There’s something great in ranking an author’s work by how much you personally like it: you can cause controversy by revealing to others your list and always feel like when you’re a child and know which toys you like more than others but don’t quite want to tell them. Here I present my personal ordered list of Sarah Waters books, in descending order because I’m not a clickbait article trying to get you to read to the end. For those new to Sarah Waters: she writes historical, famously-Victorian-but-only-half-are-Victorian novels mostly full of lesbians and dramatic plot lines.
- Tipping the Velvet – The Victorian stage show one with the famous TV adaptation and probably the quintessential Sarah Waters book. It’s also the one with lots of melodramatic love affairs, sex, and minor betrayal, rather than imprisonment or death or war, so it’s a fun place to start.
- The Night Watch – The melancholy 1940s one. The narrative runs backwards to show what the now post-war characters did during the war and how their lives are or have been interlinked. Makes you wish you could change what you know happens to them because you’ve already been told it. Probably not to everyone’s taste but I loved it.
- Fingersmith – The tense Victorian thriller with a twist one. Also the one most people seem to have read, from my personal experience. Gripping and awful at times, with elements from most images of the Victorian era you might have.
- The Paying Guests – The genre-change 1920s one. Starts off like a sad repressed lesbian story where they gaze at each other around the husband of one of them. Turns into a very different novel about a murder investigation.
- Affinity – The prison spiritualist depressing one. The Victorian prison scenes are claustrophobic and impressive, but it’s also about as far from the so-called romp of Tipping the Velvet as you can get.
Note: I’ve not read The Little Stranger so it can be the other 1940s one nobody has read.
February is LGBTQ history month here in the UK and for the first of hopefully a few posts to mark the occasion, I’m going to offer up some reading suggestions for Christopher Marlowe, everyone’s favourite suspiciously murdered, probable gay atheist spy playwright.
The title comes from the infamous ‘Baines note’, a document written by Richard Baines accusing Marlowe of saying ‘That all they that loue not Tobacco & Boies were fooles’ and also, amongst other things, ‘That St John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned alwaies in his bosome, that he vsed him as the sinners of Sodoma.’ Whether or not Marlowe did go around shouting such proclamations in late sixteenth century London (see Burgess’ novel A Dead Man in Deptford for the fictional image of him doing exactly that), his works show a fair deal of men loving men.
Marlowe is probably most famous (writing wise, as he’s probably most famous in general for being Shakespeare’s rival who was killed with a stab to the eye) for Doctor Faustus, his play on the Faust myth full of dramatic speeches on predestination, playing pranks on the Pope, and a devil a little too infatuated with Faustus, so I’m going to skip over that and start with the obvious for this list.
- Edward II – Marlowe’s play on the English monarch overthrown by his barons for not being a very good king and preferring to just give a load of titles to his favourites, particularly Piers Gaveston. Marlowe spends plenty of time emphasising how much Edward loves Gaveston, despite this being not so great for his realm, and comparing them to classical male lovers. Also famous for Derek Jarman’s incredibly artsy film adaptation which, among other things, adds in the word ‘fuck’.
- Hero and Leander – A narrative poem about the hardships of two heterosexual lovers doesn’t sound like Marlowe, but he does add in a narrator who gives a very lingering description of Leander’s naked back and claims that ‘in his looks were all that men desire.’ Plus he’s compared to Ganymede, Jupiter’s male love/obsession/cupbearer, and if there was ever a Marlowe drinking game, it would be for how often he references Ganymede.
- Dido Queen of Carthage – On that note, to see Ganymede and Jupiter in action (not quite like that), the opening scene of Marlowe’s play about Dido features them doing some godly fooling around before the plot begins. For basically no reason. Others of the four plays I’ve not mentioned here also mention Ganymede, unnecessarily.
- Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy by Park Honan – I’ve finished up with the best Marlowe biography out there, because he’s nothing if not fascinating to read about. Honan’s book is readable and doesn’t require you to have an infinite memory for the names of early modern spies (as Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning does, though it is also worth reading if you like Marlowe).