By Sarah Waters
"Fancies, Mrs. Rivers. If you might only hear yourself! Terrible plots? Laughing villains? Stolen fortunes and girls made out to be mad? The stuff of lurid fiction! We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to over-indulge yourself in literature; and have inflamed your organs of fancy."
Sarah Waters first came on the scene with her critically acclaimed “lesbo Victorian romps” such as Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, which isn’t exactly fair, as Waters is a gifted writer of amazing range who has since expanded her repertoire to include gothic ghost stories and WWII fiction. My first introduction was a later work, The Night Watch , which I thought was beautifully written but had a rather disappointingly lackluster storyline. I’m glad I gave her early work a chance since Fingersmith is so far the best book I’ve read this year. I highly recommend it for both male and female readers! As the quote suggests, it has everything you could hope for in a Victorian period novel: an intricate plot, cunning thieves, unexpected villains, hapless yet intrepid heroines, and hot lesbian sex! And Waters’ wonderful writing elevates Fingersmith from being mere “lurid fiction”.
The novel begins in the London Borough in 1862. Sue Trinder grew up in a house of thieves run by Mrs Sucksby, who sells orphaned babies, and Mr. Ibbs, who deals with “the passage of poke”. Even though Sue was one of many dozens of orphaned infants that passed through the house on Lant Street, for whatever reason, Mrs Sucksy kept Sue to raise as her own. Like her adopted household, Sue became a fingersmith, which is basically Borough code for thief. One night, a man known only as Gentleman visits Mrs Suckby with a scheme of a lifetime. Before I go on, check out Waters’ introduction of this key character and how she captures his whole life history in just a handful of sentences via Sue’s narration:
We called him Gentleman, because he really was a gent—had been, he said, to a real gent’s school, and had a father and mother and a sister—all swells—whose heart he had just about broke. He had had money once, and lost it all gambling; his pa said he should never have another cent of the family fortune; and so he was obliged to get money the old-fashioned way, by thievery and dodging. He took to the life so well, however, we all said there must have been bad blood way back in that family, that had all come out in him… Mostly, however, he worked as a confidence-man, and as a sharper at the grand casinos—for of course, he could mix with Society, and seem honest as the rest. The ladies especially would go quite wild for him. He had three times been nearly married to some rich heiress, but every time the father in the case had grown suspicious and the deal had fallen through. He had ruined many people by selling them stock from counterfeit banks. He was handsome as a plum, and Mrs. Sucksby fairly doted on him. He came to Lant Street about once a year, bringing poke to Mr Ibbs, and picking up bad coin, cautions, and tips.
Not surprisingly, Gentleman has discovered another heiress to pounce on, but this one’s different. Maud Lilly was raised by kindly nurses in the insane asylum where her mother was committed. When she was left orphaned at 11 years old, her uncle claimed and brought her to live at Briar Estate. Unfortunately, her uncle is a miserly and obsessive book collector, bent only on molding Maud as his personal assistant for the sole purpose of cataloging his vast library of rare books. Confined to Briar Mansion and its grounds, Maud is granted barely any freedom.
Through contacts of his own, Gentleman finds out that Maud has a sweet inheritance which she can only access if she gets married. And of course, Uncle Lilly would never let his niece marry, not when she is destined to be his personal slave! But clever Gentleman is able to wrangle a temporary position helping Mr Lilly in the framing of his illustrations. Clearly, Maud is the perfect target for the perfect con – an heiress who is not only a simple naïf, but desperate to escape her situation. The only catch is that Gentleman must watch himself when interacting with Maud because of her maid, Agnes. This is where Sue comes in. If Gentleman can get rid of Agnes, he can recommend Sue to become Maud’s maid, and then Sue can aid Gentleman in making Maud fall in love with him and accept his inevitable marriage proposal. And of course, Sue will get a nice cut of the inheritance money.
Though Sue dreams of one day landing her fortune, she isn’t completely a cold-hearted Borough thief either. When she first meets Maud, Sue is not quite sure what to make of her mistress, but soon feels rather sorry for her:
She was certainly, then, what you would call original. But was she mad, or even half-way simple, as Gentleman said at Lant Street? I did not think so, then. I thought her only pretty lonely, and pretty bookish and bored—as who wouldn’t be, in a house like that?
And the more Sue spends time with Maud as her maid, the more she begins to develop feelings for her. Ooh, dearie me!
This premise in itself would make an interesting plot-line, but Waters’ really goes all out and takes this premise to the next level and then the next. Before you know it, you’re sucked into this almost 600-page page-turner and when it’s all over, you just can't believe it and try to read about it on the internets and discover there is also a BBC production, and so you acquire it and immediately watch it and then feel incomplete and dissatisfied because the adaptation barely captures the nuances and complexities of Waters’ brilliant novel.
Take for example when Sue infiltrates the Briar household as Maud’s maid how she quickly observes that the servants are no better than her fellow Borough thieves:
That’s like a servant. A servant says, ‘All for my master,’ and means, ‘All for myself’. It’s the two-facedness of it that I can’t bear. At Briar, they were all on the dodge in one way or another, but all over sneaking little matters that would have put a real thief to the blush—such as, holding off the fat from Mr Lilly’s gravy to sell on the quiet to the butcher’s boy; which is what Mrs Cakebread did. Or, pulling the pearl buttons from Maud’s chemises, and keeping them, and saying they were lost; which is what Margaret did. I had them all worked out, after three days’ watching. I might have been Mrs Suckby’s own daughter after all. Mr Way, now: he had a mark on the side of his nose—in the Borough we should have called it a ginbud. And how do you think he got that, in a place like his? He had the key to Mr Lilly’s cellar, on a chain. You never saw such a shine as that key had on it!
Here’s a review that perfectly summarizes what makes Fingersmith such a great read:
In Fingersmith, the approach to the truth is so convoluted that appearances in one case have pointed one way while the truth lay all the while unsuspected in another direction. On top of the entangled fate of the two orphaned women, Waters surrounds their lives with characters who are unforgettable—neither wholly good nor evil. Whether it is Mr. Ibbs’ dealing with pickpockets for the stolen goods, Mrs. Sucksby’s unlicensed nursing of orphaned infants, Sue’s being part of the scam to make her fortune, the intention is to amount some good. Their actions often display a mix of self-interest and surprising altruism. Good to the last page.
Indeed, there is hardly a dull or insincere moment in this novel. Can’t recommend this book highly enough.