Posted by: Corri van de Stege | August 4, 2007

Two ‘travel’ books so far….

As part of my pledge to read eight travel books before December I have already extensively commented on Leo the African and the travelling I did  with him from Granada in Spain to North African cities such as Fez, Marrakech, Timbuktu and on to Egypt and Cairo and to Alexandria.  That journey was an enthralling one and unforgettable! You can reread my previous blog if you want to remind yourself of what it was like.

The second book that I want to comment on under the travel banner is not one I had put on my original list, but the challenger did say that deviation was allowed, as she wanted to have the freedom herself to do so.  I am taking advantage of that proviso and add my travel to London with Margaret Prior in Sarah Waters’ Affinity to the challenge.  London is a dark and unhappy place in this book, contrasted with the light and promises of Italy that Margaret never gets to visit.  The view we have of London is mainly between Cheyne Walk in Chelsea where she lives and Millbank Prison where she becomes a ‘Visitor’ to the women prison and in particular meets her nemesis Selina Dawes, a London set in the 1870s, with smog and dark nights and other characters who become sentinels in the unravelling of the plot.  The book is a real page turner with plot and character unravelled like the skin of an onion, layer upon layer, drawing us into the world of the medium, beginning to believe that there is something spooky there and just when we think that it becomes unreal and cannot be true we realise that Margaret is full of dope, chloral and laudanum, to calm her nerves, and we see it all unfold from her point of view, we know that this is how things are, until the denouement when both her character and reality are laid bare.  We feel sorry for her gullibility, as horrified as she is at what happens in he end, the betrayal of her love and the shocking way in which she is being used.  

Back to the journeys and travel however.  We get plenty of walks around the prison; begin to understand its geography through Margaret’s induction process and subsequent frequent visits.  We also make a couple of brief trips to King’s Cross and the library, as well as the Reading room of the Association of Spiritualists.

While we follow Margaret through her bleak and mainly indifferent London, we also receive a glimpse of Selina and where she stayed prior to becoming a prisoner in Millbank, Bethnal Green with her aunty, somewhere near Chrystal Palace in Mr. Vincent’s hotel and finally with Mrs Brink in Finchley.

This is a bleak London, not a happy place and it is very much contrasted with what Italy is like in Margaret’s mind: a glorious place full of light and wonderful locations, where she might be free from the constraints by her social environment and men, from the prejudices against her and where she might at long last be free to be what and who she is, in particular because no one will know her and partner anyway.  The partner should have been Helen, who marries her brother after her father’s death, and then when she has fallen in love with her, Selina, for whom she has put everything at risk.  Alas, it is not to happen.

So after London, where do I go next? 


  1. I was deciding between Affinity and Fingersmith after The Night Watch. That you have commented on the former makes me want to get it next time I stop by the bookstore, but no hurry.

    As to the armchair travel pledge, *none* of the books from my proposed list has come through! They’re either out of print or out of stock. So i deviated (had no choice) to other stuffs I find.

    Snow was my second book under the travel banner. The next one is Burmese Days by George Orwell, very engaging read during the waning days of British imperialism in Burma. I figure it might help to read it before *Finding George Orwell in Burma*.

  2. I have a pet bookseller, unfortunately I must wait for now because it’s closed for hols until the 19th this month. I haven’t been able to get “Leo…” which I am very interested in reading. Patience is the word.

    Have you ever thought of the possibility of becoming a literary critic?

  3. Matt: I liked both Fingersmith and Affinity. And my list is still changing, but have now put it up as an extra page on my blog. This might force me to be more faithful next time…
    Jose: if only…. You’re very kind! I’m just dabbling but enjoy reading books even more than I used to. Leo is worth waiting for. I’m on to Samarkand now.

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