Why is Sarah Waters such a great writer of Victorian pastiche? And what makes her work so accessible to the general reading public, despite its overtly lesbian content (which, you'll have to admit, usually scares people away)? These were the two questions that dominated our discussion of her second novel, Affinity (1999), last night at the York Lesbian Book Group. Our answers to the first question were varied and enthusiastic, but our answer to the second was (mostly) unanimous and twofold. First, because she is very good - better, much better, than 90% of the lesbian fiction on the market - and second, because she writes historical fiction. That is: lesbianism, dildos and all, is easier to stomach at 100 years remove. (Of course, the market and publicity also plays its role, but this is probably a matter of the chicken and the egg. Which has to come first?)
Not that Affinity is a novel with much in the way of sex toys. It is a very different book to its predecessor, the exuberant and unabashed Tipping the Velvet. Where the latter was all flash and drama, epitomising the 1890's fin-de-siecle passion for display and exhibitionism, Affinity is all restraint and propreity, muted to the point of greyness. Nor is it very much like Fingersmith, Waters' homage to the sensationalist novel of the 1860s. It owes more to Dickens' late fiction than to the music hall, more to the bleak creepiness of Wuthering Heights than to the sprightly twists and turns of the likes of Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It is a deftly composed paean to nineteenth century melancholic.
Set in the mid-1870s and narrated in the first person through the journal of its protagonist, it recounts the meeting of, and growing friendship between, Miss Margaret Prior, a charitable 'lady visitor' to Millbank Prison, and Selina Dawes, a spiritualist medium sentenced to four years imprisonment for fraud and assault. Blonde, pale skinned and well-spoken, Selina reminds her weekly visitor of the ' likeness of a saint or angel in a painting of Crivelli's', impossibly beautiful and sadly removed from the world, very much like a nun in a convent. Margaret is immediately attracted to her - her dangerous exoticism! - and is quickly drawn into her world of trance and living nightmare, of rappings and tappings and waxen hands manifested in darkened rooms.
Unsurprisingly for a novel set partly in a prison and partly in the confined privacy of Margaret's bedroom, Affinity is a singularly atmospheric piece and Waters' takes great care in building both the tension of her plot and our sense of its claustrophobia. Despite their disparity in circumstances (and at the risk of sounding dreadfully trite), both Selina and Margaret are prisoners, and perhaps Margaret more so. Still in mourning for her beloved father, who died two years previously, and recovering from a subseuqent bout of depression that ended in a suicide attempt, Margaret is constantly watched and coddled by her family. She is dosed with laudenum by her doctor (to which she is gradually becoming addicted) and sedated by her mother every evening. Having once been her father's research assistent - he was an art historian - and his constant intellectual companion, she finds herself increasingly reduced to the status of the family embarrassment: the spinster who doesn't know her place. Her visits to Millbank Prison are an ironic bid for freedom, an escape from the crushing reality of her future life as her aging mother's companion:
'I saw her aging. I saw her growing old and stooped and querulous - perhaps, a little deaf. I saw her growing bitter, because her son and her favourite daughter had homes elsewhere - had gayer homes, with children and footsteps and young men and new gowns in them; homes which, were it not for the presence of her spinster daughter - her consolation, who preferred prisons and poetry tp fashion-plates and dinners, and was therefore no consolation at all - she would certainly be invited to share. Why hadn't I guessed it would be like this?... Now I sat and watched my mother, and felt fearful, and ashamed of my own fear. I am twenty-nine. In three months' time I shall be thirty. While Mother grows stooped and querulous, how shall I grow? I shall grow dry and pale and paper-thin - like a leaf pressed tight inside the pages of a dreary black book and then forgotten.'
No wonder that she proves susceptible to Selina's impassioned hints at their 'affinity', and to the possibility that she might lead a different life, perhaps on the continent, with her new friend for a lover. Faced with the promise of such repressed loneliness, I would probably make the same decision she does: to believe in Selina's powers and throw myself whole-hearted into an escape plan.
