Becoming My Own Ghost: Spinsterhood, Heterosexuality and Sarah Waters's Affinity (Critical Essay‪)‬

Genders 2007, June, 45

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[1] The prominence of the 'ghostly' in Affinity, Sarah Waters's 1991 neo-Victorian gothic fiction of female same sex desire, might be read as a fantastic fictional evocation of a recurring trope in lesbian feminist literary history and historiography: the historical 'invisibility' of lesbian identity. However, I wish to explore the ways in which the narrative of Affinity confounds the very desires which it seems to evoke: that is, the way in which it refuses to satisfy the desire of the contemporary reader for the retrospective materialisation into late Victorian existence of lesbian identity. The protagonist of Affinity, Margaret Prior, discloses an apprehension that she is "becoming [her] own ghost" (289); rather than recuperate the apparitional as the spectral trace of a suppressed identity awaiting restoration to visibility, I will argue that it reveals the implication of categories of sexual identity in heteronormative regimes of visibility. Moreover, Margaret's apparitional indeterminacy as a 'spinster' can be interpreted as revealing the contradictions inherent in a very differently constituted invisibility: the normative 'invisibility' of heterosexuality. [2] Recovering from a suicide attempt following the marriage of her former female lover, Margaret seeks to lose herself in charitable work as a prison visitor; however, she finds in Selina Dawes, an imprisoned spiritualist medium, not only the rekindled possibility of reciprocated desire but also a language through which to express it. Margaret's journals record her growing conviction in the spiritualist doctrine of 'affinity' and in the possibility of the supernatural materialisation of Selina's body out of the confines of Millbank prison. However, the ultimate failure of Margaret's desires to materialise, and the revelation that she has been the unwitting victim of a plot on the part of Selina and her own maid, constitute a devastating culmination to the narrative both for Margaret and the reader who has become affectively identified with her: "There never was a cord of darkness, never a space in which our spirits touched. There was only my longing--and hers, which so resembled it, it seemed my own" (348). I would suggest that Margaret's longing can be understood as expressive of a "desire to live" in the face of "normative violence" (Butler, xx); this violence takes the form of disciplinary discourses, including the medical and the criminal, which deny a reality to her experience of her own desires and which prompt her to attribute her 'faults' to "... me and my queer nature, that set me so at odds with the world and all its ordinary rules, I could not find a place in it to live and be content" (316). Margaret acknowledges both a sense of her difference and of its implications: "'Women are bred to do more of the same--that is their function. It is only ladies like me that throw the system out, make it stagger--' "(209, emphasis in original). She is a woman who makes the system stagger by her inability to comply with its self-perpetuating reproductive logic; her refusal to 'do more of the same' is a refusal of the marital / maternal role integral to compulsory heterosexuality and a refusal to reproduce that role ideologically. Margaret's intuition that there is a 'system' and that such a system can be made to stagger is accompanied by the insight that there are 'ladies like me'; this insight prompts the question of what constitutes the 'likeness' which these ladies share. The late Victorian society depicted in Affinity is able to account for this likeness in only two ways; Margaret is constructed by gendered heterosexual discourses as 'spinster' and by pathologising and criminalising discourses as 'suicide'. However, a further likeness is inferred by Margaret's affinity with Selina. Margaret's desire to live--the "little quickening within me" (163)--finds expression through the unorthodox discourse of spiritualism and its doctrine of affinity; it is only in this

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