Over the past few months I have looked at various texts and sources and researched the characters that are described within. From looking at the fictional world of Oliver Twist to the real-life accounts of convicts displayed on The Old Bailey Online, I have noticed that each text is complex and a bit of social context can change the way you look at a person or situation.
As I was reading Sarah Waters’ Affinity, I had a similar sense that the novel could be read from a different perspective. While Waters successfully describes a terrible prison system where the convicts are dehumanised, I also got a sense that while Margaret Prior was free from the constraints of prison, she was experiencing an internalised imprisonment as a result of the Victorian social constraints of the time. This is what lead me to create this research blog where I will explore the character of Margaret Prior and gain a better insight into her personal imprisonment.
Affinity was Sarah Waters second novel, and was published in 1999. It is set in 1870’s London and centres around Milbank Prison. Margaret Prior, a woman who is struggling with the death of her father and the relationship between her lover and brother, decides to become a ‘lady visitor’ to the convicts in Milbank Prison in an attempt to gain perspective by looking at the tragic lives of the women incarcerated. Margaret is instantly drawn to Selina Dawes, a spiritualist who is convicted of assault. It is Selina’s reported abilities that draws Margaret to her but it is Selina’s supposed innocence and ideas that they are each other’s ‘affinity’ that leads her back to the prison. The narrative in written from the perspective of both Margaret and Selina through their diary entries, with Margaret’s lengthy passages shaping the text.
From the beginning of the novel we can see Margaret producing bleak diary entries and struggling with depression over recent events, the pressures of her mother and her disconnect with the values of Victorian society. Margaret wishes to be in Italy with her sister–in-law, Helen, but she remains stuck in her life where she fears she will remain a bored spinster.
‘‘only I sit awake – only I … I seem to catch the beating of every clock and watch in it, the cracking of every board and stair”
(Waters, 2011, 84)
Her repetition of “only I” shows us that she feels alone in this society and that no one seems to understand the mental anguish she is experiencing. Margaret cannot be with a woman in this society and she cannot bring herself to live a lie with a husband. This would be an extreme difficulty to overcome as even Queen Victoria felt that women should be “what god intended; a helpmate for man” (Hardie, 1935, 140). This quote shows the popular opinion of the time and the idea that a woman’s life should be defined by a man. These social constraints also prevent her from studying and suggests that her work with her father, a writer and researcher of Renaissance art, would not be acceptable to do alone. In the 19th century there really was not much room for female writers. Robert Southey, the poet laureate of England, famously wrote a response to Charlotte Brontë’s request for advice on a career in the literary field. He said, ‘literature is not the business of a woman’s life, and it cannot be’ (Radek, 2001, n.pag). I found that this quote shows why Margaret continues to question her own writing style and refers back to her father when in doubt. Writing was considered a masculine activity as they had more education opportunities. Literate women did not seem to fit into this world as their writing had to be respected by a predominately male audience. Even though she wants to continue writing, but with a fresh perspective, Margaret constantly wonders how her father would have viewed the prison as she says “I wish Pa was with me now … I would ask him how he would neatly tell the story of a prison – of Millbank Prison – which has so many separate lives in it.” (Waters, 2011, 13). Margaret does not feel secure in her work and “continues to imitate her father’s research methods by returning time and again to the written word as the preferred source of reliable historical knowledge” (Boehm, 2011, 242). I feel that this shows that Margaret is not confident in this field as she knows her mother and society expect her to be defined by a man while she is trying to be defined by her experiences and writing. It suggests to us that she is a prisoner of society as she does not have the freedom to live her life the way she wants as she is restricted by a male dominant society and while she rebels in her writing she still reverts to her father‘s methods.
So why does Selina not seem affected by these social constraints? While Margaret shows doubt in her writing, Selina seems to document her life and encounters with the spirit world so naturally. The style of Selina’s writing makes her seem so self-assured and it compels us to believe her every word. In one of Selina’s diary entries she writes “When I came out of my trance today I came out shaking” (Waters, 2011, 84), which shows us that if Selina writes of the spirit world in her diary and physically shakes because of her trances then she must believe in what she does. Alex Owen explains that spiritualism ‘attracted so many female believers during a period of gender disjunction and disparity between aspiration and reality.’ (Owen, 1989, 4). It is possible that Selina’s engagement with this world is makes her feel a sense of purpose and control, in a world where she does not fit in with the social expectations. However, Owen’s theory does not apply to all spiritualist women. Whilst researching The Old Bailey Online I came across the trial of Susan Willis Fletcher which took place in 1881. Fletcher was convicted for obtaining jewellery and having the intent to obtain other goods through witchcraft and sorcery. Although she defends herself by claiming to be a spiritualist, the court found her guilty on several counts of fraud. This demonstrates that the use of spirituality in women may not have been as innocent as Owen suggests. I also found, while researching Connected Histories, many British newspapers had published articles about Fletcher’s trial and her spiritualist claims. This shows that coming into contact with a spiritualist was not common and it would have been of interest to the public. Mark Llewellyn explained ‘mediumship was simultaneously fascinating, monstrous and socially criminal.’ (Llewellyn, 2004; pg. 9), which explains why people felt intrigued enough to read about it but could not associate themselves with it as the act itself was not widely acceptable in society.
