The Night Watch

Sarah Waters, The Night Watch (2006)

What it’s about: London, the 1940s. The story opens in 1947, following four characters damaged in various ways by the Second World War. Kay is a lesbian who lives a ghostly life in a flat above a faith healer’s clinic, dressing in men’s clothes and going for long walks alone; her only human contact is Mickey, another butch lesbian with whom Kay worked as an ambulance driver during the Blitz. Helen and Viv are friends who run a matchmaking agency, hiding  from each other their respective relationships. Helen lives secretly (and unhappily) with her lover Julia, a successful writer of science-fiction stories, while Viv is conducting an unsatisfying affair with Reggie, who is married with children. Viv’s younger brother Duncan works in a candle factory and has recently been released from prison for an unspecified crime involving a dead man named Alec. Duncan lives with an elderly man, Mr Mundy, and accompanies him once a week to the faith healer’s house where Kay lives. Duncan meets up with one of his fellow prisoners, Robert, a middle-class man on whom Duncan had and still has a crush. The 1947 sequence concludes with Viv, returning to the city after an uncomfortable country drive with Reggie, meeting Kay outside a cinema and giving her a gold ring. The story moves backwards in time to 1944, at the height of the Blitz. Kay is working as an ambulance driver, working long night shifts to rescue families from bombed buildings and recover the bodies of victims. She is living with Helen, whom she adores and lavishes with expensive gifts. Helen hides her unhappiness from Kay and becomes attracted to Kay’s friend Julia, who works as an inspector of bombed buildings. After a birthday outing with Kay that goes sour, Helen goes out at night to meet Julia: they go for a long walk through London’s East End during an air raid, and Helen confesses her love to Julia. Duncan is in prison, struggling with guilt and depression. Mr Mundy, the prison warden, is kind to him, giving him cigarettes and sugar, and makes a sexual pass at him which Duncan passively accepts. Duncan confesses to his cellmate that he was imprisoned for attempting suicide after his friend Alec died. Vi discovers that she is pregnant, and tries unsuccessfully to induce an abortion. Reggie pays for her to visit an abortionist, but Vi haemorrhages badly after the operation and nearly dies. Reggie calls an ambulance and promptly disappears; the ambulance driver, Kay, comforts Viv and gives her one of her own gold rings so she can pose as a married woman to the doctors. Later that evening, Kay discovers that a bomb has exploded near her flat. Fearing for Helen’s safety, she drives across London and discovers that her home has been destroyed. Helen and Julia appear, and Kay embraces them, unaware of Helen’s infidelity. The final part takes place in 1941. Vi meets Reggie on a train and they have an extended flirtation in a bathroom cubicle. Duncan’s friend Alec explains that he has been conscripted into the Army; the two plan a suicide pact, and Alec impulsively slits his own throat with a razor. Kay is despatched to rescue a woman from a bombed building: the woman, Helen, insists on Kay staying with her and holding her hand. Kay marvels at Helen’s beauty in the midst of so much destruction.

Why it’s a classic: Published just 12 years ago, The Night Watch possibly hasn’t accrued the patina of age and inter-generational popularity to qualify (yet) as a “classic”. A better choice for this project might have been Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters’ sensational debut novel about Victorian-era lesbians, published to great acclaim in 1998. Like Tipping the VelvetThe Night Watch shares an explicit agenda of queering the past, re-imagining key periods in English history from a lesbian perspective, and reinterpreting literary narratives that have traditionally been straight and male. As an author, Waters is something of a stealth act, adopting many of the reassuringly familiar traits of Victorian fiction – omniscient narration, densely plotted melodrama, a focus on psychological realism – into which she inserts same-sex desire, and characters who do and say things that never quite got mentioned in Bleak House or Middlemarch. It’s a quietly revolutionary strategy, giving Waters’ readers all the satisfaction of a chunky 19th century novel, while drawing our attention to those who were missing from those narratives, and the lives of people who have always been there. If that sounds didactic and a bit wearying, it isn’t – Waters’ novels are gripping and terrifically readable, with characters who feel properly of their time and place but with a questing dissatisfaction and curiosity that feels distinctly modern.

In The Night Watch, Waters re-imagines London during and just after the Second World War, one of the most mythologised periods in modern English history. The English – especially Londoners – are fetishistically attached to narratives about their stoicism during the Second World War. Clichés like “the Blitz spirit” are still in common usage in the UK, usually by Brexit voters and Tory MPs reminiscing about the “good old days” when Brits kept calm and carried on, uncomplainingly ate spam and powdered milk, and did without antibiotics or basic dentistry. Waters pulverises those myths and reconstructs them from the ground up, showing us London through the eyes of four characters who are, to varying degrees, outcasts. Duncan is as far away from the heroic ideal of wartime masculinity as possible, as a young gay man imprisoned for attempting suicide, and paralysed by the shame of his love for another boy, while Robert and Alec both risk social ostracism as conscientious objectors. Conversely, we have Kay as a new type of hero, a woman liberated by war who takes on the freedoms and responsibilities formerly only available to men. Julia, too, enthusiastically takes to life as a career woman and lives discreetly as a lipstick lesbian – like Kay, insulated somewhat from social pressures due to her class and education. In Viv and Helen’s stories, we see the ugly underside of all those wartime romance narratives, and the additional vulnerability of being female and working-class. Viv undergoes an excruciating backstreet abortion and nearly dies, while Helen also seems paralysed by the guilt and secrecy of keeping her sexuality a secret, ricocheting unhappily from Julia to Kay and ending up a suicidal mess. “There was still time, and the ship would turn for her and she would be saved,” Helen thinks, as she contemplates doing herself harm. “But she didn’t call, and in another moment there was no time at all; the ship had accelerated away and she was alone and helpless in a flat grey disc of sea.”All the characters speak at various points of the stress of living in a world where one could be killed at any moment, and the allure of suicide as a way out of the fears and disappointments of life. Waters’ ability to render the past freshly and without sentiment, and her empathy for lives damaged and opportunities wasted makes The Night Watch one of the most significant British novels of recent times, and arguably as important a war narrative as All Quiet on the Western Front or The End of the Affair.

