Thursday, September 13, 2012

Character Thursday: Caroline Ayres

Caroline Ayres is the closet you'll get to a protagonist in Sarah Waters post-WWII novel The Little Stranger.  Some may say that the narrator of the novel, a seemingly cool Dr. Faraday, is the protagonist.  I have some very definite opinions of Dr. Faraday and you don't want to read what I've written until you've read The Little Stranger.

Caroline is in her late twenties, but matronly for her age.  Tanned, awkward, husky, and unassuming she isn't a stereotypical aristocratic daughter.  She lives at the Miss Havisham-esque decaying manor -- Hundreds Hall -- with her mother and her brother, Roderick.  Sensible and assumed to be well on her way to spinsterhood, Caroline's practical, open, and honest personality is the cornerstone of Hundreds Hall.  Her mother is out-of-touch with post-war Britain's changing attitudes towards the landed gentry and her brother suffered some disfiguring burns and leg injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the war.  Roderick -- as he is the male heir -- manages the estate, but the stress and pain from his injuries wears him down.  Caroline -- and her dog Gyp -- provide some of the only normalcy in Hundreds; she does go out in public (her mother and brother rarely go out unless on Hall business).  Clever and honest, I have to say that I really like Caroline.  

She is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  Also awkward and matronly in dress, Caroline suffers from class snobbery.  She was raised in a wealthy home from a position of privilege and no matter how much she rejects the dilapidated yet grand Hundreds Hall she still maintains her coolness towards their servant Betty and -- in the beginning -- she is still quite cool and distant to Dr. Faraday.  I'm reminded a bit of Virginia Woolf who wrote quite extensively on women's rights to education and the importance of education for the poor, yet still had an elitist personal life and attitude at home.  Caroline has a temper, can be swayed by fantasy, and at time lacks empathy for others.  

During the war -- ironically -- Caroline was able to achieve some semblance of happiness.  She had friends, a job, and was free from the expectations and restrictions of her class.  The only reason why she returned to Hundred's Hall was to care for her badly injured brother and from worry over her mother.  Familial duty drew her back to Hundred's and was truly her only tie to the Hall.  She doesn't care for the house or the upkeep.  Caroline and the one teen servant manage the home, which means that she spends a fair amount of her time in scrubbing, cleaning, and shutting off rooms.  Resenting the house, she longs to be free of it despite some fond memories from her childhood.  Her goal is to forge herself an new identity in this changed England and be free of the restrictions of her class and gender.  She is willing to consider a very traditional path for women of this class and time:  marriage.  Even a marriage to a man she doesn't love is better than the captivity is feels enclosed in the mouldering walls of Hundreds Hall.  The other option for escape is to shake off the claims of others and leave the country for America or Canada and begin a new life.  The cost of not breaking free of Hundreds?  Poverty... Depression... and -- possibly -- Death. 

Caroline does grow as a person.  She tries to mold herself to the wishes and desires of others, but eventually she stands her ground, makes her own decisions, and is much more happy and free as a result.  At least for a time she is happy and free. 

*Spoilers ahead!!!!!

The Little Stranger is by far my favorite Sarah Waters' novel.  Part of the reason I love it is it has a maturity and depth that surpasses Waters' other works.  An example of this would be Waters use of the female body as a proprietary object.  Dr. Faraday, finds himself so close to -- in his delusional mind -- owning Hundreds Hall; he longs to possess the status, wealth, and respect of upper class and he truly feels that he is extraordinary enough to claim what was denied him at birth.  He nearly rapes Caroline which is an attempt to possess her body (her property).  He stops short of raping her with the little bit of self-control he has left.  His next approach is more insidious -- he gets back into her good graces by caring for her mother and then -- rather than asking her -- he tells her they are to be married. Caroline acquiesces.  Dr. Faraday plans the wedding with great gusto assuming that Caroline will be happy to be cared for and then once Caroline realizes that he doesn't mean to go to London and his true desire is Hundreds Hall, she rejects him.  Dr. Faraday is stunned.  It is almost as if he thought gender trumps class.  As a man he will dominate and possess what he feels is his right.  Caroline pushes back much to her detriment.  After her suspicious death an inquest rules it a suicide... her mind was disturbed... after all a woman who has experienced loss, is all alone, and cancels her wedding must be a prime target for mental illness.  The annihilation of her life yields him his desires and once again he have a story about a man who disregards a woman's right to own her own body, mind, and decisions.

The atmospheric setting and plot of The Little Stranger makes for a rich reading experience.  I think the ambiguity and complexity of the characters -- most especially Caroline Ayres -- will be what draws me to re-read The Little Stranger


Heather said...

Great post Amanda! Sounds like you have the same feelings I do for Dr. Faraday. *grumble*

Fanda said...

I never read the book, but from what you explore here, I like Caroline's character. It's not always easy to be a woman at that time, but Caroline has the courage to stand for her own life.

Thanks Amanda for the lovely Character Thursday! :)

Amanda said...

@Heather -- welp... we are book twins!

@Fanda -- I think you might like the book, Fanda.

nrlymrtl said...

This book had so much going on in it - the class differences, the crumbling of the landed gentry, the evolution of mental illness care, and gender difference.

Great character write up. I liked how Caroline's lawyer - handling the sale of the property, etc. - backed up Caroline's decision to change her life.

claire said...

Lovely homage to Caroline! Despite all the negative physical descriptions of her, I found her adorable. The Little Stranger is as yet the only Sarah Waters I've read but have a feeling it'll be my favourite, too, because of its maturity, just like you say.