Published: March 1, 2007 By

[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 ofAffinity 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 context that the possibility of the materialisation of non-normative desires is entertained: “Did you think there is only the kind of love your sister knows for her husband ? . . .” (210). Through a close examination of the discourses, both normative and marginal, by which Margaret’s ‘likeness’ to others of her kind is understood, I wish to explore how she becomes ‘ghostly’ to herself as a woman outside of the institution of heterosexuality.

“The mark of the shelf”: becoming a spinster

[3] “’They found me with my hand upon the chair-back, trembling with fear and shame, the mark of the shelf I suppose at my cheek . . . ‘” (240).

[4] Yopie Prins importantly acknowledges the historical agency of elective spinsters when she suggests that “the generation of unmarried middle-class women that came of age in the 1870’s and 1880’s played an important role in the transition from mid-Victorian maid to fin-de-siècle New Woman; during the last three decades of the century, single women were beginning to redefine familial relations and conventional domesticity” (46). However, the reproductive and teleological logic implicit in this generational narrative retrospectively posits women as ‘coming of age’ into identities which are already inscribed by feminist historiography; in Affinity, by contrast, the normative violence experienced by unmarried women creates a more problematic relation to linear temporality. In a narrative in which the crossing of thresholds between worlds is theatrically enacted through the practices of spiritualism, another ‘passing over’ is less dramatically realised but just as transformative; in passing over into the world of spinsterhood, Margaret has departed a world in which social and familial futures can be anticipated, into an existence which is characterised by a suspension of time and being. As Margaret comments somewhat ironically of her newly married sister Priscilla: “’She has evolved, like one of your spirits. She has moved on. And I am left, more firmly unevolved than ever’” (208, emphasis in original).

[5] Given the centrality of marriage and motherhood to the normative gendered identity of adult women in late Victorian England, to fail to proceed to these conditions is in some way to forfeit the identity of ‘woman’, a failure signified by the construction of a gendered category of identity other than woman: the spinster. Where femininity is equated with reproductive sexuality, reproduction is deemed the natural destiny of all women and marriage the only legitimate means for its fulfilment; women whose desires or social roles escape this function confound the ideological construction of biological females as women. As Janet Fink and Katherine Holden write, the figure of the spinster “challenge[s] the institution of marriage and the emotional, sexual and financial dependency assigned to the roles of wife and mother by the marriage contract” (233). Spinsterhood, whether elective or unsought, calls into question the heterosexual construction of gender. To paraphrase Monique Wittig (1992): a spinster is not a woman. However, spinsterhood constructs Margaret’s difference as heterosexual failure; the agency potentially at work in a refusal of gendered heterosexuality is rewritten as an inability to accept a natural destiny. The spinster is transformed from a woman whose wants are other than those permitted by normative gendered identity, to a woman who is found wanting and not wanted.

[6] Spinsterhood denotes an identity which is fixed and irrevocable in time; it is a default identity, defined by what has not happened and confirmed by the temporal certainty that it will not happen. However, there is a strong sense in which Margaret’s spinsterhood is constructed for her well in advance of the temporal moment in which it might be said to have arrived; Margaret’s rather uncanny sense of ‘becoming a spinster’ suggests a process which has had a trajectory rather than a retrospective logic. Returning to the British Library Reading Room after an absence of two years since her father’s death, Margaret finds that she has changed: “The others, who do not know me, call me ‘madam’ now, I noticed, instead of ‘miss’. I have turned, in two years, from a girl into a spinster” (58). As a visitor to the Library in the company of her father, Margaret’s scholarly interests are seen as in keeping with the attentions of a dutiful daughter. It is perhaps not simply the passage of time that has transformed Margaret from ‘miss’ to ‘madam’ so much as the fact of her returning independently and alone; her pursuit of her intellectual interests suggest an autonomy at odds with a femininity defined in relation to the service of masculine needs. Without the legitimising paternal presence, Margaret’s desire for knowledge becomes transgressive.

