There seem to be a lot of pseudo Victorian Gothic novels around at the moment, or at least novels containing an element of the Gothic. The first well-known one, and in my opinion probably the best, was Possession, by A.S. Byatt. I’ve recently reviewed two by John Harwood – The Ghost Writer and The Séance, one by Elizabeth Kostova – The Historian and one by Sarah Waters – Fingersmith, to say nothing of a couple of modern Gothic ones. And here I am doing it again with another Sarah Waters, this time one of her earlier (1999) stories. What is the modern fascination with not only this period, but also with the assorted ghosts (or maybe not), media (in this case the plural of ‘medium’) and vampires who inhabit these stories? Many Victorians, despite their seeming devotion to the practical, were deeply interested in the supernatural, and it is perhaps this paradox that attracts us now. Or perhaps the paranormal just makes for good stories.
It is 1874. Margaret Prior is deeply unhappy. Her beloved father has recently died, and her close friend Helen has broken away from a relationship with her that though largely understated, is obviously sexual. To make matters worse, Helen has married Margaret’s brother. A family friend, who is the supervisor of Millbank Prison, suggests that Margaret might find interest in becoming a ‘lady visitor’ to the prison, to provide an example of a ‘finer mould’ to the female prisoners. There she meets a disgraced young medium, Selina Dawes, and finds herself increasingly interested in her and her story. The reader knows something of this story, because the book starts with Selina’s account of the events which resulted in her being sentenced to four years’ gaol. Does she really have the powers she claims? Is she really innocent of the fraud she has been found guilty of? And most importantly, what does Margaret believe about her? The reader knows from the beginning that Selina’s spiritualist practices are a con; the trick is in working out how.
There is much to like in Waters’s writing. For example, she gives detailed descriptions of the prison that do remarkable justice to its horrors. ‘They are lighting the lamps there now at four o’clock, and with their high, narrow windows black against the sky, their sanded flags lit by pools of flaring gas-light, their cells dim, the women in them hunched, like goblins, over their sewing or their coir, the wards seem more terrible and more antique.’ But overall, I find this a much less assured book than her later ones. There are a couple of reasons for this.
Striking as her descriptions of the prison are – and check out the real thing here - I think there is too much of it. By about the middle of the book, I was getting a bit sick of it because it seemed on show for its own sake – atmosphere, rather than plot. And there’s not that much action anyway. It’s as if Waters has been reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and is determined to reproduce every detail of how the penal system worked to subjugate the women in it, perfectly illustrating how discipline creates ‘docile bodies’. Of course the prison is central to the plot and the themes it works on. Paradoxically Margaret escapes from the narrow confines of her family home to visit the prison where she can be more free than elsewhere, in contrast to Selina’s imprisonment. If only, Margaret says, I might ‘have a little liberty –‘; Selina has none at all. But I think Waters overdoes it.
I also find the structure of the novel somewhat problematic. Most of it is told by Margaret in the first person, written in the form of a journal. But there is also a back story told by Selina, also in the first person. Waters is certainly a very competent writer; the two voices are subtly but distinctly different – though this difference is perhaps helped along by the publisher changing the font for Selina’s voice. Margaret is writing for herself, but it isn’t clear who Selina is writing for. Not for herself, surely, as we know from what is revealed in the introductory section that she is an unreliable narrator. But if not her, then who else? The reader, presumably. But while readers can be temporarily drawn in by her less than truthful version of events, they cannot ultimately be tricked, because of what has been already divulged. Form and content don’t quite mesh properly. To me, this is a young writer not quite on top of her plot.
Having said that there isn’t much plot in the sense of much action, there is a slow build-up of tension, and a clever, if very dark ending. I’m not suggesting that this isn’t a book worth reading, merely that I enjoyed the two others of Waters’s that I have read more. You can see my posts on Fingersmith (2002) here and The Little Stranger (2009) here. A film was made of Affinity in 2008; it looks suitably dark and moody, and it would be interesting to see how they handle the spiritualism. You can download a version of it here.
You can read more about Sarah Waters here.