Affinity by Sarah Waters

Cover of "AFFINITY (VIRAGO V S.)"
Cover of AFFINITY (VIRAGO V S.)

I finished this Sarah Waters book a while back, in fact it was finished just before Tom died.  However, riding the train to work, reading, and writing – whether for pleasure, procrastination purposes or in fact work – was put on the back burner after Tom died.  My partner and I took time out from work to come to terms with our loss and the big Tom shaped hole in our lives and to start rebuilding our lives together.  Happily the time out for ourselves has healed and renewed us and we are back into our working routines again.  So, it is time for me to get back into the writing habit, even if it is off work topic!

Affinity, the second book published by Sarah Waters is a Victorian gothic horror with lesbian undercurrents. It is unusually written in that rather than being divided up into traditional chapters the book is entirely composed of diary entries that juxtapose the pre-prison life of the villain of the piece, Selina Dawes, against the on-going activities of the protagonist, Margaret Prior, where we meet Selina in the present as a prisoner.  Whilst at times annoying, this style is in fact what encouraged me to continue reading as, via this device, we discover the events that lead to Selina being in prison, watch the relationship between Selina and Margaret develop, and witness an unexpected ending unfold.  And, it is in this approach to the telling of the tale that brings out the atmosphere of suspense and tension which is what drives the reader forward to discover what happens next.

In summary, the story tells the tale of Margaret Prior, a genteel upper-middle class woman, or should I say lady, who is in her late 20s.  Margaret is unmarried and, as is usual and expected in the later half of the 19th Century, living in the family home with her, soon to be married, younger sister and her recently widowed mother.  In the beginning we learn that Margaret is struggling following the death of her father which precipitated a suicide attempt.  As a means of recovery, and to escape the clutches of her mother, a woman who has Margaret’s best interests at heart but would rather she act in a manner fitting the station of a middle class spinster, Margaret becomes a lady visitor to the women in Millbank Prison where she befriends the imprisoned spiritualist medium Selina Dawes.  Over the course of her visits Margaret develops an intense friendship with Selina, which, we learn late in the book, has very much been manipulated by the convict, and of course ends in tragedy.

In keeping with the tension and suspense, Waters leaves more to the imagination than she makes explicit which works for her in many ways.  It is successful as a plot device as it continually presses you to keep reading and discover what happens next.  However she also leaves the reader asking questions about the nature of the special friendship Margaret had with Helen, her brother’s wife; the nature of this friendship is never actually stated, was it lesbian or not? Was it in the vein of a Boston marriage? Although as the two women were not living together independently then that is unlikely.  Are we to imagine a close, romantic friendship between the two women as was accepted and acceptable at the time for women along the way to eventual marriage?  The lesbian desire question is also apparent within the developing relationship between Margaret and Selina.  What is left unstated about the nature of the female relationships in the book works for Waters on two levels.  By not being explicit she does not alienate the much larger straight population from engaging with her novels.  However, despite this approach of not making clear the relationship position between her key characters lesbian readers can read into the situation whatever they will and so Waters keeps both audiences happy. This ambiguity is very much reflected in my favourite quote of the book:

“It is the same with spinsters as with ghosts; and one has to be of their ranks in order to see them at all”  p.59

All that said, a quick and dirty straw poll among those I know who read Waters books seems to divide who likes what with lesbian readers appearing to like the more explicitly stated lesbian novels than those verging towards assumption and guesswork.  Whilst, those of a straight persuasion seem to like her works that have little, or less overtly stated, lesbian content such as with The Little Stranger, which for me was a penance to work through.  I would say that the tensions that Waters set up in Affinity worked much better for me than in The Little Stranger, and yes, this book does work as a gothic horror.  But, and maybe this is more because of personal preferences, for me Waters best offering to date is The Night Watch.

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