Historical Fiction

AFFINITY by Sarah Waters

Selina is a young, beautiful medium with astonishing spiritual powers. Margaret is a woman on the verge of spinsterhood, nursing a broken heart. Millbank is a historical women’s prison in 1870s London where the two women meet and are drawn to each other. And both women have secrets they dare not reveal.

Waters’ second novel, from 1999, shows her already at her full powers, surpassing 1998’s brilliant but somewhat picaresque TIPPING THE VELVET and paving the way for her masterpiece, FINGERSMITH, in 2002. All three novels are set in the Victorian era, and all three are full of exquisite and surprising period detail–for example, the coconut husks from which the Millbank prisoners are forced to pluck coir fibers (used in mats and sacking) until their fingers bleed. Romantic passion of the forbidden sort figures prominently in all three, and they all feature flawed protagonists that Waters makes us care deeply for.

Another common element in the three books is Waters’ sympathy for the poor and the disadvantaged. In AFFINITY she draws clear parallels between the women inside and outside the Millbank walls: Selina is bound and gagged by the male spirit, Peter Quick, that she conjures. Margaret is a prisoner of her mother’s expectations. Married women are imprisoned by their husbands and single women by the rigid mores of society. Those who disobey end up in Millbank, or the graveyard. The last line of the novel reveals that the one character we thought had transcended those bonds is in fact in thrall to another.

Waters’ greatest literary debt is to Daphne Du Maurier, with whom she shares a magician’s skills of misdirection, an uncanny ability to evoke a past era, and a quiet but relentless belief in women’s empowerment. Her prose is understated and deeply rooted in her characters’ viewpoints, but nonetheless powerful:

“After the house was locked I kept my cloak about me, and stood a long time at my window, raising the sash a little to feel the thin rain of the new year. At three o’clock there were still boats ringing their bells, and men’s voices from the river, and boys running fast along the Walk; but for a single moment as I watched, the clamour and the bustle died, and then the morning was perfectly still. The rain was fine–too fine to spoil the surface of the Thames, it shone like glass, and where the lamps of the bridges and the water-stairs showed there were wriggling snakes of red and yellow light. The pavement gleamed quite blue–like china plates.”

If you haven’t experienced Waters’ work, you are missing out on some of the smartest, most enthralling, most affecting writing being done today. AFFINITY is a great place to begin correcting your oversight.