The Paying Guests

I am about two thirds of the way through Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests (one more very long bath tonight should do it) and I won’t go into great detail about the story as half of you have probably read it, and I don’t want to ruin it for the other half, but if you like Waters, you’ll like this. It’s set just after the First World War and Frances and her mother have taken in a young married couple as lodgers to make ends meet.

In accordance with my *ahem* novelty (shallow) style of book blogging, two things have struck me about this book. Firstly, haircuts. They get a lot of wordage in this book, especially when Frances’ hair is chopped off and styled by curling tong heated in actual flames by Lillian the lodger. Up until the twenties women had mainly had long hair, if you cut your hair short it was because you had a head lice, or were a character in Les Miserables that had to sell your hair to a wigmaker. Long, well-kept and healthy hair had been a sign of money, but in the twenties, women started chopping it all off, and it must have been very liberating. I’ve only had short hair once in my life, and regretted it immediately, as being a curly person I had to get up early to beat the living Leo Sayer out of it each morning. After all that effort and a house that smelt of burning hair, the best I could get was big curls that make it look like I was freshly shampooed and set, so no. And it’s a shame, as I’ve been looking at pictures of 1920s styles, and I’d love to run my fingers through my hair without losing my hand.



Me, circa 1991. I did not feel like dancing, nor did I want to dance the night away. I wanted to buy a hat.

Secondly, people don’t seem to have lodgers like they used to. The idea of living with another family and not being an au pair or something is becoming alien, and it used to be the backbone of so many of our soap opera living arrangements. I suppose it shows how much more comfortable we’ve become, we’ll share a flat or house with other people on an equal, rent-paying footing, and are often friends beforehand, but not many of us actually live with our landlords, and share their toilet. To the owner a spare room was a valuable source of income, and to a single person advert for a room to rent meant an affordable, but that doesn’t mean I’m volunteering to be either. It’s obviously a sensible way to deal with a housing crisis, but I am too spoiled to go down either road unless desperate. For starters, I’ll be spending a good hour in the bath tonight, and if I were my landlord I’d be listening for sound of the boiler coming on as I spin the hot water tap with my toe, and chapping sharply on the door and remarking that hot water doesn’t grow on trees.

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Sarah Waters, rocking short hair.