Affinity by Sarah Waters
During my trip to Ireland, I bought a copy of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, her 1950s gothic novel. I’ve been meaning to get around to that (and the rest of my small Irish haul) ever since I set foot back in America, but I felt like I couldn’t until I finished her “Victorian Women in Love” trilogy (there’s a snappier title out there, surely?)—I’d already read and loved Fingersmith, recommended heartily during 2010 in the book blogging community, and I’d loved Tipping the Velvet, so as my work load for this semester increased, Affinity seemed like a pretty sure bet.
Affinity opens with Margaret Prior, an upper-class woman recovering from a failed suicide attempt and finally deemed well enough for outside work, beginning volunteer work at the grim and imposing Millbanks Prison in 1970s London. As a Lady Visitor, Margaret visits the convicts and, ideally, inspires them to aspire to be good. But one prisoner in particular catches Margaret’s eye: Selina Dawes, a spiritual medium serving time for an seance gone wrong, where the client suffered trauma and Dawes’ female patron died. As Margaret spends more and more time with Selina, she becomes convinced of Selina’s spiritual powers… and falls in love.
I rarely read things at seasonally appropriate times. Even this summer, when I had a bit more leeway as my reading was concerned, I still found myself on the moors or the Orkney Islands even as I hid inside from a heat advisory. (Although St. Elmo’s Fire is definitely a summer movie, despite its winter setting.) So when I picked up Affinity at the beginning of October, it didn’t feel like Halloween at all. But as the days crept on (I told you my workload was heavy), the temperatures decreased, and I spent one particularly hideously cold night in my unheated building, Affinity became the perfect Halloween read. Millbanks, the prison, is incredibly oppressive and insidious, like the best horror, and Selina’s gifts seem less saintly and more sinister (she’s regularly tied down during her seances), even as Margaret’s judgement becomes more and more clouded. The world of Affinity—all prisons and seances and oppressive home lives—is not a pleasant one to inhabit; Waters herself calls it “a very gloomy world”. I’m extremely squeamish when it comes to gore, so this is just the kind of horror that I can get into, especially around this time of year.
The novel consists of excerpts from Selina’s journal and Margaret’s journal—Selina’s are from before her imprisonment, while Margaret’s function as the main narrative. While Selina’s entries show us an earnest young medium trying to keep herself afloat, it’s hard to get a handle on her character through them, which, as the end of the novel proves, is a calculated tactic on Waters’ part. It’s Margaret that the reader really comes to know, trying to make herself useful after her father’s death, her suicide attempt, and, as we later learn, a broken heart. It can be easy to only empathize with Margaret—she has an overbearing mother, she’s a spinster, and she’s very aware of her status in a society that oppresses women—but Waters complicates her by showing her self-hatred and making her classism a central point in the climax of the novel. Usually, when classism is addressed in any Victorian setting, it’s from the perspective of the oppressed, but getting at it from a different angle, no matter how briefly Margaret’s eyes are opened to it, is an interesting touch.
So when it comes to Waters’ “Victorian Women in Love” trilogy, Affinity has a bit more in common with Fingersmith than Tipping the Velvet, but even Fingersmith has moments of levity and true heart. But Affinity’s sweetness can be bitter; even as Margaret experiences a transcendent moment when Selina simply looks at her, she’s stunningly aware of how fragile and secretive the moment is. Readers expecting something along the lines of Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet will be inevitably disappointed, even as they recognize Margaret’s Victorian London as the same Waters’ other heroines have trod. Instead, I would approach Affinity as Waters trying her hand at some semblance of horror or, at least, the Gothic. Heck, you should probably save it for next October…
Bottom line: Sarah Waters’ Affinity has less in common with her Fingersmith or her Tipping the Velvet with its spooky tone and gloomy, oppressive atmosphere, but it’s a perfect Halloween read for those too squeamish for gore. Worth a shot.
I rented this book from the public library.