[7] Margaret’s spinsterhood is further confirmed publicly by her sister’s ‘passing’; in marrying before her older sister, Priscilla has surpassed her and Margaret’s marital belatedness has been exposed. When Margaret witnesses her sister “pass me in the church“ (199) her identity undergoes a transformative shift: “I thought that there were one or two curious or pitying glances cast my way – but not so many, I am sure, as there were at Stephen’s wedding. Then, I suppose, I was my mother’s burden. Now I am become herconsolation” (199, emphasis in original). The spinsterhood which might have designated a freedom from the obligations of unwanted marriage and motherhood here signifies an ongoing subjection to a patriarchal mother. The widowed mother appropriates the emotional labour of her unmarried daughter as compensation for the loss both of her husband and of the daughter with whom she identifies as reproducing her own role. Margaret’s identity as spinster is its own punishment as it exposes her to her mother’s contempt: “ ‘You are not Mrs Browning, Margaret – as much as you would like be. You are not, in fact, Mrs Anybody. You are only Miss Prior. And your place – how often must I say it ? – your place is here at your mother’s side’ ” (253, emphasis in original). Indeed, spinsters are elsewhere incarcerated in the guise of useful occupation: “ . . . none of the wardresses there have husbands, but are all spinsters, or else widows . . . ‘You must not be a matron,’ she [Mrs Jelf] said, ‘and also married’” (161-162). The spinster and prison inmate, whether warder or convict, are institutionalised alike through patriarchal confinement. A further analogy between the spinster and the female convict, as problems requiring a solution, is confirmed inAffinity when Miss Haxby recounts the kinds of assistance which lady visitors have brought to their charges: “She said that ladies had helped many of her girls – had helped them at last to places suited to their station, had led them to new lives, away from their shame, away from their old influences, away from England itself sometimes, to marriage, in the Colonies” (214). As the object of public anxieties about ‘surplus’, ‘superfluous’ and ‘redundant’ women, and despite the significant contributions, often voluntary and unpaid, made by unmarried women to the social sphere (see Vicinus, 1985), the spinster is perceived as problematically non-(re)productive. Hence, the female convict and spinster alike must be ‘placed’ within the legitimate and (re)productive sphere of marriage.

[8] Priscilla’s marriage is one manifestation of a sequence of ‘difficult times’ which, within the logic of the family script, anticipate Margaret’s ‘passing over’ into spinsterhood:

[9] Oh, I said, I had heard words like that, so many times! When Stephen went to school when I was ten: they said that that would be ‘a difficult time’, because of course I was so clever, and would not understand why I must keep my governess. When he went to Cambridge it was the same; and then, when he came home and was called to the bar. When Pris turned out to be so handsome they said that would be difficult, we must expect it to be difficult, because of course I was so plain. And then, when Stephen was married, when Pa died, when Georgy was born – it had been one thing leading to another, and they had said only, always, that it was natural, it was to be expected that I should feel the sting of things like that; that older, unmarried sisters always did (203).

[10] The difficulty of these times is attributed ‘only’ and ‘always’ to Margaret’s inability to accept as natural the ‘sting’ of inequality embedded in normative gender roles, both in terms of the differences of opportunity available to men and women and the differences in status allotted to women on the basis of their feminine desirability. Feelings which might be deemed unnatural within the terms of the dominant discourses of gender – Margaret’s desire for intellectual development, her disinterest in competing in the marriage market – are naturalised when placed within a narrative which prepares for her in advance the role of spinster. Each ‘time’ constitutes a threshold from one stage of identity to another; as a spinster Margaret suffers a difficulty with time in her refusal to comply with its linear and reproductive logic.

[11] The pathologising of the spinster as a woman whose femininity has deviated from the norm is evident in Margaret’s mother’s equation of her ‘illness’ with her unmarried status: “You wouldn’t be ill like this . . . if you were married” (261). The spinster is ridiculed as a figure whose emotions have found improper, or perhaps inappropriately gendered, objects. An “unmarried cousin of the family’s” at Marishes is implicitly proposed as a fitting companion for Margaret: “a very clever lady – she collects moths and beetles, and has exhibited to entomological societies, ‘alongside gentlemen’” (96). The inference is that the lady is herself the ‘exhibit’, kept behind glass, like her insect specimens, within the family home for the amusement of visitors. While Margaret recoils from this likeness she emphatically identifies herself as a spinster in the eyes of others in her passionate attachment to Selina: “It was myself, a spinster, pale and plain and sweating and wild, groping from a swaying prison ladder after the severed yellow tresses of a handsome girl . . . “ (240). Haunted by “that gross vision, of the spinster, grasping after the switch of hair . . . “ (244), it is evident that Margaret has internalised a conviction that, as a spinster, any display of passion will be read as evidence of incipient deviancy; the fact that her passion is for a woman, also hints at the possibility that the identity of spinster is one which potentially contains desires not granted a legitimate existence.

