(1999) is English writer Sarah Waters’s second historical fiction novel. Like many of Waters’s other works, it explores the interior lives of and romantic relationships between women during the Victorian era in England. Affinity
won several awards following its publication, including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, both in 2000. It was also shortlisted for the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Fiction. In 2008, it was made into a film.
Margaret Prior is an unmarried upper-class woman living in London. She dislikes her overbearing mother and has been depressed since her father died. She decides to become a Lady Visitor at Millbank Prison, where her job will be inspiring the imprisoned women to give up their lives of crime. Upon arriving, Margaret meets Mr. Shillitoe, the Warden, and Mrs. Jelf, the matron of the prisoners. During a tour of the cells, she spots one of the prisoners holding a flower, which she knows is not allowed. However, since she is struck by the young woman, Margaret says nothing to the warden.
Though Margaret’s mother tries to persuade
her not to visit the prison again, Margret is eager to go back. She visits the women next at mealtime and hears some of their stories, including a woman accused of running a brothel and one in prison for killing her baby. She asks about the young woman with the flower and finds out that she is a medium named Selina Dawes who is in prison for causing one of her clients to have a heart attack during a session. Margaret visits Selina, who tells her that the flower was a gift from her spirit friends.
The next time Margaret visits the prison, she goes to the infirmary. There, she learns some of the women in prison are romantically involved with one another. One woman asks Margaret to pass a message to her lover, but Margaret refuses as she has been instructed to by the warden.
Margaret goes to the mail room and talks with Miss Brewer who sorts the mail. Miss Brewer tells Margaret that Selina never receives letters from outside. Selina says she has all the company she needs in the form of her spirit friends. Selina tells Margaret about the crime that resulted in her being in prison, claiming that it was an accident caused by her client seeing a manifestation of a ghost.
Margaret argues with her friends and family for Selina’s innocence. Waking up one morning soon after, she is dismayed to find her favorite locket missing. She does not tell Selina about the locket, but Selina knows about its disappearance, all the same, telling Margaret that the spirits took it.
The event prompts Margaret to begin investigating Selina. She interviews the librarian at the Spiritualism Association, who tells her that though Selina was reckless on the night of the séance, she should not be in prison. The next time she sees Selina, Margaret asks her about the spirit named Peter Quick whom Selina claims caused her client to have a heart attack. Peter is Selina’s spirit guide, a ghost she has known since childhood.
Margaret goes often to the prison in the weeks leading up to her sister Priscilla’s wedding. Selina complains that the spirits have been tormenting her at night so she cannot sleep. Margaret breaks the rules, giving Selina a pair of gloves to wear. She also notices signs that someone else has been in Selina’s cell. Margaret tells Selina that Priscilla is honeymooning in Italy, and the two women talk about how much they would like to visit there together.
Several strange items appear in Margaret’s home without explanation. Selina convinces her that they are gifts from the spirits, who are generous because Selina and Margaret are soul mates. Selina wants to be with her, and so she plans an escape from prison with the help of the spirits. Margaret is reluctant at first but eventually agrees to help Selina.
Margaret withdraws a large amount of money that her father left her in his will. She then convinces the family to go on vacation without her so the house will be empty. Everything is prepared for them to flee the country together, but on the appointed night, Selina never comes.
At the prison, Margret learns that Selina escaped during the night. Mrs. Jelf confesses to Margaret that she helped Selina escape because Selina helped her contact her dead son. She claims Selina gave her a locket from her son, but when Margaret looks at the locket she recognizes it as her own. She returns home and finds the money and suitcases she packed for the trip are missing, and realizes that Selina has escaped with the family maid, Ruth Vigers, who has been her real accomplice all along. Margaret burns her diary and letters and prepares to end her life in disgrace.