Anna Madeley as Margaret Prior in Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Affinity (2008 ITV).
Dear friends and readers,
Although I’ve not seen Davies’s film adaptation of Sarah Waters’s remarkable and powerful neo-Victorian neo-Gothic novel (indeed just found out about it when I was googling for information about the novel and its various covers), I decided to use the stills as they are appealing (though not how I envisaged Margaret), and to underline that four of Waters’s novels have been made into film adaptations, two by Andrew Davies: Fingersmith (script by Tim Fywell), Tipping the Velvet (script by Davies), Affinity (script by Davies), and The Night Watch (script by Paula Milne, which I long to see). This is remarkable as at their core these are films about books focusing on frank lesbian love.
I take it that they are so good and insightful, powerful and gripping that their iconoclasm and frankness does not matter.
My blog on Tipping the Velvet is mostly on Waters’s book; this is wholly on Waters’s riveting text. Both are records of my reading as I went along. For a brief commentary, see wikipedia. The store centers on Margaret Prior, who becomes “a lady Visitor” t0 women prisoners, apparently a well-recognized Lady Bountiful position. She meets Selina Dawes, apparently put in jail egregiously wrongly: she did no kill Mrs Blink the woman who died while Selina was conducting a seance. The plot-design shows their intense relationship growing, and taking over Margaret’s as well as Selina’s lives. They experience trauma from their refusal to obey the peculiar conventions of the houses (so to speak) where they live. They plan to escape using ghostly magic. At its end (the coda of the book) we revise our understanding of Selina, which has a radical turnaround worthy DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel, and a depth of characters like Austen’s Emma. I recommend this book to anyone who loves Gothic, Victorian gothic, neo-Victorian and Victorian novels, who can deeply immerse him or herself in diary- and epistolary fiction, l’ecriture-femme, and fiercely socially critical novels, and as it’s a basis of a film adaptation, Victorian film studies people. The book also mirrors the concerns of people today over the heavily weighted system of criminal justice, where a young man (usually) black can be thrown solitary confinement for little reason. We are becoming a more distrustful and brutal society.
Finally, anyone who loves to read books which remain overtly (for their effects) a bookish experience. Allusons abound to the work of Daphne DuMaurier.
The story centers, to start with, in a Pantopticon like (fearful) prison for women. Waters is reflecting contemporary (today) prison conditions, and especially the controversy about enforced solitude as a form of torture, but much else is rooted in apparently Victorian realities. My view is the weight (gravitas, seriousness) of a verisimilar historical novel depends very often on the accuracy of the circumstances the fictionalized characters are embedded in. And my guess this novel would not be read as anachronistic.
The novel gives the impression a considerable percentage of women were imprisoned in Victorian England? is that so? were conditions severe and grim? I’d love to know of articles or books on this.
In this novel the women are “in” for several years at a time. Now I’ve read that prison sentences were seen as temporary (unless in debtors’ prison and then women were not liable), so that after sentencing the prisoner was hung, transported, fined, but then let go. So how long were prison sentences in the Victorian period for women? Again articles and books is what I’d like to know of. Last, sexual harassment. I wondered if there was any record of this?
I’m past Part One and have realized this is a fable about cruelty, about the cruelty of women to other women. It is a stark outline of how class enables people to de-humanize one another. About the cruelty of severity of punishments and the helplessness of individuals against a system. Again and again I think of Dante and there are allusions to Dante’s Inferno: not in its specifics but what it has come to stand for, and so by extension one of Oliphant’s ghost stories. The terrain reminds me of one of her ghostly nightmare terrains.
The affinity is between the lady visitor, Margaret Prior and the spiritual medium, Sarah Dawes, who by Book 2 we discovered has ended up in this prison partly because she dared to rise above her station and allow a woman to take her into her house to be used as spiritual medium. Never go where you are too powerless in comparison with others.
There is an astute use of structural irony through the juxtaposition of Prior’s present time carefully narrated diaries (as she visits the prison) and Dawes’s scatter- shot notes towards a diary which begin precisely 2 years before. The contrast works to explain the injustices.
I recommend it as a book about human nature, society and probably the Victorian era too, how the powerful can and do enslave, mistreat, then throw away not just the law-abiding powerless, and not just in official prisons.