[12] In becoming a spinster, Margaret forfeits her gendered identity; if a spinster is one who has not fully acceded to her place within the order of reproductive sexuality, then she is something other than a woman. Significantly, Margaret’s recognition of her likeness with others of her kind is expressed in apparitional terms: “There were many spinsters there to-day, I think – more, certainly, than I remember. Perhaps, however, it is the same with spinsters as with ghosts; and one has to be of their ranks in order to see them at all” (58). The ghostliness of the spinster is less to do with her visibility than with her legibility within heteronormative terms; she is not invisible so much as unseen by those for whom her meaning has no significance.

“Breaking out”: being a suicide

[13] “’Will you go on being a prisoner, in your own dark cell, forever?’” (274).

[14] The marginalized identity constituted by spinsterhood is nevertheless socially sanctioned; in Millbank prison, however, Margaret encounters her likeness in illicit form. The disciplinary power exercised by the prison as an institution is not confined to the incarceration of bodies; it also extends to the reinscription of identities in that its inmates are interpellated into criminal identities. Mrs Pretty’s roll call of the “troublesome . . . or incorrigible” (22) residents of Wards D and E gives rise to a deeply uncanny moment:

[15] ‘Jane Hoy, ma’am: child murderer, Vicious as a needle.’Phoebe Jacobs: thief. Set fire to her cell.

‘Deborah Griffiths: pickpocket. Here for spitting at the chaplain.

‘Jane Samson: suicide – ‘ (23)

[16] Samson is imprisoned for her repeated suicide attempts or, more properly, she is punished for the repeated ‘failure’ of her efforts to take her own life, for surviving her efforts to erase her existence. Moreover, her punishment is the social death of imprisonment as a criminal. Samson’s sentence can be seen as evidence of the criminalising of madness, if attempted suicide is taken as an expression of profound psychological distress. Conversely, the penitential cure to which convicts are subject is perceived by Margaret as inducing madness: “It was as if the prison had been designed by a man in the grip of a nightmare or a madness – or had been made expressly to drive its inmates mad” (8, emphasis in original). Millbank, then, is a space to which madness is committed, a place within which it is produced in order to be regulated; it is a form of confinement designed to withdraw the criminal and mad alike from view and to subject them to a punitive surveillance (see Foucault 1961, 1975). However, the unspoken affinity between Margaret and Jane Samson – as ‘suicides’ – exposes this boundary as fragile and contingent.

[17] Margaret crosses this boundary when, empowered by the chloral which has been prescribed as the cure for her illness, she manifests her ‘madness’ by speaking with a “fearful kind of clarity”: “ ‘Don’t you think that queer ? That a common coarse-featured woman might drink morphia and be sent to gaol for it, while I am saved and sent to visit her – and all because I am a lady?’” (256, emphasis in original). Margaret transgresses the spatial boundary between home and prison when, in her delirium, her gown transforms itself into the strait jacket used as a restraint at Millbank: “Now my gown had me gripped like a fist, so that the more I wriggled to undo it, the tighter it grew – at last,There is a screw at my back, I thought, & they are tightening it!” (257, emphasis in original). This delusion might seem to indicate the return of Margaret’s madness but it also signifies a meaningful recognition: that of the domestic space of her familial room as itself a form of ‘dark cell’. Millbank represents the violence held in reserve for those who do not conform:“[The walls were] densely hung with iron – with rings and chains and fetters, and with other, nameless, complicated instruments whose purposes I could only, shuddering, guess at” (179). However, it is a violence which is not unknown to Margaret’s memory as she recalls the events following the discovery of her suicide attempt: “the weeping and the shrieking, and Mr Ashe and Mother, the bitter reek of morphia, and my tongue swollen from the pressing of the tube” (88).

[18] Millbank offers models not only of repressive violence but also of transgressive violence. The “breaking out” which is “peculiar to female gaols” (177, emphasis in original) is contained to the space of the cell and the body of the prisoner; as a form of destruction it has an internalising quality which renders it peculiarly feminine: “ ‘The blankets not just ripped but shredded. They do that with their mouths. We have found teeth, in the past, that they have lost in their great fury…’ “ (178). This ‘breaking out’ is re-enacted by Margaret on discovering her betrayal by Selina:

[19] I seized the mattress and then the bed; the sheets I ripped. The tearing cotton – how can I write it? – it was like a drug upon me. I tore and tore, until the sheets were rags, until my hands were sore; and then I put the seams to my own mouth and tore with my teeth (342).

