I’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.