Like a Victorian romantic heroine, I’m prone to headaches at the moment. Fortunately, I don’t need to lie in a darkened room, take laudenum, or visit spiritualists for a laying on of healing hands. My attempted solution is instead a reduction in screen time, which means I’m starting to pick up speed again on my reading backlog.

Sarah Waters
(Virago, 1999 edition)

In the time this has spent on my to be read shelf, I’ve read The Night Watch but for some reason this sat waiting until this weekend.

The novel is simply structured: two women are trapped by society. One, a young spiritualist, is literally imprisoned in Millbank for fraud and assault. The other, a lady of leisure, is mentally trapped by her spinster life with her mother in Cheyne Walk. Margaret has been depressed since her ‘friend’ Helen married her brother and her father died. A friend of her father suggests she may find use in visiting the poor wretches in the prison. At Millbank, she becomes drawn to Selina, the spiritualist, and finds her life reawakening as they plan to escape their entrapments.

As with a lot of Waters’ work, she plays with time in order to tell her story. Both Margaret and Selina’s stories are told through their diaries. Magaret’s is set in 1874, as she starts her journey into the prison, whilst Selina’s is set in 1872 in the months leading up to her arrest. The two stories, though, come together to reveal all at the end. I found this more satisfying than the ‘backwards’ narrative of The Night Watch which seemed to fizzle out at its conclusion. This explodes.

The spiritualist elements were well explored, and some of the examples mentioned are historically recorded elsewhere. Millbank prison (a panopticon design) is bigger than I’d previously thought. The choice of Cheyne Walk for Margaret’s family home is perfect: rich enough to hint at the family wealth whilst also within easy walking distance of Millbank. Overall, it evokes the period well, with fogs, snow and restrictive dresses. Margaret reads her mother Little Dorrit: a deliberate nod to another imprisoned Victorian angel. Is the book fast paced? No, but it packs meaning and I couldn’t put it down.

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One Response to “Affinity”

  1. Lidian Says:

    This sounds like exactly the sort of book I would like, and have resolved to go and hunt for it as soon as I can (weather and offspring permitting, etc). Am actually writing a historical(or hysterical, given the slogging I am doing) mystery novel in which spiritualists figure prominently.

    I also quite liked Little Dorrit, though am not sure if I’d want someone to read it to me, really.

    And thank you for the lovely retro gateau image which I am writing about tomorrow on Kitchen Retro! :) Am linking to you, but of course…

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