I’m into the third part (of three) and finally have seen how the book relates directly to readers today. Identifying the prison theme (and its modern analogies), the spiritual medium (ditto) and GLBT (which however until just in this last part of the book there was hardly anything except if you insist on seeing all spinster presentations as redolent) — are a way of reading that still stays away from personal engagement or bonding. I kept asking myself why I was riveted and hoping it was not that I enjoy suffering.
The third part quietly (it’s done with subtlety) switches the perspective so instead of Margaret Prior as gazer (my head just now filled with specularization vocabulary), it is she who is subject. The prison apparatus and all the cruelties we see are a metaphor for what I’ll describe as the inexorableness of individual people to budge from their egoistic preoccupations and perspectives (stupidity is the frank word) and consequent cruelty and indifference to others. Margaret finds herself shut out from Selina Dawes because the women guards loathe seeing anyone happy, any affinity of relationship. They respond to Margaret’s pleas with supposedly reasonable objections to how excited Margaret makes Selina (absurd) to the norm that Selina is there to be punished. It’s in the loving relationship of Selina to Margaret at the first homoerotic current of the book emerges and we need not see it as sexual.
This inexorableness is relentless in Margaret’s mother. The light is suddenly cast on Margaret and figures who were mentioned now emerge full. We see her mother dislikes her intensely because she never married and behaved unconventionally, and longs to go live with her “successful” children: the just married (beautiful wedding) Priscilla and Arthur and the long married Stephen and Helen. We realize for the first time the drugging of Margaret each night is forced on Margaret, and how dependent Margaret is. The mother begins to manipulate to keep Margaret away from the prison and insists on Margaret reading aloud each night Dickens’s Little Dorrit
Little Dorrit functions as the floor rug that Margaret’s mother wants Margaret to become. Dickens often gets bad rap here: this reminded meo of Waugh’s novel, Decline and Fall, where the ultimate torture of a man left on an island with a mad man who insists he read aloud all Dickens night after night.
Margaret is as emotionally harrowed by her mother as the women prisoners are by the guards, and there is the implicit threat of imprisoning her in an asylum too. We learn that Helen and Margaret had a tight emotional relationship which Helen gave up — Helen tells Margaret she is brave. This is the place I said a lesbian theme does emerge.
So at the heart of this book is a deadly mother-daughter relationship. Margaret is a traditional “good” heroine in the Victorian tradition — seen far more deeply and hauntingly because no fairy godmother (in the shape of an author) are likely to shower love and good people on her at the book’s end.
I can see why Davies might not want do this book very well; he really would have a hard time finding that upbeat ending he manages for many of his films, and he is rarely willing to move into vulnerable psychology the way Water has. Margaret needs protection, so does Selina and there is none not be found, only exploitation or quiet silence if they can find a place to survive alone, which neither has.
I’m into the last quarter or so of this powerful novel. It does turn into a lesbian novel: at its core is a pair of lesbian women who love one another intensely because of an emotional affinity. The apparatus punishing them both becomes a metaphor for the suppression of this precious relationship for which both are willing to give up everything including food, clothing, shelter, bodily safety, sanity itself. At times I begin to see it as a modern La Religieuse (Diderot”s book) which comes to mind though Diderot’s paradigm seems so distant — modeled on the assault-type rape book of Richardson’s Clarissa. When Sarah is removed from Miss Prior’s visits, Miss Prior stopped from visiting her (and how the techniques used to imprison Miss Prior remind me of much of see and have experienced around me), they both suddenly pour out another reading of everything that was implicit, including the sister-in-law Helen as a thwarted lover to Miss Prior (Margaret).
Lots of allusions to Elizabeth Barrett Browning suddenly appear, not her works so much, but her, her personality (anorexic, repressed, half-mad in some ways when young) life, her feminist atittudes (I had to leave off Margaret Forster’s biography – she was doing justice to this).
I think it a masterpiece of fiction; probably because its verisimilar historical fiction it won’t be rated highly in the way say Stead’s The Man Who Loved Fiction is, and also because it is not heterosexual.
Those who do not like to know the ending of a book had better not read on, for I must tell it in order to show the final devastating power of the book and how once you finish, you should really reread it again.
This goes against all my practices nowadays; the last time I did this that I remember was DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel, when I realized the meaning of the novel’s first sentence which is also its last and that the narrator was the heroine’s murderer.
The time before that I remember I was 15 and just finished Mansfield Park, and after reading the last few paragraphs (including ” the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure”). conclusion so fired with it was I, I turned to the first page and read the whole thing again.