Waters is unequivocal about Margaret's sexuality - she is a lesbian through and through, absolutely unmoved by the prospect of marriage. She has had a previous affair, with Helen, the woman who later became her brother's wife, and she feels no shame about it; on the contrary, she revels in the memory of it and, as the book opens, still wears a lock of Helen's hair around her neck. But the strength of her feelings and desires make her incredibly vulnerable, both to the derision and disgust of her peers and to Selina's advances. She wants, more than anything, to love and be loved on equal terms, no matter whether it is prudent or sensible or even real. That she falls for the first (apparently) willing woman she meets suggests the strength, and the folly, of this wanting; and reveals her relationship with Selina for what it is. Grasping at straws, in the belief that anything is better than nothing.
Selina's proclivities are less clear and, in many ways, she proves the more psychologically and sexually interesting of the two lovers. She has the opportunity to tell some of her own story, short sections of her diary (from before her imprisonment) being excerpted between Margaret's much longer entries, and at first appears a sensitive, sympathetic figure. Encouraged in mediumship by an enterprising aunt at an early age - it is clear as the novel progresses that she is in her early 20s at most - she quickly becomes a star of the spiritualist circuit, helped no doubt by her winsome appearance and pretty manners. Then, following her aunt's death, she is thrown absolutely into the power of strangers. First, the seedy Mr Vincy, proprietor of a Spiritualist 'guesthouse', then the emotionally demanding Mrs. Brink who becomes her patron and takes her to live in her own house in return for private 'sessions'. (It strikes me that this situation, a poor young woman in the power of an older, richer one is equivalent to the relationship between Nan Astley and Diana Lethaby in Tipping the Velvet, except the latter is sexual and the former, emotional. Power play is obviously an important theme for Waters.) Finally, there is the undeniably sinister 'Peter Quick', Selina's lewd, highly sexed spirit guide, who encourages her to engage young women in intimate embraces for their personal 'development'. At no point does it seem that Selina is mistress of her own sorry destiny and it becomes clear that, although far from innocent, she has little autonomous personality of her own. She is constantly playing the roles allotted to her and it is unclear to what extent she believes and invests in them. I am inclined to think it is almost entirely.
The ambience and order of 1870s London is the perfect backdrop to this narrative of confused and confined sexuality. Visually and descriptively bare, Affinity is a novel with almost no colour - the sky is grey; there is always a blanket of fog; Margaret dresses in the grey of semi-mourning, Selina in the dirty browns of a prison uniform; the prison is invariably dank and angular. When colour does come, in the form of a violet mysteriously appeared in Selina's hand, or orange blossoms magicked into Margaret's bedroom by ghosts, it is doubly striking. The bleakness is necessary though: Affinity is a bleak novel, and colourlessness is the means by which it produces its best and most vivid scenes. It has the effect of a graphic novel drawn in varying shades of black and grey. Everything seems to be in relief, and is creepier for it. And, at times, it is incredibly creepy. Having seen the wax moulds Selina has made from the 'spirit hands' she has manifested, Margaret's imagination (and mine!) runs away from her:
'Now I saw all the moulds begin to creep across the silent reading room; and as they crept they softened and blended, one into the other. They formed a stream of wax, I saw it ooze into the streets, it oozed to Millbank, to the quiet prison - it oozed across the tongue of gravel, across the gaols, it seeped through the cracks in the hinges of the doors, the gaps in the gates, the wickets, the key holes. The wax was pale beneath the gas light, but no one looked for it; and when it crept, it crept quite soundlessly. There was only Selina, in all the sleeping prison, to catch the subtle slither of the stream of wax upon the sanded passage of her ward. I saw the wax inch its way up the limewashed bricks beside her door, I saw it nudge at the flap of iron, then ooze into her shadowy cell, then collect upon the chill stone floor. I saw it grow, sharp as a stalagmite at first, and hardening. Then it was Peter Quick, and then he embraced her.'
However, what continues to astonish me most about Sarah Waters is the way in which she evokes the mode of the Victorian novel, with its deliciously convoluted sentence structures and arcane usages, while remaining eminently readable. Not that I am suggesting that the Victorian novel is inaccessible to a modern audience without specialist training, only that it feels and seems daunting, whereas Waters' novels are the precise opposite. It is the way she makes them very much of the 'now', at the same time as being of the 'then'; the way she constructs the Victorian from the contemporary tools at hand. It certainly felt like the perfect book to ease myself into my Victorian Winter.
Next up is Great Expectations, right after I've finished Don Quixote - nearly there now! Only 98 pages to go.
(For anyone who is in the least interested, the next book for the Lesbian book group is Michelle Tea's young adult novel Rose of No Man's Land.)