Caroline Ayres is the closet you’ll get to a protagonist in Sarah Waters post-WWII novel The Little Stranger. Some may say that the narrator of the novel, a seemingly cool Dr. Faraday, is the protagonist. I have some very definite opinions of Dr. Faraday and you don’t want to read what I’ve written until you’ve read The Little Stranger.
During the war — ironically — Caroline was able to achieve some semblance of happiness. She had friends, a job, and was free from the expectations and restrictions of her class. The only reason why she returned to Hundred’s Hall was to care for her badly injured brother and from worry over her mother. Familial duty drew her back to Hundred’s and was truly her only tie to the Hall. She doesn’t care for the house or the upkeep. Caroline and the one teen servant manage the home, which means that she spends a fair amount of her time in scrubbing, cleaning, and shutting off rooms. Resenting the house, she longs to be free of it despite some fond memories from her childhood. Her goal is to forge herself an new identity in this changed England and be free of the restrictions of her class and gender. She is willing to consider a very traditional path for women of this class and time: marriage. Even a marriage to a man she doesn’t love is better than the captivity is feels enclosed in the mouldering walls of Hundreds Hall. The other option for escape is to shake off the claims of others and leave the country for America or Canada and begin a new life. The cost of not breaking free of Hundreds? Poverty… Depression… and — possibly — Death.
Caroline does grow as a person. She tries to mold herself to the wishes and desires of others, but eventually she stands her ground, makes her own decisions, and is much more happy and free as a result. At least for a time she is happy and free.
The Little Stranger is by far my favorite Sarah Waters’ novel. Part of the reason I love it is it has a maturity and depth that surpasses Waters’ other works. An example of this would be Waters use of the female body as a proprietary object. Dr. Faraday, finds himself so close to — in his delusional mind — owning Hundreds Hall; he longs to possess the status, wealth, and respect of upper class and he truly feels that he is extraordinary enough to claim what was denied him at birth. He nearly rapes Caroline which is an attempt to possess her body (her property). He stops short of raping her with the little bit of self-control he has left. His next approach is more insidious — he gets back into her good graces by caring for her mother and then — rather than asking her — he tells her they are to be married. Caroline acquiesces. Dr. Faraday plans the wedding with great gusto assuming that Caroline will be happy to be cared for and then once Caroline realizes that he doesn’t mean to go to London and his true desire is Hundreds Hall, she rejects him. Dr. Faraday is stunned. It is almost as if he thought gender trumps class. As a man he will dominate and possess what he feels is his right. Caroline pushes back much to her detriment. After her suspicious death an inquest rules it a suicide… her mind was disturbed… after all a woman who has experienced loss, is all alone, and cancels her wedding must be a prime target for mental illness. The annihilation of her life yields him his desires and once again he have a story about a man who disregards a woman’s right to own her own body, mind, and decisions.
The atmospheric setting and plot of The Little Stranger makes for a rich reading experience. I think the ambiguity and complexity of the characters — most especially Caroline Ayres — will be what draws me to re-read The Little Stranger.