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TitleSpace and Sexuality in the Post-Victorian Fiction of Sarah Waters
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This thesis analyses the work of British writer Sarah Waters, focussing on the

inseparability of spatiality and the expression of sexuality in her novels. Since 1998,

Waters has published three books set in the mid-to-late Victorian era, featuring lesbian

protagonists: Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith. All three novels are examples

of lesbian fiction, but they are also arguably works of historiographic metafiction and

“post-Victorian” novels. They have been critically and popularly acclaimed, added to

university reading lists and adapted for television. There has thus far been a small amount

of scholarship in response to Waters’s novels, primarily concerned with generic

classification and lesbian identity.

The entwined discourses of space and sexuality form the theoretical basis of this

discussion. There is a large body of academic work on this subject, by cultural theorists

such as Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Mark Wigley as well as

geographers such as Tim Creswell. Previous studies of Waters’s work have made little

use of theories of space and sexuality, despite their relevance to her novels. I draw upon

these theories in my analyses of Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith, exploring

the way in which the historically transgressive sexualities of Waters’s heroines are

constructed spatially, via the characters’ movement (or lack thereof) through confining


Chapter One looks at the ways in which theatrical and performative transgressions

affect sexual expression in Waters’s first novel, Tipping the Velvet. Sites of performance,

or stages, are not only located in theatres in this text, but are present everywhere: on the

streets and in the homes of both the rich and poor. Upon these numerous and diverse

stages Nancy Astley, the protagonist of the novel, reveals the inherent performativity of

gender and sexuality through cross-dressing and impersonation. The second chapter

shows the way sexual identities are confined within both the private sphere and the prison

in Affinity. The desires of the protagonists can be articulated only through spiritual or

ghostly transgressions, which are simultaneously arousing and frightening. The third

chapter focuses on domestic spaces and madness in Fingersmith. Waters draws on

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Chapter Two: Affinity
And what one Medium may do, my sweet,

Two may improve on endlessly.

-A.S. Byatt, “Mummy Possest,” Possession 408.

Affinity, like Tipping the Velvet, is a work of lesbian fiction set in the Victorian

period. Its scope, however, is quite different from that of Waters’s first novel. Nancy

romps through a series of different spaces in Tipping the Velvet, cross-dressing, becoming

a prostitute, a kept woman and a socialist. In Affinity, on the other hand, spaces are far

more confining and expressions of sexuality much less obvious. And whereas Tipping the

Velvet is a first-person narrative written from the perspective of one protagonist, Affinity

is comprised of the diary entries of two chroniclers: a gaoled spirit medium named Selina

Dawes, and Margaret Prior, a middle-class spinster who becomes a Lady Visitor at

Millbank prison where Selina is incarcerated. Selina’s diary entries dealing with her life

prior to her imprisonment for fraud and assault are scattered unevenly throughout

Affinity, and predate Margaret’s narrative. The novel’s primary perspective comes from

Margaret’s entries because she, unlike Selina, is free to write. Despite Margaret’s relative

freedom, Waters parallels the positions of her two chroniclers in the novel by showing

the seemingly disparate spaces the two women occupy—the prison and the middle-class

home—to be in fact very similar.

The comparisons Waters makes between the home and the gaol in Affinity extend

beyond representation of restraint and surveillance. What is most obviously presented in

this novel is that even the most imprisoning environments are subject to transgression.

Ideas about transgression have been pivotal to critical analysis of Affinity (Palmer,

“Lesbian Gothic”; Llewellyn, “‘Queer?’”; Macpherson; Millbank). This is because

transgressions work in this text not only to undermine imprisoning spatial dynamics but

also to enable expressions of female same-sex desire. Terry Castle, in her book The

Apparitional Lesbian, claims that lesbians have been compelled to inhabit a “recessive,

indeterminate, misted over space” in literature (30). In Affinity, ghostly forces transgress

the analogous spaces of the gaol and the home, disrupting spatial boundaries by

seemingly “walking through walls.” However, as I will show, the undercurrent of ghostly

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possibility running throughout Affinity works both within and against the apparitional

history of lesbianism, as Waters both affirms and undermines the use of ghostly


The first section of this chapter, “Ghostly Metaphor and Lesbian Materialisation,”

explores the way Waters uses spectral metaphors and aspects of the nineteenth-century

Spiritualist movement, as well as ideas about the gaze, to undermine repressive

conceptions of Victorian space and sexuality. The second section, “Coming Out of the

Dark Cabinet,” concentrates on the space Selina occupies prior to her arrest, the home of

Mrs Brink. Mrs Brink’s house becomes susceptible to all kinds of transgressions once

Selina arrives. Lesbian sexual desire unfolds in this space under the guise of Spiritualism.

Eventually, however, the spiritual/sexual transgressions cause Selina to be charged with

fraud and assault. In the third section, “The Prison,” I turn to the panoptic women’s

prison Millbank where Selina resides and Margaret visits. The notions of complete

visibility implied by the panopticon are undermined and subverted in Affinity. The space

of the panopticon, with its potential for transgression, functions as a model for all forms

of imprisonment throughout the text. The fourth section, “Margaret’s Domestic

Confines,” deals with the domestic imprisonment Margaret experiences at home and the

parallels that can be made between the two spaces. Like the prison, Margaret’s home at

Chelsea is not a secure container. Instead, the house’s walls are made to seem permeable

and its portals openings for uncanny forces.

i) Ghostly Metaphor and Lesbian Materialisation

Waters draws on the nineteenth-century Spiritualist movement to undermine and

transgress sexual and spatial boundaries in Affinity. Many Victorians became occupied

with “morbid sensitivities” that were expressed and harnessed by the movement during

the mid-nineteenth century (Finucane 190). One of the main reasons for the popularity of

the Spiritualist movement was the sensational atmosphere of séances, which took place in

private homes.4 The informal conditions of séances gave the Victorian middle classes a

4 R. C. Finucane, in his account of a pre-séance search, shows the way in which the house and the spirit
medium were entwined. Just as the cabinet that was expected to issue forth spirit matter was checked
before a sitting, the dark crevices of the medium were physically inspected “per rectum et vaginum” (187;
original emphasis).

Page 87


Rodaway, Paul. Sensuous Geographies: Body, Sense and Place. New York: Routledge,


Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. The Epistemology of the Closet. Berkley: U of California P,


Showalter, Elaine. “Victorian Women and Insanity.” Madhouses, Mad-Doctors and

Madmen: The Social History of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era. Ed. Andrew

Scull. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1981. 271-313.

Soja, Edward. “Heterotopologies: A Remembrance of the Other Spaces in the

Citadel-LA.” Gibson and Watson 13-33.

Stein, Karen F. “Monsters and Madwomen: Changing Female Gothic.” The Female

Gothic. Ed. Juliann E. Fleenor. Montreal: Eden, 1983. 123-37.

Taylor, Debbie. “Sarah Waters.” Mslexia 20. 21 March 2004.


“Transgression.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

Waters, Sarah. Affinity. London: Virago, 2000.

---. Fingersmith. London: Virago, 2002.

---. Tipping the Velvet. London: Virago, 1998.

---. “Wolfskins and Togas: Maud Meagher’s The Green Scamander and the

Lesbian Historical Novel.” Women: A Cultural Review 7.2. (1996): 176-88.

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