Sarah Waters’ historical novel, Affinity, is about two women imprisoned in very different circumstances. Selina Dawes is in a literal prison, put there because of her own actions. (Of course, it’s never quite that simple.) On the other hand, Margaret Prior is imprisoned by the social and cultural conventions of Victorian England.
The story is told through the diary entries of both women, with the majority of entries coming from Margaret’s diary. Each narrator has a different style, but both delve equally into events and their resulting feelings. However, the entries aren’t chronological and Dawes’ entries provide back story. This writing style makes the first few entries somewhat confusing, but Waters begins to differentiate the two fairly quickly.
They meet each other because Margaret has started visiting imprisoned women as a tonic for her soul. She must soothe the loss of her beloved father, as well as the marriage of her best friend Helen. Both events upset her terribly, and she struggles with the emotions involved. She also hasn’t adjusted to being the spinster and mother’s companion it seems she is destined to become. Margaret longs to find meaning in her life, and hopes bringing cheer to those less fortunate will help.
Selina Dawes, or just Dawes as she’s referred to by the prison matrons, is a younger woman. She’s spent several years working with society women as a spiritualist and medium. Yet, one of those sessions went bad. She was accused, convicted, and sentenced of her crimes. (Spoiler free zone here!) To Margaret, a sad and impressionable sheltered lady, Dawes is a curiosity. Soon, Margaret’s feelings for Dawes grow into much more than that.
This shouldn’t be a surprise if you’re familiar with Sarah Waters’ writing. She often includes the theme of sexual identity and exploration in her novels. I read The Paying Guests in 2017, and found it more suspenseful and faster paced. Affinity is a slower and more ponderous story, perhaps because of the epistolary style.
Waters explores many themes in Affinity. Margaret is a lady with many privileges, but she cannot break out of her cocoon and truly be herself. Dawes is trying to better herself, but rather than take a traditional job, she needs patronage. Thus, she won’t truly have self-determination upon her release from prison either. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for either character very much. Margaret is weak and whiny. Dawes is just plain untrustworthy and suspicious.
The ideas surrounding late nineteenth-century spiritualism provide an interesting backdrop for the story. As Margaret looks for more information, we learn how prevalent spiritualism was then. People were meeting for seances with mediums, and hoping for connection with the world beyond. They even used spiritualism as a type of non-medical treatment for illness. I found these historical details fascinating.
As it happens, I read this book for a postal book club in which I’m participating. I have other Sarah Waters books on my shelf, because I do like her style. Affinity is what I call historical fiction “with a twist.” Adding the element of spiritualism is the twist, and you’ll also find a few other twists along the way. Overall, I give this just 2.5 stars. Had I liked the characters more, it would easily have been higher rated for me.