Margaret Prior’s spinsterhood is about to be thrown into glaring relief. Her sister is getting married and her brother has long been wed to Margaret’s friend Helen. As a lady, living in Victorian London, it’s considered an excellent idea for her to devote her time to charitable works. She’d once hoped to spend that time helping her father with his studies, but on his death, her choices have narrowed. She chooses to become a Lady Visitor to Millbank Prison, hoping that her visits will cheer up the inmates. At the prison, she meets Selina Dawes, a spiritualist medium who captivates Margaret almost immediately. As Margaret’s fixation with Selina grows stronger, she begins to fantasize about freeing her, and experiencing a life she’d thought long beyond her reach.
I’ve been thinking about this book ever since I read it – it’s wrapped its way into my head and hasn’t left yet. Sarah Waters never fails to disappoint me with thoughtful, intense books that provide excellent stories, well-rounded characters, and real issues that hover about in my head.
Let’s start with the spiritualist nature of the book, and of Selina herself. Victorians were incredibly keen on ghosts and talking with people who had passed on. In the book I just reviewed, Arthur and George, Julian Barnes also sees Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this light, a little bit, but Affinity naturally goes into much more depth. Like Waters’s later book, The Little Stranger, this novel plays with the extent to which we can believe in characters who experience phenomena that is beyond their understanding. Selina sends Margaret flowers and locks of her hair, and seems to know far more about Margaret than is possible. Nurtured in that atmosphere, it’s easy for Margaret to believe in everything Selina tells her, which I think reflects the relatively common Victorian attitude to acceptance of the supernatural in their everyday lives.
Margaret also has to deal with the difficult reality of being a lesbian in a world that doesn’t really acknowledge their existence. I mean – we have trouble with this today, and over 100 years ago, the situation was much worse. Her first love, Helen, rejected her for the more traditional route of marriage to man – Margaret’s own brother. Now, Margaret is bereft, between the loss of her beloved father and her lover, leaving a massive gap that a girl like Selina could much more easily enter. After all Margaret’s been through, she’s longing for that love, that acceptance.
The story also alternates with Selina’s life before the prison, so we can learn a little bit about how she got there in the first place. Together with Margaret’s story, these two halves combine to make the final twist come to life as we understand it. That twist is something I sort of anticipated, given I’d been warned by Ana that the book was sad, but I didn’t understand what was going to happen until, finally, it did. It is incredibly effective and well done, regardless. I loved the way the book came together with everything making perfect sense – I don’t mind open endings, but there is something satisfying about a book that tells you where you stand.
Well-constructed, with excellent characters and spectacular atmosphere, this is a book that is well worth your time.