We caught sight of Sandi Toksvig once, sitting under a tree at Simon and Garfunkel’s Hyde Park concert 10 years ago. British reserve and politesse prevented me from disturbing her peace, although I have long been an admirer of her considerable talent and versatility as a journalist, writer, presenter and, more recently co-founder of the extremely important Women’s Equality Party. She has written several books and ‘Valentine Grey‘ is a work of historical fiction.
Valentine has spent her childhood as a free spirit in Assam, raised by her father and allowed to ride horses, shoot and run barefoot. All rather unseemly for a young woman and in 1897, when Valentine is aged 15, her father is persuaded that she should be sent to England. Once there, she struggles with the constraints of not only her clothes and shoes, but the restrictions of London society. Relief arrives in the form of her cousin, Reggie, a spirited young man who embarks upon a homosexual affair with a beautiful, flamboyant theatre performer. Valentine, Reggie and Frank are enjoying life, until Reg’s father signs him up to defend the British Empire in South Africa. Unwilling to leave Frank and totally unsuited to a soldier’s life, Reggie is looking for a way out. And so, disguised as a man, Valentine takes Reggie’s place. Embarking upon the adventure of her life, Valentine faces the horrors of war, but forms enduring relationships with the men of her Mess.
Judging by the extensive bibliography, the author undertook a huge amount of research into Victorian life and attitudes, together with the facts of the Boer War. The result is an utterly convincing novel, with the feisty Valentine at its heart. It examines the prevailing attitudes towards women and gays, views which Valentine herself seeks to influence and change.
I was enthralled by this book and read it in one sitting. It made me laugh and cry in equal measure. It also has one of the best closing paragraphs I have ever come across in a book.
This book reinforced the main reason why I fell in love with reading in the first place. I grew up, like so many youngsters of my age, on Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis. During school holidays, rainy days and weekends, I would lose myself in a book, much to the frustration of my much more active sister who was always urging me to ‘do’ something! Reading was the gateway to other places and it still is. Sarah Waters’ ‘The Paying Guests‘ did what I love in a novel, which is to draw me into another world.
It is the 1920s and Frances Wray and her mother have been left in debt. Once a busy home, with two sons and servants, their Camberwell house is now echoing and lonely. Although only in her mid-20s, Frances has become a drudge, behind with the latest fashions, often with only her mother for company and lumbered with all the household chores. To make ends meet, the Wrays decide to take in lodgers, or ‘paying guests’. Lilian and Leonard Barber are a young married couple, whose presence brings the house to life. Frances and Lilian strike up a cautious friendship which develops into a passionate, illicit affair. The couple long to be together but are constrained by their situations. Then, one night, a terrible accident takes place which threatens to wreck their future. Can Lilian and Frances’ love survive this ultimate test?
Until I got a few chapters into the novel, I had forgotten that Waters writes about lesbian relationships and, in this instance, the setting is at at time when such romances were not publicly acceptable. The gender of the protagonists in ‘The Paying Guests‘ adds an extra twist to the novel; Frances Wray is complex and unconventional, with a past history of political activism. The setting is full of contemporaneous details such as fashion, decor, social expectations etc. London is unsettled in the wake of war, with veterans out of work and families grieving their lost men.
Part romance, part thriller, this book kept me engrossed throughout; the author achieved that very clever feat of keeping me rooting for the bad guy. I was even tempted to sneak it under the covers with a torch, just to find out what happened next!