Stately piles — as old country mansions in Britain are affectionately known — and their dark secrets have fueled the imagination of generations of novelists, from Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier to Evelyn Waugh and William Fiennes.
Hundreds Hall, a rambling and rotting Georgian stately in Warwickshire, England, is no exception. The fictional estate is the centerpiece of Sarah Waters’ best-selling “The Little Stranger” (Riverhead Books, 2009), which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize due to be announced today in London.
This story first appeared in the September 28, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I never actually planned for this book to be a ghost story,” says the author, who counts Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” among her favorite spooky tales. “But I was looking at post-World War II Britain — a demoralized country — and at all of the turmoil around social class. The house became an emblem of what was going on at that time.”
In the chilling work, Hundreds Hall begins mysteriously attacking its posh owners, the Ayres family, after the arrival of Betty, a young servant, and Dr. Faraday, a middle-aged country physician whose mother was once a nanny there.
“The country was changing and the Ayreses really belonged to a lost era,” says Waters of her matriarch, the once-glamorous widow Mrs. Ayres and her adult children — Caroline, a tough spinster who refuses to shave her legs, and Roderick, a proud, fragile young war veteran. “But the working class were looking forward. It was a fascinating hinge-time in British history.”
The author is adept at historical fiction: Her critically acclaimed novels “Tipping the Velvet” and “Fingersmith” are both set in the Victorian era. So it was the macabre element of “The Little Stranger” that proved her biggest challenge.
“It was tricky knowing whether it was spooky or not. I would reread passages and think to myself, ‘Is this just silly?’” recalls Waters. Readers certainly didn’t think so. Her book is by far the best seller on the Booker short list and the film rights have already been optioned by Potboiler Productions (which brought “The Constant Gardener” to the big screen).
Nor is Waters unaccustomed to literary acclaim. In 2003, she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. And this year marks the third time she has been short listed for the Booker’s 50,000 pound (or $80,000) prize.
Perhaps as a result, Waters seems to be taking it all in stride, despite competition from the likes of A.S. Byatt, J.M. Coetzee and Hilary Mantel.
“I’m quite calm about it,” she says simply. “I have no expectations.”