[20] Margaret’s attempted suicide is taken as evidence of her illness; her cure requires her to assume the status of a patient subject to medical intervention and hence assures the pathologising of her identity. The identity of the illness which prompted Margaret’s attempt to take her own life, however, remains unspecified. The cause of Margaret’s suicide is held to be grief for the loss of her father yet the “’old griefs’” (29) to which Helen refers suggest causes less singular and more longstanding. The locket worn by Margaret, given to her by father, is seen as a signifier of her ongoing devotion to his memory but it contains and conceals another kind of mourning: “It is the curl of Helen’s hair I am afraid for, that she cut from her own head and said I must keep, while she still loved me. I am only afraid of losing that – for God knows! I’ve lost so much of her already” (91). In ‘breaking out’ Margaret manifests both her ‘madness’ and, by implication, her criminality: that is, she confirms that her suicide was an act of gender transgression, as her mother suspects. Margaret’s mother attributes to her daughter the deviousness, cunning and dissimulation which the prison matrons attribute to their charges; she sees Margaret as a recidivist “picking [her] own wilful way again towards illness” (223) and, denying the reality of Margaret’s distress, insists that her ‘illness’ is a ruse: “ ‘You keep that card to play as you choose. You are ill when it suits . . . . You are selfish . . .and wilful’” (252).

[21] The uncanniness of Margaret’s encounter with the ‘suicide’ at Millbank arises not only from a sense that a suicide cannot be there, but also from the sense that Margaret should be there: that Margaret is to encounter herself when she peers through the inspection flap of the cell: “’It is really I who should have been put there! – not her, not her at all. . . . But didn’t you know . . . that they send suicides to gaol ?’“ (255). Margaret’s conviction that she should be in ‘her’ place here substitutes Selina for the ‘suicide’; anxiety and guilt compel Margaret to wish to take Selina’s place in ‘the darks’ but also betray a sense of the unspoken crime for which Selina has been convicted. Margaret’s recognition of the criminal identity from which she is protected by her class is also a kind of affirmation of her shared identity: her ‘likeness’ not only to Samson but also to Selina. The ghostly quality of the spinster – “one has to be of their ranks in order to see them at all” (58) – is compounded by that of the convict: “’They might be ghosts!’” (20). If the spinster is a woman without gender, the ‘suicide’ is a woman who has attempted to leave her gender behind: as Selina says of Margaret: “You have felt what it’s like, to leave your life, to leave your self – to shrug it from you, like a gown” (275). The heterosexual discourse of the spinster and the pathologising and criminalizing discourses of the ‘suicide’ render Margaret ghostly. These discourses subject Margaret to the ‘cycle of prohibition’ characteristic of a repressive understanding of power as described by Michel Foucault: “Renounce yourself or suffer the penalty of being suppressed; do not appear if you do not want to disappear. Your existence will be maintained only at the cost of your nullification” (1976). However, Margaret does seek another existence through the supernatural visual technologies of spiritualism; moreover, the fact that the materialisation of her desires entails “becoming my own ghost” (289) suggests a complex relationship to visibility.

“Becoming my own ghost”: difference visible

[22] In Affinity, Margaret’s identity as a woman who loves women is written out; it is written over by heterosexual romance through the family script and consigned to oblivion when Margaret burns her private journals. Margaret’s fear that her ‘difference’ will become visible to others is symptomatic of the extent to which she has internalised the edict of invisibility.

[23] The material practices of writing and memorialising history are foregrounded from the outset: “Pa used to say that any piece of history might be made into a tale: it was only a question of deciding where the tale began and where it ended” (7). Here the essence of narrative is attached to its linear form and its causal logic and yet the very question of the origins and causes of Margaret’s ‘tale’ are confounded or obscured. Margaret’s loss is not merely the loss of Helen’s love but also the erasure of the significance of that relationship. Helen’s attachment to Margaret is written over by a family script which retrospectively understands Helen’s visits to the family home as a ruse whose culmination was her marriage to Margaret’s brother: “’Of course, we did not know – did we Priscilla – that it was all on Stephen’s account that she came here’“ (102). Supported by Helen’s private and public silence on their past attachment, this script rewrites Margaret’s feelings out of existence: “I have heard the story told that way so many times, I am half-way to believing it myself” (103). The relationship takes on a ghostly quality; Margaret refers to her bed as “’ . . . haunted, by our old kisses’”, testifying to Helen that “I have seemed to see our kisses there sometimes, I’ve seen them hanging in the curtains, like bats, ready to swoop” (204).

