Victorian affair of the heart – with a gothic twist

Affinity by Sarah Waters introduces us to Margaret Prior who is a sensitive soul and, as we shall later see, lost in Victorian society. After her father’s death, which affected her terribly as she was his academic equal and his helpmeet, she tries to kill herself and is medicated for what today we would call depression, but then was seen as something much more insidious and was treated with chloral and laudanum. Women’s lives were so circumscribed that there is always a danger that Margaret’s family will simply deem her insane and lock her up. She tries very hard to appear normal and takes volunteer work at Mill Bank, a local women’s prison. The theory behind this was that as she was a lady, she would bring a civilising influence to bear on the women of the prison, most of whom are petty thieves. One of these prisoners is Selina Dawes who fascinates Margaret, or Aurora as she wishes to be called by her. Selina is a spiritualist and the narrative is interspersed with flashbacks of her life before she was imprisoned in Mill Bank for harming a client (via her ‘control Peter Quick).

Selina reminds Margaret of a painting by Crivelli and Margaret begins to feel strong sympathy for her and then falls in love. The novel then takes a darker turn as we can see more of what Selina’s work entails and Margaret winding a web around herself as she becomes more obsessed.

The novel is a rumination of women’s lives in Victorian England, their bodies, and minds and the ways that society sought to control them. It also deals with love and power and the ways that people can want to believe something so strongly that it alters their worlds. Margaret was willing to risk everything. Her life was so narrowly focussed that she was at a serious disadvantage. Her mother is an unpleasant character and as we see Margaret’s future spread out after her younger sister is married we see the bleak fate of the spinster. Vulnerable, it is no wonder that she seeks a way out in love. It is tragic that this love is so wrong, and not because Selina is a woman.

The novel was captivating and the revelation at the end was so carefully crafted that even if the reader suspects, they don’t completely guess. The writing is beautiful and I found myself feeling empathy for Margaret even as I thought her weak, partly because of the language woven around her.