Affinity

AffinityI’ve been reading Sarah Waters’s books in something close to reverse publication order (although I read Fingersmith before The Night Watch). So now I’ve reached her second book, Affinity, which feels rather like a warm-up for the brilliant Fingersmith. To explain why may require spoilers for both books, but I shall attempt to be vague.

The bulk of the text in Affinity is the diary of a wealthy Victorian woman named Margaret Prior who has recently suffered a personal tragedy involving the death of her father and some additional troubles whose nature slowly becomes clear. In an effort to get past her own difficulties, she becomes a Lady Visitor at Millbank prison, where she offers a listening ear to the women inmates. She proves to be a kind and sympathetic visitor to all the women she meets, but it is the spiritualist Selina Dawes who interests her the most. Here, she sees Selina for the first time:

She was seated upon her wooden chair, but had let her head fall back and had her eyes quite closed. Her knitting lay idle in her lap, and her hands were together and lightly clasped; the yellow glass at her window was bright with sun, and she had turned her face to catch the heat of it. On the sleeve of her mud-colored gown was fixed, the emblem of her prison class, a star—a star of felt, cut slant, sewn crooked, but made sharp by the sunlight. Her hair, where it showed at the edges of her cap, was fair; her cheek was pale, the sweep of brow, of lip, of lashes crisp against her pallor. I was sure that I had seen her likeness, in a saint or an angel in a painting of Crivelli’s.

As Margaret gets to know Selina, the two women form a bond—an affinity, Selina calls it. But Selina is in prison and Margaret closely watched by her family, so they cannot act on their growing love, never mind that Selina is a convict, a spiritualist, and a woman and thus an entirely inappropriate partner. Margaret wonders at one point which quality of Selina’s would scandalize her family the most. 

Selina’s connection to the spiritual realm comes to their aid, as the spirits take gifts and messages to bind the two women together. And Selina believes that with the spirits’ help, they can escape their circumstances and make a life together.

We learn of Selina’s history through a series of her own diary entries, charting her rise to prominence as a medium and the events that led to her conviction for fraud and assault after a séance went wrong, leading to the death of her patroness and the mental disturbance of her client, who claimed to have been assaulted by Peter Quick, Selina’s spirit guardian. 

Waters cleverly holds back key pieces of information about Selina, leaving readers to search between the lines for details about what actually happened. Having already read Fingersmith, I was on the alert for clues regarding Selina’s trustworthiness, so I figured out a good deal of what was going on before it was finally revealed. In fact, aside from a few details, I found the basic plot to be rather obvious. I don’t think, however, that this is a serious flaw because what’s really interesting about the story is in the way the characters, especially Margaret, fall under others’ control.

Margaret, as a single woman, must follow the instructions of her family to maintain her respectability. But we learn that she does have more opportunities for freedom than are immediately obvious. Her father’s will left her wealthy, and if she were willing to strike out on her own, she could. There would be a cost—her family would no doubt disapprove—but it is feasible. It takes her longing for Selina to make her break out of her supposed bonds. But this choice binds her to Selina, and what Selina does will ultimately seal Margaret’s fate.

Although she is in prison, Selina has freedom in her mind. Her mind enables her to manipulate others, whether they be spirits or servants or ladies in need of a friend. But the book’s ambiguous ending leaves me wondering whether Selina is herself acting freely. Is the manipulator being manipulated? That’s one of the things I like about Sarah Waters. She writes tight plots, but leaves enough questions unanswered that her books stick with you.

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14 Responses to Affinity

  1. I’m still circling around the whole Sarah Waters reading experience. The Little Stranger is the only title I have read so far, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have that copy of The Night Watch that you encouraged me to buy. And some time on my hands. And you’ve caught me here with the thing I loved most about my one Waters read – the skillfully utilized ambiguity. Hmm….. And I hope your holiday was a very merry one filled with new books! Hope to see you soon!

    • Teresa says:

      I hope you make time for The Night Watch soon. It’s a wonderful book, as all her books are. And I hope you too had a merry Christmas–we need to get together soon!

  2. Rohan says:

    Affinity is my least favorite of her books but I’ve been thinking I should reread it — and also The Little Stranger, because I’ve just read The Franchise Affair which I believe was in some ways her pushing-off point for that one. I really admire that her books are all quite different from each other, not just in setting or ideas but in tone or form: she seems like a writer confident and smart enough to take risks, and that (with, as you point out, her ambiguity) makes the books repay rereading! I have assigned Fingersmith (which I too think is brilliant!) in a course on 19thC sensation fiction (we read Collins, Braddon, and Mrs Henry Wood as well) and the students were thrilled by it, as you can imagine.

    • Teresa says:

      This may be my least favorite so far, but that’s not much of an insult, as I liked it a lot. I agree that one of the things that makes her writing so good is that she’s willing to try different things, but I also like that all her books feel like Sarah Waters books. I’m so excited that she has a new book coming out next year.

  3. Alex says:

    I seem to have a blind spot where Waters is concerned. I have tried and failed to read both ‘Fingersmith’ and ‘The Night Watch’ but gave up on both quite simply because I was bored. It seems from what you say that I probably wouldn’t have any better luck with the earlier novels. Having said that, when she next publishes, I will try again because so many people whose views I respect think so highly of her.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t think there’s a single writer out there who suits everyone, but I am always surprised when someone whose taste is so similar to mine doesn’t connect with an author I love. But it happens.

      This got off to a slower start than her other books, so it’s probably not the one to win you over, unless Victorian prisons and spiritualism are inherently interesting to you.

      • Alex says:

        I’ve just seen an announcement for Waters’ next novel, ‘The Paying Guests’ due out in October. From what little was said it looks as if it’s going to be more along the lines of ‘The Night Watch’ than her Victorian novels. I promise to at least give it a go.

  4. aartichapati says:

    I think this was my first Sarah Waters book, so it has a special place in my heart. I have The Night Watch by her left to read still – I should do that before her next book comes out!

  5. I agree that Affinity feels like a dress rehearsal for Fingersmith, with Water’s trying the gothic on for size. Of all her books it’s my least favourite. But I recently reread it after rereading Tipping the Velvet and realised what a departure it was from the writing of that first book, and it made me see it in a different light. It seemed less derivative. I’m so so excited to see what Waters does in her next book, The Paying Guests. September can’t come soon enough! I keep thinking of it as the third in a trilogy that started with Night Watch and The Little Stranger, and I love those so much.

    • Teresa says:

      I think this suffers when read after Fingersmith because she does so much that’s similar in the two books. But on its own it’s quite good. I’m excited about the new book and love that she keeps changing up the periods she writes about.

  6. If Affinity was a warm-up for Fingersmith, that would explain why it disappoints me every time I try to read it (many times now!). But I’m going to try again. I am stalwart. A question for you: Reading the end of Fingersmith provided me with virtually no information about the contents of the book up to that point; Tipping the Velvet, same thing. Is that also the case with Affinity? I will still read it if so but I’d like to be prepared.

    • Teresa says:

      I think it would depend on how far back you go in reading the end. If you only read the last chapter, which is maybe a page, you won’t learn much. More than that, and you’d know whether things turn out well for the main character and learn that certain characters are more important than you’d realize reading it straight through the first time. You’d learn more than with Fingersmith, I think.

  7. Affinity was the only one I perhaps wouldn’t read again, although it is also the one I suspect I would get most from a re-reading, as that trickling out of clues (and hiding of information) might make more over-arching sense to me then. Tipping the Velvet is a wonderful complement to Fingersmith – you’ve got a treat in store.

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