I should have done it for Austen’s Emma as the book was utterly altered once I realized I had missed Frank and Jane’s engagement like everyone else but Mr (George) Knightley (and who knows what Mr John knew), but it was an assigned book, the revelation took place before the ending and had time to wear off, and I didn’t love the book the way I had MP, nor had I been gripped in the way of Rachel and now this. (Emma is too lengthened out at its close, and then made too benign.)
So, Affinity turns on itself to reveal to us that Selina Dawes is a fraud. The book had been written and worked up so carefully that the author has the reader believing Selina Dawes things turn up in Margaret Prior’s room and half-expecting Selina to break out of her prison magically like the lady in St Agnes Eve (Keats’s poem), whose central stanza about this is quoted. Water plays with our willingness to suspend our disbelief in a gothic novel and our experience as readers of gothic.
Like phantoms, to the iron porch they glide,
Where lies the Porter, in uneasy sprawl.
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide,
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones,
The Key turns! and the door pon its hinges groans ….
It’s a kind of trick on us. We say, of course she couldn’t. What happens is Selina tells Margaret she will come to Margaret’s room and they can fly together. Margaret so good, buys tons of clothes, pulls out 1300 pounds from her account and waits. Selina does not come. What a harrowing night we spend with Margaret. We come to the prison where astonishing to the prison people Selina has escaped. All suspect Margaret as the releaser and tell her they will prosecute her — until they see her and then half-credit that she knew nothing. She runs home horrified without seeing Mrs Jelf (the one kind guard) who is (she is told) off for the day. Mrs Jelf is on her doorstep hysterical. Mrs Jelf enabled Selina to escape, it was a plot between them. For months Selina has been enabling Mrs Jelf to see her dead baby and we get this harrowing story of Mrs Jelf’s life. Like so many middle-aged women who have this dull caretaker jobs strictly disciplined (remember the governess in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley) Mrs Jelf has a miserable past where she married badly, had a lover to compensate, a child out of wedlock, and in her case it died. Selia promised Mrs Jelf she’d take Mrs Jelf to her child. No such thing. It seems Vigers, the maid upstairs was the go-between (Selina did tell Mrs Jelf this) and suddenly Margaret realizes how she got all that magical stuff. She thinks back.
We get a piece of diary and suddenly we realize Peter Quick (who is meant to be Peter Quint) was real, Selina’s accomplice and maybe they did kill the people at the opening and Selina deserved to go to jail. We have to surmise that Vigers (Margaret’s apparently selfless completely devoted maid) will be dropped (killed?) and Quint and Selina escape wit money and expensive clothes to Italy. Margaret at first runs to a policeman to tell but then realizes she will be put in that terrible prison.
The book ends with a piece from Selina’s diary that is the next day after the opening piece.
But it’s not a stunner that is unexpected quite. Like Austen’s use of Mr Knightley (again George), we had some inklings. Margaret’s mother does go off on a trip without her and we see in a way she does mean well — mostly because the mother reveals Margaret has control of her money. Margaret’s brother, Stephen, husband of Helen, is shown for the first time in the book and we can see how these well-meaning heterosexuals mean well by Margaret; we see Helen, the sister-in-law’s concern. At the bank when Margaret pulls out that 1300 pounds we begin to worry about her. Will she be broke ever after? We begin to worry that Selina is somehow exploiting Margaret unconsciously and the relatives are right: this is a mad scheme to escape together as Margaret is emotionally unstable.
A whole other outlook, the conventional one is laid open as not unreasonable if you just accept (and big just) that there is this blindness towards same sex sexual love — which to Stephen, for example, is unthinkable. He does not imagine he has deprived his wife of anything.
I was away and after all free of usual obligations with not as many books as usual and in fact I reread the first section. It came out very differently, and I saw for the first time a group of parallels with Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, which had the effect of increasing my sympathy for the governess but asking myself if I was being one-sided.
It is a story of betrayal: Margaret Prior by Selinda Dawes, but also Margaret by her mother, her sister-in-law; Mrs Jelf by Selina; Vigars probably by Belinda. Have we paid enough attention to Peter Quick (Quint): quite enough to know the society will sympathize with him in any quarrel.
Waters is a great historical fiction of our era. The panel I chaired (very nervously) at this past weekend’s EC/ASECS on historical fiction which I have must carry on with, studying it in many of its verisimilar and self-reflective forms.