[24] Margaret is tormented by a fear of her difference becoming visible. In this novel, the Panoptical design of Millbank prison, and its mobilising of the disciplinary gaze – “the women term it the eye” (23, emphasis in original) – extends beyond the prison walls. Visibility, whether withdrawn or imposed, is a regime used to deny women agency over their own identity; whether exhibited in her cell – “All the world may look at me, it is part of my punishment’ ” (43) – or confined in ‘the darks’ – “’the darkness is the punishment’” (182) – the prisoner is reminded that her identity resides in the owner of the gaze. Margaret’s warder is not a matron but her mother, whose surveillance is as punishing: “She said that; and I knew then that, careful as I have been – still and secret and silent as I have been, in my high room – she has been watching me, as Miss Ridley watches, and Miss Haxby” (223). The conflation of mother and matron is confirmed more than once; on receiving Miss Haxby’s cautionary advice in the view of Miss Ridley, Margaret comments that “it was like thanking Mother for some piece of hard counsel while Ellis took the plates away” (17) and later compounds this comparison: “I said, ‘Miss Haxby’ – but I stumbled over the words, for I had almost said Mother !” (267, emphasis in original). For her mother, Margaret’s behaviour is defined as deviant to the extent that it is visible; she chides Margaret for “grow[ing] so nervous before the maids . . . “ (222) and declares that “she could not bear to have our friends believe me weak, or eccentric – “ (252). Margaret fears that her ‘difference’ will manifest itself in external signs and will thereby compromise or expose her: “I thought she [Selina] would see some sign about me, something dishevelled or illuminated – I remembered then fearing the same thing of Mother, when I went back to her from visiting Helen” (189). Having embarked on her conspiracy with Selina, Margaret is increasingly anxious under the gaze of the prison warders: “I am frightened the matrons will see it, and guess” (286). The ‘it’ at which the matrons might guess here denotes not only the specific secret of her conspiracy with Selina but also the desire which motivates it. Margaret’s pact with Selina offers to realise both what she most desires and what she most fears, objects which may be identical: “People would learn that we had done. I would be seen, and recognised” (274, my emphasis).

[25] Having destroyed the journal which recorded her relationship with Helen, Margaret attempts to write her desires out of existence and to quell the “twisting thoughts” which “filled [her] last book” (30): “I mean this writing not to turn me back upon my own thoughts, but to serve, like the chloral, to keep the thoughts from coming at all” (70). Margaret evokes the disciplinary mechanisms of the prison as a metaphor for her efforts to restrain and control her past and its meanings: “His [Mr Shillitoe] knowing nothing, and the women’s knowing nothing, that will keep that history in its place. I imagined them fastening my own past shut, with a strap and a buckle . . . “ (29). However, there are other discourses capable of quickening into life the very subjectivity which this effacing practice of writing was intended to erase:

[26] I thought that I could make my life into a book that had no life or love in it – a book that was only a catalogue, a kind of list. Now I can see that my heart has crept across these pages, after all. I can see the crooked passage of it, it grows firmer as the paper turns. It grows so firm at last, it spells a name –          Selina (241)

[27] The discourses of spiritualism, and more specifically the doctrine of affinities, authorises subjective and affective identifications in terms beyond those of normative constructions of identity (see Owen, McGarry and Tromp).

[28] Selina describes the concept of affinity as follows: “[After death] we will all fly to someone, we will all return to that piece of shining matter from which our souls were torn with another, two halves of the same. . . that other soul, that has the affinity with her soul . . . It may be someone she would never think to look to on the earth, someone kept from her by some false boundary . . .’” (210). Affinity cannot be contained by the ‘false boundaries’ of the material world; it is neither sexed nor gendered and so allows for desires other than those sanctioned by heterosexual norms. The seeking of affinity is compelled by the pursuit of likeness and licenses the relinquishing of existing identities:

[29] ‘We have been cut, two halves, from the same piece of shining matter. Oh, I could say, I love you – that is a simple thing to say, the sort of thing your sister might say to her husband. . . But my spirit does not love yours – it is entwined with it. Our flesh does not love: our flesh is the same, and longs to leap to itself. It must do that or wither! You are like me‘ (275, emphasis in original).