Bouquet or Brickbat: An ash-stained bouquet. I’ve come rather late to the Sarah Waters Appreciation Society, falling in love with her last year when I read The Little Stranger, her intriguing take on a declining aristocratic class replaced by an egalitarian post-WWII world of social housing and the NHS. The Night Watch is a hugely enjoyable read that manages to satisfy all the dumb parts of my brain (What will happen next? Why is Duncan in prison? Why did Vi give Kay a ring? Did Julia really skin a rabbit herself to make those sandwiches?) while giving me considerable food for thought. The lives of gay and lesbian people is largely a secret history, and an incomplete one, since narratives about gay life were traditionally censored or destroyed. Through her fiction, Waters is able to imagine a complex and plausible gay history, creating a underground network of discreet looks, coded conversations, subtle innuendo and creative reading between the lines. Waters’ narrative gives her readers an idea of what it’s like to experience sexuality indirectly and secretively – the words “gay” or “lesbian” are never mentioned (Julia makes a satirical reference at one point to “the whole grisly “L” business“), and the timeline reversal means that we must wait for the characters’ shameful secrets to reveal themselves. Fortunately, Waters takes it upon herself to break that pattern of literary directness, articulating her characters’ sexual desires with honesty and passion. Waters understands the turbulent, quixotic nature of sexual desire, and the damage wrecked on people living in a culture where sexual expression is criminal and dangerous. While Waters is certainly alive to the subversive pleasures of living a secret sexual life,The Night Watch cuts deep and rings true for showing Kay, Helen, Vi and Duncan in disarray, struggling to make sense of themselves and live in a world that has no place for them. Kay and Helen’s dismal outing to Hampstead Heath neatly encapsulates the awfulness of life in the closet, that still resounds for a contemporary readership: “They had drawn closer together. But now, as before, a man and a girl came strolling along the path, beside their bench, and Helen drew away. She took out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. Kay watched the couple—who had paused to look at the view, like everyone else—and wanted to kill them. The urge to take Helen in her arms—and the consciousness that she must not do it—was making her twitch, making her ill.”

My major criticism of The Night Watch is that its back-to-front timeline prevents Waters from landing the type of big emotional climax that the narrative seems to demand. The “ending” of the story occurs in the first third of the novel, when we are still getting to know the characters, so Waters has to leave them suspended in mid-action rather than conclude the action too early. She wrings extraordinary pathos out of two set-pieces in the 1944 section: Helen and Julia’s extended night-time adventure through the streets of London, and Vi’s botched abortion, and there is a brief bloom of optimism at the novel’s close when we see Kay first fall in love with Helen, unaware of the horrors to follow. But ending at the beginning isn’t always satisfying. I finished The Night Watch feeling frustratingly backed into a corner, understanding where the characters had come from but sensing that I’d become lost in the past, and wanting desperately to know what they did with themselves next. This is, I suppose, evidence of the strength of Waters’ characterisation, that I believed so fully in their existence, but the effect is like a minor key jazz chord when you want a full-blown symphony.

Another (minor) niggle was that Duncan’s character, while psychologically well-drawn, never felt as fully physically inhabited as the women. Waters writes extraordinarily well about the physicality of her female characters, and what it feels like to inhabit a female body and desire another woman, but she can’t quite pull off the same effect with Duncan. In general, male characters share their feelings with each other rather more easily than feels plausible for this period. This is, I suspect, a deliberate strategy on Waters’ part, to provide an alternative version of masculinity to the “strong silent types” of British wartime fiction, but these scenes sometimes feel more motivated by Waters’ desire to advance key plot points than something flowing organically from the characters. Duncan is an appealing character, but he’s not a patch on Billy Prior in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy – or, for that matter, on Dr Faraday, the memorably damaged beta-male narrator of Waters’ The Little Stranger.

Quotable Quote: Was it a kind of idiocy or selfishness, to want to be able to give yourself over to trifles: to the parp of the Regent’s Park Band; to the sun on your face, the prickle of grass beneath your heels, the movement of cloudy beer in your veins, the secret closeness of your lover? Or were those trifles all you had? Oughtn’t you, precisely, to preserve them? To make little crystal drops of them, that you could keep, like charms on a bracelet, to tell against danger when next it came?”

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