Briefly, context: the story is told via the diary of the young upper class chronically depressed girl Margaret Prior, who after her father dies is convinced to become a Lady Visitor for Millbank women’s prison. She becomes obsessed with Selina Dawes (whose diary chapters also appear), a poor but well known disgraced medium, in prison for the murder of her benefactor. Prior begins to explore the world of spiritualism whe they plan Dawes’ escape from prison.
I didn’t think writing about this book would be as hard as I am finding it. This is a melancholy book. This should be less surprising than it is, it’s not a cheerful piece, even compared to Sarah Waters’ other books. Gloomy book, gloomy world with gloomy resolutions.
I ate it up. It’s one of the few books in the past six or so months I was able to read and I fucking inhaled it.
I was in a gloomy sort of world too I guess, though instead of enchantment at Victorian Occultism it was a much more mundane nightmare of returning home (again, again and again because you can’t stay home) as a loved one succumbs to cancer. Maybe this is why reading the book had such drive, a drive to read that I’ve been lacking lately? This parallel is hard to ignore but it is unfair to the author.
Waters primarily writes in the lit-fic realms, credited with inventing the idea of period lesbian fiction as a sub-genre. Starting off as a researcher, her attention to detail, to history, to its gaps, her books excel at telling tales of the forgotten Other both in terms of queer women and the awful realities of station, breaking me at least firmly away from the rose-coloured lenses that fill everyone from a young steampunk cosplayer to my Dickens-worshipping grandmother with romantic notions of the 19th century.
It’s important to understand this weird sort of disconnect reading this book had for me. I know Waters writes based in lit-fic, which I only ever really invested in for studies. She is invested in the realites of how ‘outside’ mainstream cultures worked in the Victorian. I am primarily a genre reader with a love for science fiction and fantasy, markets and a culture that are currently dominated by aesthetics of steampunk and the (re?*)acceptance of paranormal romance as its embarrassing genre cousin. These are groups invested in a completely different other, that often does involve miracles not always disguised as real-life science, I-want-to-believe attitudes** and deus ex machinas to ensure happy endings.
This mesh of reading suits the novel well, I think. Waters hinges the book on investing you in that want and need to believe in the unreal, that Dawes can simply disappear from prison. For the love between them to be real, for Prior’s clumsy understandings of herself and sexuality to be real, the magic needs to be real. I think as a genre reader you can’t help but feel that it will be real, or that the ‘trick’ behind the magic will be suitably real to enable that love and happy ending. The more hypnotising the book becomes.
The more you invest in this belief the more devastating, I think. Waters extends the theme of tricking perspective writing into perspective of the narrative itself to create the climactic break. Unlike Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet the happy ending of the story is less obvious. And it is a happy ending, but you don’t see it straight away. Dawes escapes and runs away to Europe presumably to be happy with her lover, after tricking the wealthy into giving her what she needs to escape from poverty… but we don’t see that perspective. We see Prior absolutely broken by the betrayal, her need to believe and isolation used to steal her passport, identity, money and clothing. The novel’s emotional catch: Dawes’ spiritual non-existence.
I did say it was a depressing book.
* I remember how popular Interview With A Vampire in the 90s. Paranormal romance just doesn’t have a name now.
** 90s nostaligia seems to suit sentimentality.