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British novelist Sarah Waters made her name as the writer of bodice-ripping, lesbian blockbusters. But now she's done with decadence, and has turned her energies to writing a melancholy portrait of post-war London. She tells Fionola Meredith why


Bestselling lesbian historical novelist Sarah Waters is a tidy, quietly spoken, elfish little person with tired eyes. Her conversation is measured, dry and thoughtful, redolent of the academic she once was.
Her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, in 1998, was a picaresque caper through the lesbian underworld of 19th century England. It's difficult to imagine Sarah Waters writing the famous scene where the protagonists try out the delights of a strap-on leather dildo. Such is her rather prim self-possession that to mention that scene – or any of her other evocations of lesbian passion – would seem strangely improper.
You can't help feeling that Waters would be happier back behind the university lectern, explaining “queer theory” in that precise, analytical, slightly bloodless tone of hers. But there's no doubt that her brand of Sapphic Victoriana is hugely successful. Waters's second novel, Affinity, is a spooky, sexy exploration of spiritualism in the Victorian gothic novel, in which a young woman becomes obsessed with an imprisoned medium. It won a Somerset Maugham Award in 2000. She followed that with Fingersmith, a revisionist tribute to Victorian “sensation” novels like Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. Fingersmith was shortlisted for both the Orange and the Man Booker prizes in 2002 and was the second of Sarah Waters's books (after Tipping the Velvet) to be adapted for TV.
Despite her slightly aloof demeanour, Waters does a neat line in wry self-deprecation. She once described her genre of literary pastiche as “the lesbo-Victorian romp”. That phrase has since been invoked in almost every piece of writing about her work - surely it has come to haunt her?
“A little bit, yeah, but it's fairly light-hearted. I first used it ages ago. It does suit Tipping the Velvet, but it makes less and less sense really (with the later novels)”.
While the rest of Waters's back catalogue may be not quite so overtly romping, her themes of forbidden young lesbian love, guilt, betrayal and transgression – combined with heart-stopping plot reversals – keep her devoted fan base enraptured. And she's sufficiently knowing to please the critics too. They're impressed not just by her meticulous historical research, but by her ability to make ideas like libertarian socialism seem sexy. And despite her theory-laden academic past, she's evidently aware of the universal appetite for a juicy, rollicking story.
One of her literary heroines is Iris Murdoch, who was also a university don. “I like her because she's really aware of the pleasures of reading for a reader, and that's something I try to do. She's not afraid to use a cliffhanger.”
But is Waters comfortable being continually styled as a lesbian novelist?
“I don't have a problem with it – it's often me invoking the label. Homosexuality isn't an ethnicity. For example, if you call someone an Irish writer, nobody would then think only Irish people can read them – nobody in their right mind would think that.
“I suppose I have a naïve faith that people see beyond the label. The lesbian label is there but there are other labels too. Actually I feel it makes more sense to call me a historical novelist. That's far more obviously a project of mine. The lesbianism is at the heart of it but it's fairly incidental at the same time.
“I'm interested in writing about women who were having passionate relationships with each other but who don't necessarily fit into our modern models of lesbianism – and certainly wouldn't have had a homosexual vocabulary.
“Sexuality was often far less important to them than a category like class. The fact that you were attracted to another girl wasn't necessarily a difficulty, but the fact that the girl was a lady when you were a working class thief was actually much more of a problem.”
Waters's latest book, The Night Watch, marks a radical change not only in historical period, but also in mood and tone, from her three previous novels. Gone is the high-kicking exuberance of Tipping the Velvet, the gothic embellishments of Affinity. The Night Watch is a much quieter, sadder book, set in the post-war dreariness of London in the late 1940s. As usual, it's marked by an almost obsessive attention to period detail – Waters spent months researching what she calls the “poignant trivia” of the time – and the dialogue rings true.
Waters was inspired by a memoir of life in the city during the war by Bryher, the lesbian lover of the imagist poet HD.
“I read it years ago when I was doing my PhD, but it stuck in my head: this image she has of London covered in the dust of centuries past, literally blown apart by war so that all the cellars and foundations were exposed. Walking around the city during the Blitz must have been very upsetting, but also fascinating; to get these glimpses inside other people's houses. There was a huge opening up of everything, and that extended to gay life as well.”
The Night Watch begins in 1947, then takes the reader back through the years to 1941, painstakingly unravelling the events that have shaped the lives of its war-damaged characters: cross-dressing former ambulance drivers Kay and Mickey; faded glamour girl Viv, with her “layer of grief, as fine as ash, just beneath the surface”; Viv's solitary, wraith-like brother Duncan; and lesbian lovers Helen and Julia, twisting uncomfortably in the last stages of a dying relationship.
She was influenced by the reverse structure of Harold Pinter's Betrayal. “It's a great play about a couple who have been having an affair for years. It starts at the end when the affair has run its course, then moves back to the beginning – it's a terribly poignant way of writing about relationships. It takes you back into the past to the point where the relationship is just starting; it's so exciting, but then you know how it's all going to end up.”
What prompted Waters to abandon the dirty glitter of the Victorian demi-monde?
“I'd learnt a lot working in the Victorian period. And those books aren't in any sense a trilogy, but it felt like I got to the end of a cycle. I was intrigued to see what would happen to my writing if I moved, because I'd only written those three novels. I was ventriloquising Victorian voices and I started to wonder what would it like to try other voices.”
But why did she choose this particular scene of grim austerity?
“I went to the post-war setting because something drew me there: the sense of exhaustion. And I wanted to write a story about slightly older women; women who have been through relationships. I knew it was going to be a melancholy book. I wanted to write about people being stuck and disappointed, and so the late 1940s setting seemed to suit that; people were still dazed from the war.”
Perhaps other, more personal factors drew Waters to write such a poignant, weary, longing novel. She's best known as a youthful, sparkly writer – she was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 2003 – but she turns 40 this year. Did a sense of painfully-won maturity feed into her latest work?
“Yes, it was partly that. I am getting to the age when I'm old enough to have a past. I felt a sudden engagement with that, a sense that what I'm doing now is formed by own past. I wasn't able to write about that before because my characters for the purposes of the books had to be a lot younger. The Night Watch was a difficult book to write. I had to re-enter this melancholy world every day. It certainly casts its particular mood over you.”
One of the unusual aspects of Waters's success is her cross-over appeal: she has been lauded for bringing lesbian experience into the mainstream, in both in her books and in their TV adaptations.
While many of her lesbian readers have clung to her books as though they are recovering authentic lost stories, Waters also counts among her many fans conservative elderly women who have no problem keeping Fingersmith on the bedside table beside their false teeth and Reader's Digest. Are people more comfortable with fictionalised evocations of lesbianism than they are with a real life lesbian walking down the street?
“Oh yes, I think that's part of it. And I'm sure that the period setting also makes it seem a bit safer to people. One of things I've always tried to do is take on landscapes that are already familiar, like the 19th century or the second world war, then place lesbians at the heart of them. I hope that has a positive influence on people – just making lesbians seem very normal. Even if it does feel safer because it has the period setting, I think it does, hopefully, have a kind of knock-on effect.”
Waters made her name as the writer of Sapphic, bodice-ripping, literary blockbusters, saturated with references to cross-dressing, prostitution and sado-masochism. Now she's done with decadence, chucked out the crinolines. It's a big risk. Will the public lap up her new, more austere tale of the muted realities of grown-up lesbian experience? Or are they only interested in lesbians when they frolic decoratively in their Victorian corsets?π