Sarah Waters’ fourth novel

Reviewers in Britain have been delighted by Sarah Waters’ new novel, The Night Watch. Here’s Theo Tate on Waters’ process:

Waters is refreshingly open about how she writes her novels. She gets to know the writing of a period very well (Tipping the Velvet came out of a PhD in late-Victorian literature). She researches the social history: the fascinating stuff about how people lived, dressed, washed their teeth, had sex; what happened inside women’s prisons and private asylums. The fiction of the time gives her ideas for plot structure and motifs. In Fingersmith, the central device of putting a wife in the madhouse, the better to enjoy her fortune, comes from The Woman in White; the recurring emphasis on women’s strong and rather sinister hands in Affinity was suggested by the strange episode in Great Expectations, when Mr Jaggers shows off the hands of his housekeeper Molly — immensely powerful, “deeply seamed and scarred across and across”. Waters then digs around in the archives for juicy, entertaining details: the kind that show the period in a new but authentic-seeming light. For instance, the vintage smut in Fingersmith is historically documented. (The index of pornography that Christopher Lilly is working on is based on Henry Spencer Ashbee’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum.) The cheerfully anachronistic descriptions of lesbian underworlds in Tipping the Velvet are made a bit more convincing because they are based on accounts of male homosexual circles in the 1890s.

Of researching the forties London setting of The Night Watch, Waters says:

For information about 19th-century life I had been more or less limited to books; now I had films, photographs, sound recordings, civil defence records, the physical ephemera of war, and – since so many people in the 1940s felt compelled to make a record of the startling events they saw unfolding around them – a staggering selection of diaries and memoirs. On top of that, there was the fact of the period being still very firmly within living memory. Giving an early public reading from the half-finished manuscript, I found myself talking confidently about what the 1940s were “like” – then had the unnerving experience of looking around the room and realising that many members of my audience were old enough to recall the decade for themselves.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.