Affinity ~ Sarah Waters

In August of  1873, Selina Dawes conducts the fateful séance that leaves her patron dead of a heart attack and other participants  injured. Shift to a year later (September 1874) and Margaret Prior. Margaret is one of those Victorian ladies that is “high strung”, prone to becoming over excited. Margaret, is also recovering from a suicide attempt, and begins visiting the women inmates of Millbank prison as a “Lady Visitor”. By this time, Millbank houses the infamous medium Selina Dawes. The novel moves back and forth between the brief accounts of Dawes, and the longer passages where Margaret is the narrator,. 

Waters is on familiar ground here, with her ghosts and séances. In The Little Stranger, one of this years Booker finalists, there were also seriously strange goings on in an increasingly dilapidated manor house. There though, it was the ‘man’ of the manor with the fragile psyche and drug dependency. In Affinity, Waters second novel from 2000, Margaret Prior is hooked on the gateway drug “chloral”, which she takes as a sleep aid. Laudanum is not far behind. Morphine is right around the corner.

Waters gives an early nod to The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins. In that ‘first’ detective novel, the protagonist (Rachel) has a large, extremely valuable diamond that is stolen one night while she sleeps. Laudanum junkie Franklin Blake is suspected of taking the diamond and hiding it somewhere. He forgets where. The prospect of this as a believable plot device was much discussed in Dan Simmons’ Drood.  Waters has Margaret’s special locket (of great sentimental value) go missing in a similar fashion. The missing locket is the first of many strange occurrences involving Margaret.

The locket itself contained a lock of a friend’s (Helen) hair. Helen is now married to Margaret’s brother. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Margaret has the ‘forbidden’ love bug. Helen though, has decided to play it straight. It’s still the 1870′s, dontcha know.

With her many visits to the prison, and on the rebound, Margaret becomes increasingly enamored of Selina Dawes. Dawes exerts a power over her that has Margaret increasingly weak-kneed in her presence. Selina assesses Margaret’s visits thus:

‘You have come to Millbank, to look on women more wretched than yourself, in the hope that it make you well again.’

Margaret sees the truth in this, but is undeterred. Her wretchedness takes the form of a virulent self-loathing. A self-loathing perhaps borne of the fact that she is ‘different’. Reading accounts of the Dawes trial, Margaret comes across a passage regarding the testimony of Madeline Silvester.

There are three attempts to question her, and she breaks down weeping at every one. Mrs. Silvester I don’t much care for – she reminds me of my mother. Her daughter, however, I hate: she reminds me of myself.

The affinity of the title, refers to that frowned upon attraction for members of the same sex. Whether there is a real affinity between the two women, or whether there’s a con in progress is the stuff of the novel. There’s an excellent plot twist near the end that forgives a lot of earlier complaints I may have had about the book. This makes it ultimately a satisfying read.

♦♦♦

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