An interweaving tale of two entrapped women; a suicidal noblewoman with no purpose and an imprisoned spiritualist claiming innocence. Reality, voice and oppression – not to mention manipulation – are the key themes in this stunning lesbian Victorian ghost story. A rich, beautiful, haunting novel by an excellent author, set in the late 19th century.
Set in the Victorian era, this is a tale of two women trapped by circumstances. Suicidal noblewoman Margaret Prior has recently lost her father to cancer and her lover to her own brother. Spiritualist and medium Selina Dawes has been imprisoned in the historic prison of Millbank for fraud and assault due to the actions of her ‘spirit guide’ ‘Peter Quick’.
Historically, the design of Millbank was not ideal. The labyrinthine corridors led to warders getting lost, and prisoners were able to communicate between cells as sound carried.
Spiritualism is a religious belief that souls exist and can communicate with the living. It is telling, in the context of the novel, that many spiritualists were women, who supported the abolition of slavery and female voting rights. Selina could be interpreted as a woman choosing one of the few independent, legal professions available to her outside of servitude.
Unfortunately, just as Christianity has always had relickers selling fake pieces of the crucifix, or Catholic ‘priests’ selling ‘holy water’, Spiritualism had / has it’s hucksters too. Towards the end of the 19th century, investigators such as the Seyburn Commission began to test the claims of prominent spiritualists and found numerous frauds. Selina’s arrest can also be interpreted in this context. Initially, her fellow spiritualists see her as a martyr; but their sympathy fast evaporates. It is pertinent that spirit guides such as ‘Peter Quick’ were considered controversial even at the time.
Feminism and Social Constraint
“Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, while women’s are so easily stifled?”
Margaret is considered sensitive and hysterical. Her family fail to recognise that when she lost her father she didn’t simply lose a beloved relative – she lost everything. Her occupation, her future, her one chance with her now sister in law.
The prison visits are a complex solution for Margaret; part punishment, part lesson, part treatment. Rather than seeing her good fortune in her advantages over the prisoners, she sees herself in them. At one point, under the influence of opiates, she passionately declares that she should be in Millbank, due to her suicide attempt.
Mrs Prior despises her unconventional daughter, and punishes her in a variety of ways. She drugs Margaret, first with chloral, then with laudanum, against her daughter’s will. She makes her read Little Dorrit, a story of a woman raised in a debtor’s prison, as an obvious mockery of Margaret’s prison volunteering, and her present servitude. There is extra mockery in that Little Dorrit eventually moves to Rome, the city Margaret longs for. There is also a clear parallel with Mrs Clennam, who feels this is her right to punish others, because they hurt her. Like Affinity, Little Dorrit is a sharp critique of imprisonment and class structures.
Indeed the prison is vicious and many of the prisoners sympathetic, even without the strand of unreliable narrators. Powers may be a brothel madam; does that really warrant working her to death in cruel conditions?
Many more women would sympathise with Jane Bonn, the woman who is imprisoned for obtaining an abortion. This woman is given a dehumanising, racist nickname, (Black Eyed Sue), and not even accorded the dignity of her surname. Jane Bonn is described as beautiful, with fabulous, silky black tresses. She fights for her hair and three weeks in, blinds herself in a scene of madness; a haunting reminder of the wronged Janine, in the Handmaid’s Tale. The hints are that the pregnancy wasn’t consensual. Raped, imprisoned, mad and blinded – a life ruined at the whims of men.
Violets – such as those held by Selina, when Margaret first sees her – were associated with lesbian love through the love poems of Sappho and the play La Prisonniere.
Margaret’s intellect, personal wealth and distance from her mother actually placed her in an excellent position to live as a lesbian in Victorian Britain. (Had she known such routes were open to her). Additionally, passionate female friendships, especially among the elite, were a loophole. Women could use their overlooked personal connections during that period to mask lesbian relationships.
Her relationship with fellow researcher Helen is invisible, especially after her ex marries her brother. Her mother makes pointed comments about how Helen’s visits had been a pretext to gain access to Stephen. The implication is that Margaret has been nursing a sad, unrequited and inappropriate crush. To preserve the illusion of heterosexuality, Margaret cannot correct her mother’s assumption or cruelty.
She laughs at her brother’s assumption that she might have picked up a blue stocking companion at the British Museum, and dreads spending time with the spinster scientist at Marishes. Of course in doing so she engages in some pretty obvious self hatred and self sabotage. The workarounds she disdains were often how gay women managed things in that era. The scientist she dismisses out of hand could well have been a fellow lesbian.
That is not to say that Margaret should have settled for whoever was available. More that she could have found a confidante or acquaintance in the other woman regardless, and perhaps a healthy network of friends. Again, it never seems to occur to Margaret that her brother may be fully aware of her preferences and be attempting to help her.
“To keep a flower from fading – add a little glycerine.”
Of course from the beginning it is implied that Selina is not as she seems. Entries from the book of tricks – shadows? – for spiritualists, suggests luminous paint and glycerine as ways to fool their customers.
Her spirit guide, Peter Quick, is a nod to the scoundrel Peter Quint in “The Turn of the Screw”. An early hint of wrongness, as Quint is an avatar of sexual corruption. Indeed, Peter Quick was shown to be other than he portrayed early on.
“His gown was open and his white legs showed,”
Mrs Prior graduated from drugging her daughter with Chloral to Laudanum; in other words, hardcore opiates, which rendered Margaret even more vulnerable and credulous. In fact, laudanum was known to induce euphoria and restlessness, which may have mimicked the love she thought she felt for Selina. It was also known to produce hallucinations, which may well have encouraged Margaret’s belief in Selina’s powers; a feverish obsession born of opium, fed with tid bits of intimate knowledge passed from Vigers to Dawes.
Margaret’s life was a trap, one that made her vulnerable. If Margaret hadn’t gone to Millbank, perhaps she would have drifted into spiritualism, and into one of Selina’s dark circles. She would have been a prime candidate for the mediums. Bled dry slowly, rather than all at once.
Especially as the ‘development’ Selina provides sounds awfully similar to the ‘curative’ orgasms doctors used to give to repressed Victorian women for their ‘hysteria’. This is reinforced when Selina worries that Miss Silvester is ‘too young’. This proves to be true; the girl is frightened by their ‘treatment’ and proves their undoing.
Trivia: Mrs. Brink’s home is in the fashionable district of Sydenham, London; a borough that is the namesake of Thomas Sydenham, who invented Laudanum.
In the End
“Your twisting is done – you have the last thread of my heart. I wonder: when the thread grows slack, will you feel it?”
Margaret’s maid, Vigers, was the domineering and sexually aggressive ‘spirit guide’, ‘Peter Quick’ and Ruth, the maid who served Mrs Brink. She was Selina’s real lover. Vigers intimidated the Priors’ old maid, Boyd, into leaving her position. She even says she has a ‘friend who serves by the river’; i.e. Selina, in Millbank.
In turn Dawes manipulates Mrs Jelf into passing notes and tokens to Vigers to plant the ‘gifts’ that convince Margaret that Selina is a real medium. Upon discovering their betrayal, Margaret ‘breaks out’, like one of the women in the prison, destroying the room and leftover items. It is heavily implied that Margaret takes her own life at the end of the novel, by drowning herself in the ‘soft’, ‘chill’, depths of the Thames.
This was a beautiful, haunting, dark read that I have struggled to get out of my head. This took me a great deal of time to write about but was extremely worth it.