16 October 2017

Affinity by Sarah Waters

It wouldn't be October without reading something atmospheric with a dash of spooky.  I feel that a  novel set during the Victorian era is something of a prerequisite for this time of year, when the nights draw in.  A lonely Gothic mansion ticks a lot of boxes, but a prison weeping with damp, squeaking with mice, and scattered with scurrying beetles works quite nicely as well.  And then there's the fog...

'....yellow fogs and brown fogs, and fogs so black they might be liquid soot - fogs that seem to rise from the pavements as if brewed in the sewers in diabolical engines.  They stain our clothes, they fill our lungs and make us cough, they press against our windows - if you watch, in a certain light, you may see them seeping into the house through ill-fitting sashes.'

Set during the first half of the 1870s, Margaret Prior begins regular visits to Millbank Prison.  As a respectable woman, she has been assigned the duty of speaking with female inmates in the hope they will be inspired to correct their criminal behaviour.  We won't get into the politics of why some women unjustly end up in prison as we're quite aware that starvation and abuse can lead to desperation. In any case, it soon becomes apparent that Margaret is herself under care, having recently recovered (physically, anyway) from a suicide attempt.

Living in Cheyne Walk with her mother, Margaret has experienced the death of her father and loss of her lover.  Helen has bent to the pressures of society and married Margaret's brother.  Margaret's heart breaks when she learns Helen will honeymoon in Italy, a trip the women had dreamed of taking together.  At nearly thirty years of age and unmarried, Margaret is both a disappointment and dependent on her mother.

'I saw her growing bitter, because her son and her favourite daughter had homes elsewhere - had gayer homes, with children and footsteps and young men and new gowns in them; homes which, were it not for the presence of her spinster daughter - her consolation, who preferred prisons and poetry to fashion-plates and dinners, and was therefore no consolation at all...'

Visiting the bleak prison in her mourning black, Margaret soon focuses on Selina Dawes.  While most of the prison is dark, it's almost as if a light shines from the young, fair woman as she sits in her cell, fingering a ball of wool.  Accused of fraud and assault during a seance which resulted in the death of another woman due to fright, the reader may wonder whether Selina's mystical powers are real or imagined.  Somehow, without visitors or letters, Selina holds a single violet in a room of stone.

As Margaret and Selina form a friendship, Selina tells Margaret things about her father that she couldn't possibly know.  Then items begin to appear or disappear from Margaret's room, leaving Margaret to believe that Selina does indeed possess mystical powers.  It's also possible that the chloral dispensed each night by Mrs Prior to keep Margaret from the verge of hysteria is muddling her thoughts.

Being extremely fond of London, it never fails to thrill when certain streets or places are named.  I found myself wondering how many houses separated Margaret's address from the Carlyles on Cheyne Walk and how the view of the Thames has changed since the 1870s.  The Reading Room at the British Museum is still a mystery but walking up the steps to the front door is not.  And I wondered which side of Great Russell Street the Association of Spiritualists was located on....fictitious or not.

There are plenty of topics to explore within this novel, such as the appalling prison conditions, mental illness, women's rights, housing, why single women were frowned upon but single men fussed over,  women's access to a bank account, and lack of social assistance.  Also, just what was going on behind the curtain during Selina's seances, and who is the mysterious Peter Quick?

A plot twist at the end of the story means I won't be passing my copy on to someone else just yet.  At some point I'm going to read this book again, to pick up on the clues that Waters has cleverly woven throughout.  Highly recommended as an ideal read for October!


  1. This sounds terrific. Can't think why I've never read it as I've loved everything else I've read by Waters.

  2. I read this years ago and can't remember anything about it! I must re-read it - you've made it sound irresistible! I also now have a hankering for some Wilkie Collins... (ps the book still hasn't arrived...I think we're rumbled!!) x