[30] The likeness which Margaret and Selina share is a likeness of gender which is contrary to the logic of difference on which heterosexuality is premised: that is, the likeness which “longs to leap to itself” (275). However, it is also a likeness in difference; they are alike in being apart from conventional society and in having elected to “leave [the] self” (275), whether as spirit medium or as ‘suicide’. The likeness of those gifted with spiritual powers is an identity which only they can recognise and share: “I might meet someone, sometimes, and I would know they were like me. But that was no good of course, if the person did not know it too – or, worse, if she guessed at it and was afraid” (110). Within the context of the supernatural, as opposed to the unnatural, difference is legitimised as a gift bestowed rather than a deviance pursued; ‘sickness’ is the outcome not of its expression but of its suppression: “ ‘If we neglect this thing, then your powers will wither, or else they will twist inside you & make you sick. . . I think you have felt those powers begin to twist a little already, haven’t you ?’” (260).

[31] Margaret’s fear that her inner ‘difference’ – her “queer nature” (316) – might betray her by manifesting itself in external and legible signs conveys not only a compound fear of and desire for recognition but also a sense of being somehow changed or transformed by her illicit knowledge of herself: “I knew my trips to [Selina] had made me strange, not like myself – or worse, that they had made me too much like myself, like my old self, my naked Aurora self. Now when I tried to be Margaret again, I couldn’t. It seemed to me that she had dwindled, like a suit of clothes” (242, emphasis in original). The identity which is being materialised possesses the spectrality of those who defy the binary logic of visible and invisible: “I am evolving. . . . My flesh is streaming from me. I am becoming my own ghost!” (289, emphasis in original).

The apparitional spinster

[32] When Margaret wonders whether it is “the same with spinsters as with ghosts” and “one has to be of their ranks in order to see them at all” (58), the temptation for the contemporary reader may be to deduce that it is ‘the same’ with lesbians as with spinsters as with ghosts and to ‘see’ what Margaret cannot see (that she is ‘of their ranks’). However, such a reading might commit what Annamarie Jagose has described, in her discussion of “lesbian legibility” in Little Dorrit, as a “perspectival error” (442); it would discover in Margaret a lesbian identity which is actually the “effect of a later historical moment that not only produces modern taxonomies of sexuality but constitutes us as their most thoroughly interpellated subjects” (442, my emphasis). Moreover, a retrospective reading of this kind would also occlude the spinster and the specific ways in which she troubles heterosexual categories of gender and sexuality. I wish here to return to the figure of the spinster and to suggest the ways in which readings of the spinster as a ‘hidden’ lesbian might be implicated in a heteronormative regime of visibility.

[33] As the narrative of Affinity suggests, the normative discourses of heterosexual and patriarchal history cannot see the nineteenth century spinster other than as a woman without sexuality living a vicarious existence through familial attachment to other people’s marriages. Such narratives are challenged in Sheila Jeffreys’s The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality, 1880-1930 in which she reclaims the spinster as a model of an elective, autonomous and woman-centred existence. Moreover, Jeffreys seeks to make visible a history of lesbian identity hidden within the history of the spinster: “Any attack on the spinster is inevitably an attack on the lesbian. Women’s right to be lesbian depends on our right to exist outside sexual relations with men. When lesbians are stigmatised and reviled, so, also, are all women who live independently of men” (100). The spinster as lesbian defies the ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ which is unable to see her as anything other than a failed heterosexual. Indeed, the ‘invisibility’ of female same sex desire and of lesbian identity is a recurring trope in lesbian feminist criticism and theory. For example, in her revisionary lesbian history Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981), Lillian Faderman famously suggests that until the late nineteenth century the invisibility of love between women made it possible for women to engage in and sustain passionate attachments without censure. For Faderman, invisibility provides a refuge from patriarchal masculinity and heterosexuality; by contrast, she argues, the visibility granted by the work of the sexologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century enabled the policing and suppression of lesbian identity as deviant and pathological. Terry Castle is one critic who has questioned Faderman’s inference that women who loved women were invisible to themselves and each other; that is, that intimate relationships between women were no more experienced as sexual by their participants, prior to the advent of sexology, than they were perceived as such by patriarchal culture. In her study of representations of female same sex desire, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture, Castle asserts that the invisibility to which lesbian identity and female same sex desire is consigned is, whether consciously or not, wilful: “When it comes to lesbians . . . many people have trouble seeing what’s in front of them” (2); the lesbian is ““ghosted” – or made to seem invisible – by culture itself” (4) because of the threat she is deemed to pose to patriarchy. For Castle the apparitional is expressive of anxieties about lesbian identity not a manifestation of any instability in the category itself. Indeed, Castle insists on the legibility of the category ‘lesbian’: “if in ordinary speech I say, “I am a lesbian,” the meaning is instantly (even dangerously clear): I am a woman whose primary emotional and erotic allegiance is to my own sex” (15).