Margaret, however, does want to associate herself with this socially criminal, spiritualist world and is fascinated by the real criminals in Millbank itself. In the build-up to her prison visit she find herself studying a map of the prison to ease her anxieties surrounding this unfamiliar world.
“The prison, drawn in outline, has a curious kind of charm to it, the pentagons appearing as petals on a geometric flower—or, as I have sometimes thought, they are like the coloured zones on the chequer-boards we used to paint when we were children”
(Waters, 2011, 14).
Margaret’s image of the prison as a flower or a child’s painting shows just how disconnected she is from the life and struggles of a convict. Her sudden realisation that “Millbank is not charming. Its scale is vast, and its lines and angles, when realised in walls and towers of yellow brick and shuttered windows, seem only wrong or perverse. It is as if the prison had been designed by a man in the grip of a nightmare or a madness—or had been made expressly to drive its inmates mad” (Waters, 2011,14), demonstrates the dyer reality of the prison to both Margaret and the audience as the contrast of the idea and reality creates a shock effect. After looking through the details of Millbank in Mayhew and Binny’s ‘The Criminal Prisons of London’, I found a quote that matches the details provided in Margarets diary. They write ‘This immense yellow-brown mass of brick-work is surrounded by a low wall of the same material’ (234), and this really shows how sickening the prison would look on the inside. Yellow and brown are putrid colours and the whole image provided makes us feel sorry for the convicts inside Millbank who are faced with this sickening living space.
Similarly, we feel even more sympathetic towards the convicts, particularly Selina, as we discover the strict rules that had to be obeyed inside Millbank. When Margaret enters Millbank she is almost immediately faced with the idea of the convicts having to obey a strict routine.
“I could not have said which was the first prisoner to have entered the ground, and which the last, for the loops were seamless, and the women all dressed quite alike, in frocks of brown and caps of white, and with pale blue kerchiefs knotted at their throats. It was only from their poses that I caught the humanity of them: for though they all walked at the same dull pace”
(Waters, 2011, 18)
This routine is reminiscent of Foucault and his idea ‘that what constitutes the prison is not a structure of bricks and mortar but the disciplined bodies of these women, whose movements retrace the shape of the prison’ (Boehm, 2011, 242). Foucault believed that convicts should be reformed into docile subjects and through the structure of the prison they can constantly be seen and never come into contact with another prisoner. It was believed that this would make prisoners aware of their actions so they would not be tempted to commit any wrong doings. We can see this idea of no communication as Margaret writes “the women must keep silent, in all parts of the prison; that they are forbidden to speak, to whistle, to sing, hum ‘or make any kind” (Waters, 2011, 14). This demonstrates the lack of humanity these women have as they lose their identity. However, some women use their silence to their advantage as it is all they have left. Margaret learns that if she refuses to help one of the women, they remain silent. Margaret requires the women to speak and they use this as a weapon against her. This demonstrates that even women who have nothing but their voices left to give can still hold themselves above Margaret. She has no power and a lack of identity in spite of her freedom. Margarets social status and freedom is the only thing that gives Margaret an advantage but she seldom uses it. After learning about the various ways women try to escape the strict routine of prison by injuring themselves to go to hospital or die, Miss Ridley tells Margaret “the sort of women who pass through here! They hold their lives very cheap’ (Waters, 2011, 49). This demonstrates dramatic irony in the novel as Miss Ridley is unaware of Margaret’s attempted suicide. Margaret does not realise that she is fortunate enough to be respected and have the suicide attempt kept quite while these women have to explain what they did. Their lives seem on display to upper class visitors such as Margaret.
Overall, I do feel that Margaret Prior was the real prisoner in spite of her attempts to “escape from the oppression… by employing herself as a lady visitor at Millbank Prison’ (Balien, 2012, 137). There is a strong sense of irony that Margaret was unable to escape from the social conventions of both life and the male dominated world of writing, whereas Selina had less power and successfully escaped from the prison system. Margarets ultimate descent into becoming a prisoner is at the end of the novel. Like the prisoners Margaret is silenced, but through burning her notes and through suicide, meaning she has silenced her own voice.
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