originally written 10/04/2011
I have read Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch as part of the summer reading regime for my MA course. I enjoyed it, though I did think the male characters were much less developed than the female characters. I thought to try another of her books, from the 19th century which seems to be her comfort zone. Because of my own interests and my fiction that uses Mesmerism as its theme, I thought Affinity would be a good place to start. While I enjoyed reading it as it went along and found it very hard to put down, the fifth part completely devastated me. Read this book only if you wish to have all faith in a nonrational world destroyed, to have the sanctity of love violated, to feel petty, mocked, and superfluous, if you wish to believe that everyone’s a conman (or woman).
What has set much of Sarah Waters’ work apart from other historical writers (besides the pervasive, sensual but subtle themes of lesbianism) is its use of time-keeping and perspective. The Night Watch was told more or less in reverse order from a number of characters’ view points; Affinity had the very satisfying Victorian device of two ladies’ journals, not quite corresponding as far as chronology but obviously linked in the narrative. As first-person narrations, they’re very powerful. Waters can certainly write in a 19th century voice which is a much-imitated but seldom perfect achievement. As in The Night Watch, the characters are mostly women, and the male characters make little impression.
Frustratingly there’s no works cited in this book; obviously fictional books don’t require them but it would be nice to know where she garnered so much (clearly well-researched) information about Millbank Prison. Margaret Prior is a 20-something spinster lady, bookish bent, mourning her father’s death and with a closet so full of skeletons there isn’t much more I can say about her without giving the plot away. She is magnetically drawn to Selina Dawes who’s in the nick for fraud and assault; she’s a disgraced medium, and Margaret is susceptible to her charms in more ways than one.
I guess my trouble is I would have been one of the poor putzes possibly taken in by spiritualism. It’s something I love to explore in fiction, so much so that I hesitate to offer a concrete conclusion when I write about the occult—I can neither fully debunk it as all evidence should lead me to do, but neither can I wholeheartedly embrace it (as Mark Gatiss did so flamboyantly in his Lucifer Box mysteries). Waters gives us all the delightful trappings, which offer an interesting contrast to the rituals and rules of Millbank, and then takes the wind out of the sails in the last few pages. I feel as if I’m being pointed at and laughed at.
When I read the ending I was honest-to-God upset. I guess I had identified too much with Margaret, and the full scale of the betrayal was breathtaking. Although the book ends without anything conclusive being shown as her fate, I almost wanted her to take up a campaign of revenge—I almost wanted her to find Selina and Ruth in Italy and make them pay. Which is a very weird sentiment to espouse!
In any case, though I think I might enjoy Waters’ other books, I’m still so shell-shocked and disappointed by the ending I may steer clear of her in the future.