by Sarah Waters
Margaret Prior and Selina Dawes meet in Victorian London’s dank Millbank Prison.
Although Margaret is a volunteer “lady visitor” and Selena a prisoner convicted of fraud and assault, it is Margaret who is stifling in the life she is expected to live.
Her brother married her former girlfriend. Her father’s death two years earlier robbed her of a stimulating intellectual life. Her younger sister’s marriage leaves her home alone with a demanding mother. Margaret has money she can’t use without her brother’s co-signature. She has an education, but no work.
Recovering from a suicide attempt, Margaret becomes a lady visitor as part of her recovery and rehabilitation. Selina, a psychic who speaks of loving spirit friends who are always nearby even in Millbank, fascinates her.
The more she visits, the more Margaret feels Selina can read her heart. They have an affinity, Selina tells her, they are two halves of a single being. Mysterious happenings in Margaret’s room at home seem to confirm this. Their particular friendship does not escape the notice of the prison matrons who take steps to break up the friendship.
As Margaret despairs, Selina proposes a marvelous, seemingly impossible idea: What if she — with the help of her spirit friends — could escape from Millbank and join Margaret in the free world to runaway together to Italy.
This tightly plotted book is suspenseful to the end. Gloomy and atmospheric, the story is well-grounded in history. It evolved from an academic paper that author Sarah Waters had been working on while finishing her first novel, Tipping the Velvet.
Millbank was a prison that existed from 1816 to 1890 within sight of the Houses of Parliament. During part of its history, it was a holding center for prisoners being transported to Australia.
New York Times reviewer Carol Anshaw said of Waters’ novels, “the tectonic plates beneath the storytelling are formed by British society — how its attitudes shift, how they don’t. Along class lines, About lesbian sex. Concerning the place of women.”
About the Author: Sara Waters
Born in Wales in 1966, Waters counts among her literary influences such Victorian writers as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and the Brontes, and such contemporary writers with a Victorian focus as A.S. Byatt and John Fowles.
Her doctoral thesis from Queen Mary, University of London was titled Wolfskins and Togas: Lesbian and Gay Historical Fictions, 1870 to the Present. Her research provided the foundations of many of her novels. She began Tipping the Velvet, which was turned into a BBC television series, immediately after finishing her thesis.
Most of her books contain lesbian themes and feature characters dealing with changes in their circumstances due to war, economic forces or other issues beyond their control. She admits to a commitment to “teasing out lesbian stories from part of history that are regarded as quite heterosexual,” although she also describes the sexuality of her protagonists as “incidental.”
Her most recent books are:
- Fingersmith (2002), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and made into a BBC One serieal in 2005, and
- The Night Watch (2006), which is set in the 1940s and tells the stories of a man and three women with themes about intimacy, disappointment, loss and betrayal.
- The Little Stranger (2009), also set in the 1940s, has no overtly lesbian characters. It is a ghost story involving a family that owns a large country house they can no longer afford in the economic realities of post-World War II Britain.
- The Paying Guests (2014), which is set in the 1920s and deals with the social and economic impact of World War I. Frances Wray and her mother, having lost a father/husband and two brothers/sons, are forced to take in lodgers, Leonard and Lilian Barber. Romance and murder follow.