Thirsting for Waters

This was the second time I interviewed Sarah Waters, just before Affinity was televised. It was originally published in Diva, April 2008

ITV’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ second novel, Affinity, follows a South Bank Show special on the nation’s best-loved lesbian author. Kim Renfrew’s cup runneth over.

You know you’re important when Melvyn Bragg selects you for scrutiny on his highbrow ITV arts digest, The South Bank Show. That’s exactly what’s happening to Sarah Waters in late March, when she’ll be profiled by the bequiffed peer, and it surely marks another step towards lesbian culture nudging its way into the establishment. ‘Everybody’s been saying “Ooh, you’ve arrived!”‘ says Waters. ‘I really like The South Bank Show because it has such a spectrum of popular culture as well as highbrow stuff, so I feel very flattered and excited to be on their radar.’


The show is part of the build up to the transmission of the Andrew Davies’ (he also did the screenplay for Tipping The Velvet) adaptation of Waters’ dark and difficult second novel Affinity. The programme takes us back to 1870s’ London, where we follow Margaret (Anna Madeley), a wealthy woman who, in the wake of her father’s death, becomes a do-gooder visitor at Millbank women’s prison. There, she’s entranced by Selina (Zoe Tapper, set to become the next big lesbian pin-up), a psychic who’s been jailed for fraud and assault connected to one of her seances. A bond – an affinity, in fact – develops between the two women, who embark on a romantic friendship-cum-romance proper, complete with much heaving of stays. Without giving too much plot away, Margaret is lured into a world of spiritualism, charlatanry and betrayal. (And watch for the traditional  cameo: as Margaret mounts the steps to the dressmakers’ shop, Waters can be seen walking down them.)

Perhaps it’s the transfer to the screen that does it, but the love-in-a-women’s prison theme – a juicy genre stretching back through Bad Girls to Prisoner, 1970s’ sexploitation movies to 1950s’ pulp fiction — seems foregrounded. Was there ever a cheeky element of homage in Waters’ subject choice? ‘My girlfriend thinks we should have had Bodybag from Bad Girls [in the programme],’ she laughs. ‘Actually, every depiction of women’s prisons draws on the same sources: women pent up together, passions building up like a kettle. It’s impossible to write a story now about a women’s prison and not invoke it. But of course,’ she adds, ‘I wrote Affinity before Bad Girls‘.

Stylistically, too, this TV adaptation is different from Waters’ others, as it’s a single-episode drama: quite risky for a slow, brooding and –  literally – haunting book like Affinity. But Waters is unperturbed: ‘I always thought it would work better as a one-off because the narrative is tight. I think Andrew’s structure is brilliant. It’s quite fast, but that’s the nature of TV, and audiences are used to that.’ Inevitably, though, simmering 350 pages down to 80 screen minutes is bound to entail changes, and this drama does rather romanticise the ending, which in the book, as Waters herself freely admits, is ‘quite brutal, really.’ But she likes what Davies has done, which certainly takes a kinder view of women than Waters ever has in any of her novels; they hardly paint a rosy picture about communities of women. All her novels, in fact, are riven with the betrayals and cruelties that women heap upon each other. ‘I keep thinking that people are going to start getting at me for this,’ she laughs, ‘I’d hate my books to feel misogynist – that would be awful! We tend to think about feminism as celebrating women, but I’m more interested in fractures across women’s communities. I suppose, as a writer, I’m drawn to people’s darker motivations. But when my women are nasty to each other, I hope I show it as part of a larger system influenced by other forces, like class.’

Another difference is that, unlike Tipping The Velvet and Fingersmith, Affinity won’t be broadcast on the home of costume drama, BBC1, but on ITV, a move that may well raise Waters’ profile even further and open her up to whole new audiences. And although it’s been – astonishingly – nearly ten years since Affinity was first published, Waters is very glad to revisit it. She says, ‘It’s been really nice to see it given a second life,’ – or perhaps that should be ‘afterlife’, given the subject matter – ‘but my main interest is always the book I’m working on.’

Currently, she’s busy with her brand-new novel, which she describes as ‘a post-war crumbling country house, rather gothic, full of class and gender tension.’ When I ask about the new book, she groans then quickly says: ‘I don’t know why I’m groaning, because it’s coming along quite nicely. I’ve been working on it for a year and a half, finished the first draft last year, and now I’m doing the first rewrite. It’s a much more traditional sort of story and I hope that people aren’t going to be shocked but,’ and here she lets loose a bombshell, ‘there’s no lesbian element at all.’ But she does hint that there’s a ‘rather mannish’ character in the book.

In the meantime, we still have the gothic girl-on-girl action of Affinity to relish and, beyond that, a screen adaptation of The Night Watch is also in the developmental stages. With so much Waters around, we need never thirst for quality lesbian screentime.


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