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14 - Sarah Waters: Representing Marginal Groups and Individuals

from Part IV - Realism, Postmodernism and Beyond: Historical Fiction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2017

Susana Onega
Affiliation:
Professor of English at the University of Zaragoza in Spain
James Acheson
Affiliation:
University of Canterbury
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Summary

Sarah Waters is the author of six bestselling and prize-winning novels: Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999), Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006), The Little Stranger (2009) and The Paying Guests (2014). Described by reviewers as lesbian fictions with metafictional, metahistorical and neo-Gothic traits, these novels display a striking generic hybridity, with elements of the sensation novel, the historical romance, the war novel, the London novel and the trauma novel, among others. Waters herself has acknowledged the influence of Dickens and of nineteenth-century ‘gothic writers’ like Wilkie Collins, Mary Shelley and the Brontës, alongside twentieth-century writers like John Fowles and A. S. Byatt, ‘who were at the heart of a sort of postmodern return to Victorian life and fiction’. Angela Carter also had a big impact on her, and in addition her work evinces the influence of Virginia Woolf and other early feminist writers like Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor. These influences situate Waters as a feminist writer with a thematic focus on lesbianism and as a postmodernist writer of historiographic metafictions.

A salient effect of feminist activism since the 1960s has been the appearance of feminist imprints of mainstream publishers, like Pandora Press, Virago Press and The Women's Press, and of radical/lesbian/women-of-colour-identified imprints such as Sheba Feminist Publishers, Onlywomen and Silver Moon Books. This phenomenon facilitated the general public's access to fictions traditionally catering for marginal cultural groups that triggered the popularity of British writers like Alan Hollinghurst and Jeanette Winterson. Sarah Waters belongs in the generation after Winterson, together with ‘contemporary writers like Stella Duffy, Ali Smith, Charlotte Mendelson and Joanna Briscoe’. Unlike Winterson, who is placed in the ‘posh’ and ‘exotic’ lesbian trend associated with Radclyffe Hall, Djuna Barnes and Daphne du Maurier, Waters insists on the unexceptionality of herself and her work. Her fictions are highly readable historical romances aimed at decentring totalising perspectives on sexuality and gender by bringing to the fore not just the existence but the normality of homosexuality in a largely heterosexual world. Before becoming a writer, Waters taught literature at a university and wrote a PhD thesis on lesbian and gay historical fiction.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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