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Posted at 19:01 on 29 Dec 2008 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: books, corrupting the innocent, Fantasies, meta-analysis, reviews, Victoriana

Merry Christmas! I hope everyone's having a brilliant holiday. Today was my first day "back at work", but I'm afraid I haven't achieved very much. Having spent the last four days drinking, carousing and staying up all night with my family of choice, I'm still recovering. I got up this morning, blearily checked my email, cursed my freezing cold flat, and at the point I discovered I had neither hot water for a shower nor milk for tea, I gave up on the day and went back to bed.

I absolutely don't regret this decision, as I can catch up on work later in the week, and my morning was delicious. I didn't go back to sleep, but I ate all of a Thorntons Eden box of very sinful chocolates, and finished reading Affinity, the new Sarah Waters novel which was my Christmas gift to myself.

Sarah Waters' books perfectly map a substantial part of my fantasy landscape. The only difference is that her Victorian London is queer, and mine is queer and kinky. The queer relationships she describes tend to be tragic and complex; full of repression, oppression, changing alliances, dysfunctional power dynamics and unrequited longing. As a queer woman I kind of wish she applied her formidable skill as a storyteller to describing healthy, cheerful lesbian relationships ... but hey, they make much less interesting stories. (And, I'll be honest: her portrayal of same-sex relationships pretty much matches my own experiences so far. I hope to meet a woman one day with whom I can enjoy romance without unnecessary drama, but haven't yet. This might say more about me than anything else though.)

The lesbians aren't the main reason I love Waters' work, although as a submissive I adore the unjust power dynamics in her romances. And I admire the sophistication of her narrative techniques, her twisting, thrilling plots that never fail to surprise me. But her main appeal, shallow though this may make me, is the immersive, compelling way she writes about Victorian institutions.

Huge households, where the family and staff form an insular hierarchy, with the lowest servants at the mercy of those above them. Asylums for the insane, where women are straitjacketed, subjected to electroshock and cold water treatment, have their hair cut and are punished for not conforming. More indirectly, she also writes about the intricate, written social institutions of the Victorian underworld: the theatre; sex workers; families of thieves. In Affinity both these trends are continued with a story that threads between three settings: the dark circles of Victorian spiritualists, dabbling with ghosts and mysticism with their own set of rules and expectations; a miserable great house rife with tensions between aristocrats and servants; and a ghastly, towering women's prison cut off from the rest of London on its own grim island.

I bought the book since writing my last post, without even realising what it was about. Having finished it, I'm finding it harder than ever to get my image of prison out of the 19th century.

Affinity doesn't contain any mention of CP, but every scene seems to be pregnant with the possibility of it. The strict rules of the prison and the ogreish matrons who patrol it. The tragic stories of the women who find themselves there - abortionists, attempted suicides, prostitutes, pickpockets - most of them poor, few of them with other options. The aristocratic ladies in Waters' books are rarely sympathetic, and her working-glass characters tend to be far more real and interesting.

My fantasies tend not to focus on deserved punishment, but on unjust mistreatment; what better setting than a barbaric, miserable prison populated for the most part, not by criminal masterminds, but the gutsy victims of misfortune?

Affinity is packed full of details to delight the kinky imagination. The rigid structure of the prison day; the lessons given twice a week from tattered textbooks, in which the grown women stand with hands clasped before them to recite their Bibles. Visits to the prison chaplain; the chief Matron's office with its wooden posts and shackles. Cruel forced exercise; pointless work that makes your fingers bleed and your eyes itche; stockrooms full of chains, hobbles and handcuffs; tiny, damp, freezing cells buried deep below the Thames where rebellious women are straitjacketed and shut up for days in the absolute dark.

Or maybe the details aren't important. Maybe the point is the system, the institutional structure intended to shut down all humanity ... and yet, conversely where the tiniest glimmer of kindness seems to glow all the brighter.

Sadly, I don't have the budget to make a spanking film set in Millbank Prison. But if it's possible to make a film that captures the essence of the institutional context - the controlling, oppressive, punishing atmosphere and the inspiring way that the human spark can respond to it - then, I think, I'll be on the way to expressing one of the most important internal narratives of my kink.

All I need now is for Waters to write a book set in an educational seminary for young ladies, and I'll be set.


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