I first picked up a Sarah Waters novel as an undergraduate. I was buying books at the campus bookstore, and the book caught my eye because Sarah Waters was my great-grandmother’s name. Plus, the cover was beautiful. Reading the back, I was hooked. When I think about it now, I laugh at my naive self – at the time, buying a book for a class I wasn’t taking seemed illicit and dangerous. Yes, I know. I was a dork. No underage binge drinking or kegstands. Instead, I bought books THAT WERE NOT ON MY COURSE LIST.
After seeing The Little Stranger reviews the last couple months, I decided I needed to find more of her work. My library didn’t have any, but I filled out a handy little card with Affinity, and lo and behold, they called me last week to let me know they had acquired the book and were holding it for me. (I love the library).
A splendid example of Gothic literature, Affinity is an exploration of mental illness, spiritualism, confinement, and sexuality. Margaret Prior is “ill.” Her father has died and with him, any hope she may have of freedom. A spinster, she worked with her father, a writer and researcher of Renaissance art. He has promised Margaret a trip to Italy with her close friend (and, it appears, former lover) Helen. After he dies, though, Margaret sees a long, bleak life, caring for her mother. Her father’s friend Mr. Shillitoe intervenes and convinces Margaret and her mother to allow Margaret to visit Millbank, the local prison, as a Lady Visitor. There, she will show the inmates how to be a lady and, more importantly, will learn how much better she has it than the women she visits.
However, the prison seems to be the last place to heal the depressed young woman:
[Millbank’s] scale is vast, and its lines and angles, when realised in walls and towers of yellow brick and shuttered windows, seem only wrong or perverse. It is as if the prison had been designed by a man in the grip of a nightmare or a madness – or had been made expressly to drive its inmates mad. I think it would certainly drive me mad, if I had to work as a warder there. As it was, I walked flinchingly beside the man who led me, and paused once to glance behind me, then to gaze at the wedge of sky that showed above.
The prison is damp and dark, covered with lime and with women whose eyes
were terribly dull. Their faces were pale, and their necks, and their wrists and fingers, very slender. I thought of Mr. Shillitoe saying that a prisoner’s heart was weak, impressionable, and needed a finer mould to shape it. I thought of it, and became aware again of my own heart beating.
Margaret herself is impressionable, though, and as she follows the matrons on her tour, she stops to compose herself and becomes aware of one cell in particular, a cell closed off except for an inspection flap and the prisoner’s sentence hanging above it.
It was only from this, indeed, that I knew the cell was occupied at all, for there seemed to emanate from it a marvellous stillness – a silence, that seemed deeper yet than all the restless Millbank hush surrounding it. Even as I began to wonder over it, however, the silence was broken. It was broken by a sigh, a single sigh – it seemed to me, a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story; and the sigh being such a complement to my own mood I found it worked upon me, in that setting, rather strangely.
The woman prisoner, sentenced to four years because of fraud and assault is Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist. The novel switches between Margaret’s written diary and Miss Dawes’ own account of her activities as a spiritualist. Miss Dawes, taken in by Mrs. Brink, a lady obsessed with communicating with her mother’s spirit, holds dark circles (or seances) for Mrs. Brink and her friends. One fateful night, however, she sits with a young woman who is beaten during their session. When Mrs. Brink comes upon the scene, she has a heart attack and dies. Selina explains that her spirit guide Peter Quick hurts the young woman, but to no avail. She is imprisoned.
The two women are drawn to one another. As not quite lady but not quite thief, Selina enjoys the companionship, and Margaret feels bolstered. She is at first skeptical of Selina’s gift, but Selina sees things about Margaret she cannot. The two become close, and Selina calls Margaret by a secret name – Aurora. Selina tells her:
I feel your sorrow as darkness….Oh, what an ache it is! I thought at first that it had emptied you, that you were hollow, quite hollow, like an egg with the meat blown out of it. I think you think that, too. But you are not empty. You are full – only shut quite tight, and fastened like a box. What do you have here that you must keep locked up like that?
Selina hits upon it, and it seems to set Margaret burning. For Margaret has much hidden – she loves or loved Helen, now her brother’s wife; she wants to go to Italy and is jealous of her sister’s honeymoon there; she writes constantly, hiding her diary from her mother and the servants. She begins a sort-of symbiotic relationship with Selina. She strengthens, saying:
I knew my trips to her had made me too much like myself, like my old self, my naked Aurora self. Now, when I tried to be Margaret again, I couldn’t. It seemed to me that she had dwindled, like a suit of clothes.
But instead of the relationship sapping Selina of her strength as the dark circles did – Selina, too, seems emboldened by it. Margaret and Selina begin to make plans for an unbelievable escape, and Margaret stands up to her mother. She is tired of being discussed while her back is turned and wonders, when Stephen discusses her illness with her mother:
Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled?
Affinity was captivating for a lot of reasons, particularly for me because the correlation between much of the book and the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s one of my favorites – in fact, part of my graduate thesis focused on it – and the similarities were too blatant to ignore. Knowing it is one of Waters’ favorites sealed the deal. If you have read the story, look back at the first description of the prison: it’s spot-on Gilman. The narrator is convincing, even though she is, on closer examination, unreliable. The story is told through a diary, a forbidden means of expression. “Voice” is also a concern in both – who hears the narrator? There were actually points within the novel where I found myself wondering if Selina was part of Margaret’s psyche; she already has an alternate identity – Aurora – that makes her feel more like herself.
The novel, as most of Waters’ books, has an astounding twist, one that left me both haunted and betrayed. Because other than setting the tone masterfully, Waters has the ability to make me feel like her main character. At first, I was skeptical of Selina, but I, too, was drawn in by her and began to believe the spirits visited her. I believed she could escape through the help of her spirit friends, so at the end, (I won’t go into detail) the twist so startled me, I felt rocked, but not in the sense that it was implausible or not in keeping with the rest of the book. The somewhat unreliable narrator (Margaret is given chloral and laudanum through much of the story) felt believable and sympathetic. The one problem I had with the ending was not knowing the truth of Selina’s story. However, the more I thought about it, the more I could see the full effect of Waters’ writing. Much like Margaret, I was left in confusion. Bothersome though it may be, I wasn’t ever to know the truth of Selina’s story. Dark and oppressive, Affinity is an irresistible read – just think about starting it on a bright, sunny day, not a rain, dreary evening like I did…