity, and, in particular our conceptions of gender, sex and class. In chapter three, Sarah Gamble demonstrates how Fingersmith’s (2002) unreliable narration and narrative deception pose epistemological questions about the reliability of what (we think) we know. Reading, in the novel, is revealed as an unreliable means of attaining authentic knowledge, to which only desire and physical love can lead, and the text fosters a reflection on the influence of male-authored representations of lesbianism by taking its distance from them. The queer is thus established as a distinct identity with its own potentialities, as opposed to a parody of the heterosexual act.

4In The Night Watch, which initiated Waters’s departure from the Victorian period, it is, Natasha Alden argues in chapter five, to contemporary war fiction and non-fiction texts, by gay and non-gay writers, that the novelist brings a wholly modern consciousness. The author appropriates the genre by having her characters exhibit more recent sexual mores in relation to the conception of their sexuality and gender, and this has the double effect of encouraging a consciousness in the reader as to the constructed nature of the text, and of offering a re-visioning of the gay past while placing it in a continuum of lesbian experience. The Little Stranger (2005), Emma Parker contends in chapter seven, revisits yet another tradition, country house literature, as it can be seen as a revision of texts such as Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair (1948)—which Waters has acknowledged as a source of inspiration for her novel—and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). Waters’s text, Parker agues, opposes the conservative class and gender politics that characterize both the genre and today’s English heritage industry.

5Finally, Jerome De Groot, in chapter four, shows how all of Waters’s work is characterized by an awareness—as manifested, for example, in her use of the word ‘queer’ and in the symbolism of certain objects—of the duality at the heart of all historical fiction, insofar as it always negotiates between the real and the fictive. Again, these historiographic concerns are tied to a political agenda as the novelist offers an alternative to the narratives of history that suggests a possible world outside the taxonomies of class, sexuality and gender. These contributors thus bring to light Waters’s political agenda and relevance to the contemporary period, and show the author’s evolution from the lesbian focus characteristic of the early novels to a more comprehensive—although also more ambiguous—interest in gender and class.

6The other prism through which Waters’s novels are analysed is their treatment of space and time. Chapter one, by Susan Alice Fischer, offers a comparative reading of Waters’s Affinity (1999) and Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day (1919), and examines how the characters’ resistance to social norms, quest for identity and search for true connection with another human being are mapped onto clearly demarcated spaces and temporalities. The dichotomies of day and night, and of inside and outside, mark the limit between the world of social conventions on the one hand, and freedom and the possibility of transgression on the other. In Waters’s novel though, unlike in Woolf’s, the attempt to cross the social divide is doomed. Chapter two retains this focus on space in the same novel, but concentrates on the image of the labyrinth and the motif of the thread. Using Butler’s connection between materiality and invisibility, and Michel de Certeau’s theory according to which space is produced through the repetition of practices, Rebecca Pohl suggests that sexuality in Affinity is produced and materialized through the practice of repetitive walking through the labyrinth and the process of following the thread, which figures (queer) desire. In chapter six, Kaye Mitchell explores time in The Night Watch, both as a thematic issue and in terms of narrative technique and, moving away from discussions of lesbianism’s invisibility, develops Annamarie Jagose’s analysis of lesbianism in terms of temporality to show how the novel questions and subverts heteronormative time, as well as challenges the view of lesbianism as backwardness. The eighth and last chapter, written by Monica Germanà, puts the emphasis on the importance of place in The Little Stranger—the decaying mansion being symbolic of the postwar demise of the upper-class and its worldview—which it analyses in terms of Michel Foucault’s heterotopies. In addition, this concluding chapter explores how the advent of a new fashion in the late forties and fifties both coincided with, and enabled, the rise of the middle and working-classes, as well as helped construct heteronormative femininity.

7The book thus manages to offer a wide range of critical analyses on Waters’s work while keeping a thematic unity. It should also be praised for putting Waters’s success into perspective, and considering, on the one hand, how the filmic adaptations of her novels amplified her popularity among the reading public and, on the other, how her academic background—which is detailed in the timeline provided at the beginning—helped foster her instantaneous adoption by literary critics. As the author herself has conceded, ‘I’ve always brought to the books I’ve written the sorts of issues I know literary departments are interested in talking about: class and gender, sexuality, and playing around with literary tradition. The books lend themselves well to being analysed, I suppose, because I write them with my old literary critical background somewhere still in my head’. A whole chapter—chapter four—is thus devoted to examining the ways in which Waters’s practice as a writer has been influenced by her own critical work on the genre of the historical novel, in particular her PhD thesis on lesbian and gay historical fiction and the book chapter she co-authored with Laura Doan on contemporary lesbian writing.

8Of special interest is also the interview with Sarah Waters which features at the end of the book, in that it echoes many of the arguments put forward in the essays. In it, the author talks about her literary influences, writing method and initial attraction to the Victorian period, and comments on the evolution of her relationship with writing—on her movement away from a certain kind of historiographic metafiction and on her growing concern with character motivations and emotions. She also confirms her interest in space and elaborates on her tendency to enact relationships in spatial terms. She broaches the subject of the under- and misrepresentation of lesbians in literature and affirms her wish to engage with the contemporary moment in non-obvious ways.

9This issue of Contemporary Critical Perspectives thus breaks new ground in the study of one of the most critically and commercially successful novelists writing today, and provides a vast territory for future research to move into. It will no doubt prove an invaluable tool for scholars as well as students interested in finding new ways to look at Waters’s fiction and to account for its recent developments.

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Fanny Delnieppe, « Sarah Waters, Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. Kaye Mitchell »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 52 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Fanny Delnieppe

ÉA 4277 (ICTT : Université d’Avignon)

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