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3.74 / 5

"Affinity" Summary

By Sarah Waters

historical fiction | 352 pages | Published in NaN

An upper-class woman recovering from a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior has begun visiting the women’s ward of Millbank prison, Victorian London’s grimmest jail, as part of her rehabilitative charity work. Amongst Millbank’s murderers and common thieves, Margaret finds herself increasingly fascinated by one apparently innocent inmate, the enigmatic spiritualist Selina Dawes. Selina was imprisoned after a séance she was conducting went horribly awry, leaving an elderly matron dead and a young woman deeply disturbed. Although initially skeptical of Selina’s gifts, Margaret is soon drawn into a twilight world of ghosts and shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions, until she is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina’s freedom, and her own.


Estimated read time: 4 min read

One Sentence Summary

A woman becomes entangled in the lives of prisoners while volunteering at a Victorian prison, leading to a complex and mysterious relationship.


"Affinity" is a captivating historical novel written by Sarah Waters, a renowned author known for her intricate storytelling and vivid character development. Set in 1870s London, the novel takes readers on a mesmerizing journey through the lives of its complex characters, delving into themes of imprisonment, desire, and spiritualism. With its rich historical backdrop and compelling narrative, "Affinity" offers readers a thought-provoking and immersive reading experience.

Brief Synopsis

Plot Overview and Setting

The novel is set in Victorian London, primarily within the confines of Millbank Prison and the luxurious home of the upper-class family of Selina Dawes. Central to the story is the mysterious and haunting atmosphere of the prison, where the protagonist, Margaret Prior, becomes a visitor and is drawn into the lives of the inmates and the enigmatic Selina Dawes. The setting serves as a backdrop for the exploration of societal constraints, spiritualism, and the complexities of human emotions.

Main Characters

The main characters in "Affinity" are intricately woven into the storyline, each with their own compelling traits and motivations.

Margaret PriorA troubled and introspective protagonist who becomes a visitor at Millbank Prison.
Selina DawesA mysterious and enigmatic inmate at Millbank Prison, captivating Margaret with her spiritualist beliefs.
HelenMargaret's devoted and caring sister.
Mr. ShillitoeThe prison's chaplain, who becomes a confidant of Margaret.
Peter QuickAn enigmatic and charming spiritualist medium.

Summary of Story Points Over Chapters

Chapters 1-3

Margaret, struggling with her own emotional turmoil, becomes a visitor at Millbank Prison. She becomes intrigued by Selina Dawes, an imprisoned spiritualist, and begins a series of visits to her cell.

Chapters 4-6

Margaret forms a deep connection with Selina, who recounts her experiences and spiritualist beliefs. Meanwhile, Margaret's sister, Helen, expresses concerns about her well-being.

Chapters 7-9

Margaret delves deeper into Selina's world and becomes entangled in her spiritualist practices. At the same time, she grapples with her own inner demons and desires.

Chapters 10-12

The relationship between Margaret and Selina intensifies, leading to a series of unexpected events that challenge Margaret's beliefs and convictions.

Main Events

The narrative is punctuated by several pivotal events that shape the course of the story, including Margaret's initial visits to Millbank Prison, her growing fascination with Selina and spiritualism, and the unfolding of dramatic and unforeseen circumstances that test the characters' resolve and beliefs.

Themes and Insights

Imprisonment and Freedom

The novel explores the theme of imprisonment on multiple levels, including the physical incarceration of the inmates at Millbank Prison, as well as the emotional and societal constraints that bind the characters. It delves into the yearning for freedom, both literal and metaphorical, and the lengths to which individuals will go to break free from their confines.

Desire and Repression

Waters delves into the complexities of desire and repression, examining the inner turmoil of the characters as they navigate societal norms and their own yearnings. The exploration of forbidden desires and the consequences of repressed emotions add layers of depth to the narrative.

Spiritualism and Belief

Central to the story is the theme of spiritualism and belief, as Margaret becomes entangled in Selina's world of seances and supernatural phenomena. The novel delves into the allure of the spiritualist movement and the impact of belief on the characters' lives.

Reader's Takeaway

"Affinity" offers readers a compelling exploration of human emotions, societal constraints, and the allure of the supernatural. With its rich historical setting and well-crafted characters, the novel immerses readers in a thought-provoking and atmospheric narrative that lingers long after the final page.


In "Affinity," Sarah Waters masterfully weaves a tale of intrigue, desire, and the complexities of human connection. Through the vivid portrayal of Victorian London and the captivating characters of Margaret and Selina, Waters invites readers to delve into a world of spiritualism, imprisonment, and the yearning for freedom. With its evocative storytelling and thematic depth, "Affinity" stands as a compelling work that resonates with readers long after they have turned the final page.

Affinity FAQ

  1. What is the genre of 'Affinity'?

    Affinity is a historical fiction novel with elements of mystery and psychological thriller.

  2. Who is the author of 'Affinity'?

    The author of 'Affinity' is Sarah Waters.

  3. What is the setting of 'Affinity'?

    The book is set in London in the 1870s, primarily in and around a women's prison called Millbank.

  4. What is the main theme of 'Affinity'?

    The main themes in 'Affinity' include the supernatural, the Victorian prison system, and the complexities of human desires and relationships.

  5. Is 'Affinity' suitable for readers who enjoy historical fiction?

    Yes, 'Affinity' is a compelling read for fans of historical fiction, especially those interested in the Victorian era and its societal norms.