Made Up Quotes – Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests

A longer (abridged) quote today, dear readers, from The Paying Guests, set in 1920s London:

Oh, Frances,  you look lovely. Oh, the colour suits  you. You’re lucky. If I wear green it makes me look like a corpse. But, yes, it suits you. All it needs is a bit of work.’ Coming close, she began to tug the frock into shape with brisk, professional fingers. ‘The waist wants lowering, for a start. It’ll be quite a different gown, then. It’ll show how lovely and slim you are – oh, I’d give anything be slender like you! – but the line will be softer…’

She spoke without a blush, quite unself-conscious, as if it were perfectly natural that she should have been studying and forming opinions on Frances’s ankles, Frances’s hips, the style of Frances’s underwear. But then, of course, women like Lilian gazed at other women all the time. They gazed at them, really, far more often than men did. They noticed, they judged, they admired and damned, they coveted bosoms, complexions, mouths … She was drawing up the hem now. ‘This ought to be raised. See how it’s better?’

‘But I don’t want it raised.’

‘Just an inch or two, for the party? I should have thought you’d like ladies to have shorter skirts. You don’t want us to go out hobbled.’


‘Stay just like this, while I fetch my pins!’

There was no resisting her. She ran for her work-basket and returned to measure and mark, moving Frances’s limbs about as if they were those of an artist’s dummy. She loaded the frock with so many pins that when it was time for Frances to remove it she had to inch herself out of it, afraid for her skin.

There is SO much going on in this extract. I love how Sarah evokes the quite business-like intimacy of fitting another woman’s dress to her body. In my experience, any concern about personal space disappears when I need help with a bodice fitting. I’ve happily climbed in and out of clothes in front of fellow sewing students.

Also, the assessing way in which Lilian inspects Frances’s body – partly with a technical gaze, but partly because that’s just what other women do. My ex-boyfriend’s mum always says, ‘Women dress for other women.’ Is this true?

And then there is the subtext. (Look away now if you don’t want a spoiler!) This re-fashioning of a tired party dress is part of an intricate preamble to seduction. Lilian and Frances are soon to become lovers. Never has the danger of a piercing pin prick been more emblematic, as Frances worries for her skin. Skin about to spring to life under a very different touch.

Have you read any Sarah Waters? I love this historical novelist who brings her own interesting twist. I wish I could ask if she’s ever sat at a sewing machine.

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25 Responses to Made Up Quotes – Sarah Waters

  1. I love Sarah Waters, but I have not read this one, suspecting it is not up to Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith… is it good???

  2. Lisa Raison Trehy says:

    What a coincidence! My husband asked me about half an hour ago what was my favourite book I’ve read this year and I said The Paying Guests. I love the writing of Sarah Waters. I get utterly immersed in the stories and characters and there is always a twist. Brilliant.

  3. Jane says:

    I’m a BIG fan of Sarah Waters, I’ve read all her novels and enjoyed every one of them. I like the way she paints very convincing pictures of particular time periods. This is often through descriptions of clothes, home and surroundings, but also the way her characters talk to each other and the little social differences she picks up on. She’s meticulous.
    I loved The Paying Guests by the way and remember sitting bolt upright when I started reading the dress fitting extract. It was so accurate! x

  4. Karen Dodgson says:

    Thank you for introducing me to a new (to me!) author. Ordered the book and can’t wait to read it now!

  5. sew2pro says:

    I love Sarah Waters; she is one of the very few writers I can’t wait to reread!

  6. Eliza-sew-little says:

    Eeck! I should have stopped when you said spoiler alert. I’m part way through. That’s not what I expected to happen! Must go back to read more.
    But I did smile at that passage too. Inhibitions do go when you’re dress fitting.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Yes! The UK cover is so much better than the US one, I think. I haven’t yet read any of her others, despite them being on my list to read. Does sewing ever feature in any of them? Perhaps that would be a bit of a clue as to her own sewing thoughts. Although, sewing is such a part of women’s history, it would have to be included, wouldn’t it?

  8. Come on now Eliza, this IS Sarah Waters! lol lol

  9. Cherry says:

    I have read most of Sarah’s books and loved them especially the twists. I read your quote from the new one (which I haven’t yet bought) as a very loving and caring encounter whether prior to a seduction or not. As demented fairy says this is Sarah Waters so no surprise but actually I find sewing together with other women, I sew regularly with a group of lifelong friends and we make a playmat for each of our children’s babies as they come along – 11 and counting, is a wonderfully intimate time whatever your sexuality.

  10. I have read quite a few Sarah Water’s books and I really enjoyed this one. It was a fast read for me as I couldn’t wait to get to the end (no spoilers from me though). I liked that there was some sewing in it. I rarely sew with anyone but I do fit a lot and it is quite intimate as you have to *really* pay attention to someone’s baby rather than just observe in passing. Xx

  11. Thank you, I’ve been looking for a new author to obsess over! 🙂

  12. I saw The Night Watch on the telly and loved it but haven’t read anything of hers. This is going on the wish list.

  13. I love her books but found this a little slow going and predictable in places but this could be because I was reading it with a newborn baby so I only got to read small snatches at a time. Affinity has to be my favourite of hers.

  14. Andrea says:

    What a rich narrative … I haven’t read anything in a while. Looks like I’ll have to pick up this book!

  15. Robin says:

    When you mentioned the seduction between Lilian and Frances, then I remembered who Sarah Waters is. Tipping the Velvet was a terrific read. She can really capture an era, and I learned so much about performers and theatrical performances, and I also Enjoyed reading about the clothes and class differences with interest. And the scandalousness (is that a word?) was delicious!

  16. Annelieke Schauer says:

    You know, I loved that book, and she writes beautifully. My only problem with it was that even in a world like now where women can love other women openly, not all of the men are weak or stupid, and in that book there were almost NO males who were worth anything except the dead ones. That said, it was a lovely read. And fabric and clothes were huge, and I missed that connection to what I do now. Thanks for mentioning it!

  17. Jan Carr says:

    I ‘read’ The Paying Guests’ by listening to Juliet Stevens reading it… while sewing! I loved both the book and the reading.

  18. Melizza says:

    I LOVE Sarah Waters. Fingersmith is one of my favorite books of hers. I luckily got to meet her while I was working on my Masters at Roehampton. Got her to sign my copy. She’s the bee’s knees.

  19. rebeccawip says:

    your auick analysis of a snippet of a book just had me put this in my cart over on audible! love hte concept. love yor reflexions on it. thank you

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