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Book Club Reflection: Affinity by Sarah Waters

22 Oct

Thank the genius who invented book clubs!  I’m so glad this book was discussed last Monday.  A lot of the questions I had about the ending and what ‘really’ happened were answered in the first five minutes and we were able to have a great discussion on the merits of the book.

Interestingly, a large number of people in the group came without finishing the book.  I don’t know if I could ever do that, but there were about four people who did.  We admitted that it was a little slow in the middle, but the reader found at the end that those small details and build-up were necessary for the ending to make sense.  Waters crafted a beautiful story.

I wrote my review of the book a few weeks back (if you want to reference it) so this post will mainly focus on what my group discussed.  Yes, I will give away the ending.  No, I’m not sorry.

Waters received a PhD. in Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction.  I’ve personally never read any GLBT historical fiction before this book and secretly wonder if she got her doctorate in her own work.  Her first book, Tipping the Velvet is also a coming-out story.  Affinity was her second novel and a later book, The Night Watch focuses more on two woman in a mature lesbian relationship.  (If anyone can recommend other GLBT historical fiction, please leave a comment.  I’d be interested to see what else she could have written her dissertation on.)

Margaret’s motivations were some of the first things we discussed.  She seems like a strong character at first, someone who is able to stand being in a prison system for long periods of time.  As time passes, she seems weaker as she is sucked in to the lies that Selina spins around her.  One woman pointed out that this weakness is derived from her obsession and that obsessions make humans weaker in general.  Take addictions for example.  We see a side of Margaret’s fancies and obsessions through her relationship with Helen, her sister-in-law and ex-lover.  Some thought the end of her relationship might have triggered Margaret’s suicide attempt, but I personally suspect her father’s death was the larger factor.  It seems that Mrs. Prior and Margaret’s brother never knew about their relationship, but Mrs. Prior starts to figure it out.  I just thought, maybe Margaret’s father knew she was a lesbian and was the only person who she felt comfortable telling. This could be why his death was even more traumatic for her.

We discussed what would have made someone suggest that Margaret, so soon after a suicide attempt, volunteer at a prison when there are so many other charitable ventures she could have partaken in.  A very logical suggestion was that because suicide was considered a crime in the UK until 1961 so Margaret’s attempt could have landed her in the prison if her family was not so well connected.  Being in the prison was meant to be a deterrent to keep her from attempting it again.  Another theory we came up with is that there was a larger conspiracy to get her into the prison so that she could meet Selina.  Mr. Shillitoe, portrayed as a friend of the family, could have been reaping the benefits of getting Selina freed from the prison.  It seems too much of a coincidence that she’s taken to the room with Selina’s hair and this could be a deeper level of the conspiracy.

The prison itself is the main setting of the story even though much of Margaret’s action takes place in her own home.  It’s described as “a grim old creature” by the porter who also says to Margaret, “I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan– plain as a lady (312).” The prison does not just look unhappy, it’s acting unhappy.

The unhappy and gloomy mood is set so wonderfully that reading the book almost makes the reader depressed.  One of our readers called it a ‘gas-light atmosphere’ and I don’t think there’s a better way to describe it.  The overwhelming gloom fit the period well and reminded many of Charles Dickens and Jane Eyre.  (This was consequently why some felt they were reading a book for high school British Literature and promptly stopped.)  The setting being in London seems to lend itself to this feeling and to the era itself.  To make it even more ominous, most things were described as dark, black, or grey including the clothing.  The book almost felt like it was in black and white.

There’s a lot of meaning behind the words in this book.  Take the title for instance.  “Affinity” means that two things are not just good together, but meant to be together.  This can have a double meaning; that Margaret feels she is meant to be with Selina, or that the meeting of Selina and Margaret so that Selina could escape to be with Ruth is meant to be.  Either way, she uses the title very well.  The character’s names have meaning, too.  Aurora, the name Margaret chooses for herself, is very sensual in nature; a far cry from the matronly sounding ‘Margaret.’  Selina Dawes is meant to remind the reader of ‘doors,’ as doors are very symbolic in the book (the spiritual door between the girls, being locked behind a door, doors being closed, etc.).  There is also a bird called a jackdaw that steals like a magpie.  This is supposed to be like Selina stealing from Margaret.  My favorite character, Peter Quick, has meaning to his name as well.  Waters took the name from a character named Peter Quint in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  ‘Quick’ is used as a clue to the reader that he is ‘quick,’ as in still alive and not dead.

The drugs that Margaret takes throughout the novel have a strong effect on her and it’s likely that the contributed to some of her character change.  She first takes chloral, a drug that was commonly used at the time and considered safe to use as a sleep aide.  She is later prescribed laudanum, which is a highly addictive narcotic from the opioid family.  My suspicion is that the drug made her feel the connections with Selina that she claims and that the supposed connections are not at all real.  With how much her mother gave her, one wonders if her mother wanted Margaret to be almost incapacitated by the drug.

Time to talk about the ending.  It seems I didn’t quite understand what had happened at the end when I read it myself, so I’m going to spell it out in case there are other readers here who were as confused as I was.  The big one: Ruth was Peter Quick.  I didn’t get this the first time, but re-reading it, it’s so obvious.  Ruth would flirt with the ladies and almost used it as an excuse to be close to them and touch them while Selina was tied up.  When the attendants of the seance were helping Selina recover, Ruth would take off her Peter Quick costume and dress as the maid again.  Mrs. Brink does not attend these large seances so when she walks in on one and sees Ruth dressed as Peter, she goes into shock, unable to say anything to out Selina as a charlatan and dies of a heart attack.

Margaret’s ending was even more subtle but we decided from the end of her narrative that she decided to commit suicide.  The line is “Selina…[y]our twisting is done- you have the last thread of my heart.  I wonder; when the thread grows slack, will you feel it?” (351).  We took the thread going slack as Margaret no longer being alive to hold it up.

Writers’ Takeaway: The biggest one for me was Water’s ability to create an atmosphere.  The other members of my group loved her style of transporting the reader into such a gloomy and bleak London through her description of buildings, clothing, and the general attitude of the characters.  She did 1870s England wonderfully.

I hope I’ve sparked some interest in those of you who haven’t read the book.  And for those who have, please share your thoughts here, I’d love to continue the discussion with you.  Have a great day!