Sunday Salon: Reinventing plots

TSSbadge3 As well as featuring 12 crime fiction novels, the current issue of Waterstones Quarterly contains an interview with Sarah Waters about her life and work, especially her latest book The Little Stranger. I found a paragraph about influences on this novel extraordinary for two reasons:

"That's right" [says Waters]. "I'd been thinking a lot about Brideshead and other country-house novels. One in particular actually: The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey. It's about a working class girl who's abducted by a mother and daughter living in an isolated house. It's brilliant in lots of ways, but repellent: the narrator's sympathies are completely with the middle-class people and the girl is made a repository for all this class loathing. At first I wanted to do a rewrite of it, but I worried that Tey's estate might not be happy. So I decided to find another way to explore that landscape."

First, has Waters actually read the book? Of course she must have done, but anyone who has read it will surely agree that her encapsulation of the plot is bizarre.

Second, the idea of Tey's novel as a ruthless salvo in the class war had not occurred to me before. It is an interesting way to look at it. Not a perspective with which I agree, but Sarah Waters has certainly provided a stimulating, if jarring, interpretation.

I thought I might try the Sarah Waters treatment on a couple of classics.

Hamlet: a middle-aged couple is driven to distraction by a hooligan they selflessly adopted despite his ASBO. The authorities' caring attempts to save the wayward boy from his worst excesses via secret surveillance and monitoring by a female social worker are viciously repelled.

Lord of the Flies: in an over-the-top show of force, the military callously destroy the innocent game of a group of unarmed boys; the reader is encouraged to root for the oppressors, endorsing the terrible repression so prevalent in British society at that time and providing a vote for juntas worldwide.

Please feel free to try this approach yourself on your own favourites.


3 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Reinventing plots

  1. I (perhaps because I’m American and had to learn to ‘read’ the English class system) did note the class aspect of Tey’s wonderful book when I first read it a couple of decades ago. But Waters’s analysis is too simplistic. It’s as if she’s saying a working-class girl can’t be loathsome, which is drearily politically correct. The point is surely that the two women living in the isolated house are their own people–‘respectable’ on the surface, but in reality eccentric. This is 1948, and Marion is unmarried out of choice, while her mother mouths off at every opportunity. They live well on limited means. Tey is trying to show that this kind of life is more imaginative and admirable than the schoolgirl’s predictably ‘naughty’ highjinks with her dull lover. And that, of course, the women at the Franchise have absolutely no interest in victimising anyone else, while this unlikeable girl clearly does. Waters’s idea isn’t the kind of fictional counterweight Jean Rhys was trying to provide with The Wide Sargasso Sea, which told the story of Jane Eyre’s ‘mad’ wife from her perspective.

  2. Very perceptive analysis, Barb. It was the “victim flip” in SW’s comment that shocked me, but you are right that the point SW seems to be making is oversimplistic and perhaps reflective of a generalisation of the “Love on the Dole” view of the working class.

  3. Yes of course–it is really strange that she presented the apparent rather than the real plot!

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