Following on from my previous blog post on Prison Memoirs, my focus today is on Sarah Waters’ novel, Affinity (1999) And the ‘similarity of characteristics’. Protagonist Margaret Prior visits Millbank penitentiary regularly, exploring the physical confinement of the convicts. What I’ve come to discover is, not only does the novel explore Margaret discussing the prison as an outsider, particularly reflecting on the convicts and their lack of freedom, it also portrays the social and mental confinements she endures, and that infact she is far from freedom herself. “The prison is no space of liberty, because its repressive function amplifies, rather than stifles, crime.” (Costantini, 2006, 24)
When Margaret first enters the prison, she is repelled by it:
I have been haunted, rather, by the ordinariness of it; by the fact that it lies there at all, two miles away, a straight cab’s ride from Chelsea- that great, grim, shadowy place, with its fifteen hundred men and women, all shut up and obliged to be silent and meek.” (1999, 32),
And so after her first day at Millbank, she reflects on it: “it was impossible not to feel my own liberty and be grateful for it” (1999, 29). But, what Margaret doesn’t realise is she isn’t liberated at all. Margaret makes the decision to keep returning to Millbank, possibly to seek comfort and a sense of belonging, after her rebellion against society and her over-protective mother.
We discover that Margaret attempted suicide after losing the love of her life, Helen, as she married her brother, Stephen. Helen repressed her homosexuality in order to fit in with societal norms, breaking Margaret’s heart in the process. Margaret’s mother is also extremely restrictive, constantly putting Margaret down. “You are not, infact, Mrs Anybody. You are only Miss Prior. And your place- how often must I say it?- your place is here, at your mothers side.” (1999, 253).
The women at Millbank are physically restricted and Margaret is aware of this, but what she doesn’t realise is she is just like them; restricted by someone or something of a higher power, and so her mother embodies the role of the matrons at Millbank. Selina explains this to Margaret: “You are like me, then. Indeed, you are like all of us at Millbank’ (1999, 208) In reference to her societal captivity. Llewelyn discusses this idea, explaining that ‘Waters asks us to recognise in Affinity is the transference of these tools to a disciplinary procedure outside the prison, within society itself’ (2004, 208).
After reading this novel it’s clear to me that not only are the memoirs Margaret documents a realistic reflection of nineteenth century gaols, but the reference to the convicts’ lack of freedom holds a deeper meaning behind it: the social confinement Margaret faces. In effect, Margaret faces her own (mental) prison walls. To conclude, this idea encapsulates the title flawlessly: “Affinity- a similarity of characteristics”.
Alta Plana, “Piranesi, Giovanni Battista“. https://www.altaplana.be/en/dictionary/piranesi-giovanni-battista. Date Accessed: 8/12/18.
Costantini, Mariaconcetta, ‘“Faux-Victorian Melodrama” in the New Millenium: The Case of Sarah Waters’, Critical Survey 18, no. 1 (2006), pp. 17-39. DOI: 10.3167/001115706780810708 (Electronic Library)
Llewellyn, M. ‘“Queer! I Should Say it is Criminal!”: Sarah Waters’ Affinity (1999), Journal of Gender Studies (2004), 13:3, pp. 203-14. (Electronic Library)
Long Lost Dread: The Millbank Penitentiary (https://blackcablondon.net/2015/03/26/long-lost-dread-the-millbank-penitentiary/) Date Accessed: 8/12/18.
Waters, S. Affinity (1999). Published: Virago press: London (2008 print)