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!

20 Responses to “Book Club Reflection: Affinity by Sarah Waters”

  1. Laurie Smalis October 22, 2013 at 9:33 AM #

    Hi Sam: Have you never read or seen the movie The Color Purple? Because while that story is many things it is also a historical coming out story. Yes there are many others and I would have to google them as it has been awhile since I read them to remember the titles.


    • Sam October 22, 2013 at 9:43 AM #

      I’ll add it to my list. Thanks for the suggestion, Laurie!


  2. Olivia Levez March 4, 2016 at 5:46 AM #

    Great review – and I didn’t work out the Ruth/Peter twist, so now it all makes sense!


    • Sam March 4, 2016 at 6:04 AM #

      I’m glad my book club helped me work it out. Glad I could help someone else. Happy reading!


  3. itsmscheng March 5, 2017 at 4:39 AM #

    Great review! I didn’t realize it was hard to work out the Ruth/Peter twist because I saw the movie before reading the book. Anyhow, I agree with many of the things you said; though some questions are still floating in my mind.

    First of all, I do agree that the violent affinity Margaret seems to feel with Selina is probably mainly due to the effect of laudanum.
    However, there’s this diary entry from Selina from May, 1873 that shows she was in a dark dream. everything was horrible and she was in a strange room. there was literally no context, and no consequence of that dream after that entry. I have been finding the reason why it was included and hear me out. We never really got to know when EXACTLY Margaret attempted the suicide. On Jan, 1874, she said it was 2 years ago since her first attempt. Her dad died on the end of 1872, so it is not a stretch to assume she probably had her first suicide attempt in the period of Jan-May, 1873. This is a loose threat that might just be an evidence of Selina’s and Margaret’s affinity. (I’m a hopeless romantic, so…)

    Anyhow, I love how Sarah Waters skillfully gives us hints (or the lack thereof) of Selina’s character and what she felt about cheating Margaret. She said she was scared when she started to decipher the spirit’s intention of keeping her in for so long (presumably, she started to figure out that Ruth wanted to rob Margaret of her life). And when Margaret was going crazy waiting for Selina to appear on that faithful night, she heard Selina moaning her name back. She might just be going crazy OR Selina might have had a fight with Ruth and wanted to come to Margaret! Imagine being Selina and feeling the affinity, but how can one get oneself out of this thick web of deception?

    I think the one thing that I’m still trying to figure out is if whether the affinity between them both are real, and how Selina really feels about Margaret.

    Anyhow, again, great reflection!


    • Sam March 5, 2017 at 10:37 AM #

      What? There’s a movie?! I’m totally going to have to check that out, thanks for telling me!
      I apologize that I can’t provide a great response to your insights because it’s been a few years since I read this book. (Maybe watching the movie would help refresh me.) I like your thought that Selina did have strong feelings for Margaret. That would redeem Selina a lot for me. I wanted to like her and trust her but the ending ruined that for me. If the hopeless romantic guess is right, then she did deserve the trust I didn’t give her. I wonder if the Affinity between Selina and Ruth is what we’re supposed to focus on. That seemed strong as well.
      I hope I’m remembering the book well enough to respond to your comments. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and happy reading!


      • itsmscheng March 6, 2017 at 11:29 PM #

        Haha! I didn’t expect insightful replies from you because I know it’s been a few years! The movie is also called Affinity! And somehow, I don’t really feel the affinity between Ruth and Selina. I feel like just like Peter Quick, Ruth is pretty toxic. But anyhow, please watch the movie! It’s quite great at capturing the atmosphere!


      • Sam March 7, 2017 at 8:13 AM #

        I’ll look into finding it this weekend. I remember adoring the book and I’d love to see the movie! Happy reading!


  4. Bunny March 13, 2017 at 12:52 AM #

    A far as other lesbian historical fiction, try reading “Claudine at School” by Colette, Gertrude Stein books (such as ” Q.E.D.” and “Fernhurst”), “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. Also, “Orlando: A Biography” by Virginia Woolfe.


    • Sam March 13, 2017 at 9:33 AM #

      Thanks for the suggestions! I hope to watch the movie adaptation of this book this week and I bet it renews my interest in the genre. Happy reading!


  5. Catherine February 8, 2020 at 1:42 PM #

    I just finished the book, and I thank you for explaining that Ruth was Peter Quick! I could not understand what I was missing. Great summary of your group’s ideas about the book. Take care!


    • Sam February 8, 2020 at 2:17 PM #

      I think it was almost too subtle. Glad this could help you out. Happy reading!


  6. songgirl63 October 12, 2020 at 2:52 PM #

    I was so happy to find your review of Affinity today. I just finished the book this morning and have been puzzled by the ending. It seemed such a sudden twist, that I didn’t quite take it in.

    I loved this book though. Our book club is reading one of Waters’ other books for October, “The Little Stranger”, and I really enjoyed it! The ending is so very subtle in that book, as well as this one. I’m now a Sarah Waters fan. It always a joy for me to discover new authors that I like.

    Thanks again for your review, even though it was written a few years ago, the timing was perfect for me!


    • Sam October 12, 2020 at 3:24 PM #

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! This is a post that steadily gets attention, a credit to Waters’ career. Glad you enjoyed another of her books. I recently read Fingersmith and wasn’t a huge fan but I’m not ready to give up on Waters completely. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person


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