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.

North and South by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Illustration to the North and South (novel by ...

Illustration to the North and South (novel by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, I have still been reading.  But no, I did not find the precious time to blog about the books that have filled my summer and autumn months.  LIfe took an unexpected turn for the hectic over the summer period but all has now returned to a, more or less, even keel as far as home and work are concerned so I am back to nearly normal routines.

So, to the book.  This book was a downloaded freebie ebook from the Guttenberg Project that I read on my iPad over the course of many weeks.  I generally have a few ebooks on the iPad, usually free classics, just in case of an unexpected book emergency – that would mean being somewhere without a work of fiction in hardcopy format.  I much prefer an actual rather than virtual book, however when faced with a choice between virtual or non-existent I will pick virtual every time.  I also have to confess to not reading this one on the train. Are there never any book emergencies on the train?  Well yes they do occur, but I refuse to use my iPad during high school rush hour.  This book was read over several weekends spent in rural Buckinghamshire when left to my own devices and nothing in particular to do other than work on the thesis.

Now, as far as North and South goes I thought I had read this book before.  Not so however.  I was only a short way into the book when I realised that I was confusing it with another of Gaskell’s books, Mary Barton, which I had read when a teenager as part of my secondary school English literature reading.  I have also read a fair few Victorian novels by Gaskell, Austen and the Brontes, among others and as time has passed I must admit to conflating some of them together, particularly if they were required reading. I read these books now, despite the fact that at times I find the language and style challenging, as I am fuelled by the conviction that, poetic licence aside, there is, on some level, a degree of contemporary social commentary going on in this genre of book.  A commentary that provides a little window that looks upon the way people lived in the past and the conditions under which they lived.  What made me pick this one up over the summer? I can’t actually remember now, I expect it was something I saw in passing, or some random trail of internet links.

North and South was Gaskell’s fourth novel but her second industrial (or social) novel – the first being Mary Barton. Both novels examine issues of employee-employer relations set against the backdrop of Manchester, or Milton as it is called in North and South.  However, whilst Mary Barton is focused on the working classes and their issues in North and South Gaskell turns her attention to the industrial ruling classes and the mill owners.  The protagonist of the book is Margaret Hale, the daughter of a Church of England clergyman, who has spent her formative years with her Mother’s wealthy sister in Harley Street, London.  On the marriage of her cousin Margaret returns to the family home in the rural New Forest village where her Father is vicar.  Not long after returning home however, the Rev. Hale, having become a dissenter, leaves his Church living and moves the family to the northern town of Milton to take up tutoring wealthy industrialists.  Margaret finds the move north quite an unsettling experience at first, however she eventually meets some of the local working class and learns to appreciate the difficulties they face in their lives.

While the Hales are living in Milton there is industrial unrest between the mill owners and the workers who eventually go on strike, a reflection of the industrial unrest that occurred in the Lancashire mill towns that Gaskell would have experienced first hand.  The fictional strike culminates in something of a riot at Thornton’s mill, owned by one of Rev. Hale’s pupils not particularly liked by Margaret.  During the ruckus Margaret, who was at the mill on an errand for her ailing Mother, is injured after coming to the aid of Thornton.  Thornton realises his love for her and proposes, Margaret declines.  Not long after the strike Margaret’s Mother dies, closely followed by her Father.  Being left alone Margaret returns to the home of her Aunt in Harley Street.  However, Margaret soon inherits property and wealth from a friend of her Father.  She discovers she is Thornton’s landlord, who is now in financial difficulties.  Margaret comes up with a business proposal for Thornton which she puts to him.  At this point both Margaret and Thornton realise they love one another and decide to marry.

The book is very much one of contrasts and tensions.  A very clear contrast is that between the rural and industrial.  First we have the rural, bucolic, south that Margaret returns to after her cousin marries juxtaposed with the grimy industrial north where Margaret moves to after her Father becomes a dissenter.  There are also stark contrasts and differences between Thornton and Margaret, which is at the heart of their not getting on and being at loggerheads for much of the plot. Both characters are world’s apart in background and in attitude.  Margaret is from a more genteel way of life whereas Thornton is a self-made factory owning man.

However, the key contrast for me is in the representation of Margaret Hale with respect to the other female characters, in particular her family, who are represented as being quite faint hearted and delicate.  Margaret’s character however was much stronger, often she being the one that both her Father and her Mother relied upon.  In fact it is Margaret’s strength of character that Thornton finds so attractive and what made me like the book.  Margaret Hale has a strong character, unusually so, it would appear for her time and place.  However, I have many reservations about the weakness of the so-called fairer sex in past times.  History, and literature, being written in the main, by men is not overly concerned with, or about, women.  As such, I feel sure that women were depicted as items of ornament with dull and uninteresting characters.  It is only when we read the likes of Gaskell that we get full-bodied women such as Margaret Hale.