[34] Heterosexual identity does not suffer from the fear of being rendered problematically ‘visible’: nor does it need to struggle to accede to an affirmative visibility in its own terms. However, the founding stability and coherence which is assumed to be the possession of heterosexuality can be understood as a fiction constructed through the stigmatised visibility with which homosexuality is threatened and the imposed invisibility with which it is regulated. Indeed, it can be argued that heterosexuality has been privileged by another kind of ‘invisibility’: that is, the invisibility of the supposedly universal and non-problematic. The emergence of ‘the homosexual’ as a category of identity in the late nineteenth century is often offered as illustrative evidence of the discursive construction of sexuality; the use of the ‘homosexual’ as such a case study, however, can tend to obscure the extent to which the norm against which it was defined was an equally novel innovation. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has written:

[35] Foucault among other historians locates in about the nineteenth century a shift in European thought from viewing same-sex sexuality as a matter of prohibited and isolated genital acts . . . to viewing it as a function of stable definitions of identity . . . [The period] was prodigally productive of attempts to name, explain, and define this new kind of creature, the homosexual person – a project so urgent that it spawned in its rage of distinction an even newer category, that of the heterosexual person (82-3, emphasis in original).

[36] The recognition of the status of ‘the homosexual’ as a discursive innovation historicises the continuing pathologising and criminalizing of acts, desires and identities defined as homosexual. However, while this recognition has effected a shift from the ‘unnatural’ to the cultural with regards to homosexuality, it also implicitly requires a shift from the supposedly natural to the cultural with regards to heterosexuality: that is, it requires an acknowledgement of heterosexuality itself as an unstable, even incoherent category. The ‘failure’ of attempts to definitively categorise homosexuality as other to heterosexuality are also testament to the indeterminacy of heterosexuality; Sedgwick refers to “the plurality and the cumulative incoherence of modern ways of conceptualising same-sex desire and, hence, gay identity; an incoherence that answers, too, to the incoherence with which heterosexual desire and identity are conceptualised” (82). ‘Ordinary speech’ rarely requires a heterosexual to make the kind of declaration to which Castle refers (15), but it is evident that if it did there would be no equivalence between Castle’s statement of identity and its heterosexual counterpart; in a patriarchal culture founded on the homosocial, a ‘heterosexual’ is not necessarily an individual whose “primary emotional and erotic allegiance” (Castle, 15, my emphasis) is to the opposite sex. What, then, would it mean to say: “I am a heterosexual”? Butler has argued that “. . . heterosexuality offers normative sexual positions that are intrinsically impossible to embody” (155). Hence, when she refers to the “spectres of discontinuity and incoherence” which are both “prohibited and produced” by discourses which attempt to establish causal and expressive relations between “sex, gender, sexual practice and desire” (23), these ‘spectres’ embody discontinuities within heterosexuality as much as departures from it.

[37] Waters’s novel suggests the possibility that the spinster has a sexuality other than that sanctioned by dominant forms of heterosexuality; I would argue that in Affinity this possibility mobilises not the production of a retrospective lesbian identity but a more fundamental questioning of categories of sexuality, including the category of heterosexuality itself. As a spinster Margaret is defined by her place outside of the normative regime of reproductive sexuality; she is a woman without access to the means by which to legitimately fulfil her ‘natural’ destiny as mother: marriage. As a “spectre of discontinuity” (Butler, 23) within the heterosexual matrix she manifests a kind of ‘blindspot’ which is the effect of the conflation of heterosexuality with reproductive sexuality (a conflation arguably mimicked by the equation of spinster and lesbian). Writing about the way in which ‘nonreproductive sexuality’ – which may or may not be a ‘homosexual’ sexuality – challenges normative reproductive sexuality, Judith Roof has suggested that:

[38] The reduction of a larger field of sexuality to two categories [heterosexual and homosexual] is partly an effect of narrative’s binary operation within a reproductive logic; in this sense there are really only two sexualities: reproductive sexuality, which is associated with difference and becomes metaphorically heterosexual, and nonreproductive sexuality associated with sameness, which becomes metaphorically homosexual (Come As You Are, xxix).

[39] A nominal heterosexual, the spinster is nevertheless placed within the category of nonreproductive sexuality. Attributing the ‘apparitional’ qualities of the spinster in Affinity exclusively to an incipient lesbian identity risks obscuring the extent to which she troubles categories ofheterosexual identity by exposing their instability. Roof argues that “sexuality’s position as licit or illicit depends upon its reproductive use; its intelligibility exists in relation to the reproductive narrative” (Come As You Are, 35). The sexualities of the spinster and of the lesbian are rendered unintelligible – and invisible – because they are perceived to be nonreproductive; they confound the reproductive narrative which cannot account for them.

[40] The ‘spectres’ of discontinuity embodied by female same sex desire in Affinity, I would argue, are symptomatic of an instability and incoherence endemic to normative constructions of heterosexuality. Roof has written that representations of lesbian sexuality signify the ‘failure’ of a symbolic system and hence are equated with the unaccountable or incomprehensible:

[41] Operating as points of systematic failure, configurations of lesbian sexuality often reflect the complex incongruities that occur when the logic or philosophy of a system becomes self-contradictory,visibly fails to account for something, or cannot complete itself. Simultaneously, lesbian sexuality instigates the overly compensatory and highly visible return of the terms of the ruptured system that mend and mask its gaps (A Lure of Knowledge, 5, my emphasis).

[42] The ‘failure’ to which Roof refers, then, is an effect of the inherent contradictions within normative heterosexuality, which rely on constructions of homosexuality to shore up its boundaries. If Margaret’s identity cannot be located within identifiable and visible categories, this is not due to a failure of lesbian identity, or of lesbian / feminist authorship; the representation of Margaret’s subjective experience of her own identity is all the more powerful because of the way in which it confounds heteronormative categories of sexual and gendered identity.

[43] In conclusion, Affinity is not a historical ‘coming out’ narrative, and not simply because such a motif would have been anachronistic. In the context of a critical interrogation of the ‘politics of visibility’, Roof has suggested that:

together, visibility and invisibility refer obsessively to a knowledge of sexuality that performs a disciplinary function. When visibility is the privileged register of knowledge’s proliferation and consumption, it conceals even the telling asymmetry that the sexual identities in question are the only sexual identities that must be rendered visible on the first place (Come As You Are,146-7).

Roof questions the way in which ‘coming out’ and ‘outing’ narratives work within the normative regimes of visibility: “If the lesbian character’s visibility is the end product of a narrative struggle between inner and outer that results in knowledge about sexual truth and identity, then coming out stories embody the same reproductive narrative trajectory as dominant cultural stories” (Come As You Are, 106). The purported ‘invisibility’ of female same sex desire is a complex and paradoxical condition; the ‘visibility’ denied to female same sex desire is also implicated in what is authorised as legible, intelligible and legitimate. Invisibility as a trope denoting the cultural and historical absence of representations of female same sex desire cannot easily posit visibility as its remedy; that which is capable of being seen is not merely that which exists but that which is authorised to be read, to be understood, to be legitimised. Butler has argued that “for heterosexuality to remain intact as a distinct social form, itrequires an intelligible concept of homosexuality and also requires the prohibition of that conception in rendering it culturally unintelligible” (98, emphasis in original). It could be argued that the desire for visibility which Affinity refuses may be a heteronormative desire: that is, a desire on the part of heterosexuality to have its own status confirmed as normative through the reiterative drama of the visible identification of the homosexual as other. The materialisation of female same sex desire in Affinity defies the prohibition against visibility; however, by remaining ‘unintelligible’ in heterosexual terms, these ‘affinities’ subvert the very intelligibility which heterosexuality claims for itself.

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