Sarah Waters, “Fingersmith”

“‘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.'” Excellent: another novel about lives ruined by books.

When I read Sarah Waters’ excellent The Little Stranger, several of you suggested I move on to Fingersmith. I’m not sure what took me so long; perhaps I intuited that I needed to be in the right mood for a dark Victorian thriller involving career criminals and pornographers. What I had forgotten is that Waters is a crackerjack writer. Fingersmith is inventive, vivid, perceptive, and affecting, both in the characterizations and settings. For instance, a parson walking away into darkness “seemed to snuff himself out like a light.” Or Maud, the young lady character, on her maid Susan’s illiteracy: “Not to read! It seemed to me a kind of fabulous insufficiency — like the absence, in a martyr or saint, of the capacity for pain.”

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Fingersmith is a 21st century take on the Victorian novel of sensation, in particular Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. There is a will, there is a fortune, there are plotting relatives, there is an insane asylum with venal doctors and cruel nurses. There are two young women, who swap places once, twice, enough to make me dizzy. There are criminals of various degrees of criminality and affability (see Oliver Twist) and a country house called Briar where the sun never shines (see Bleak House). All of it is puzzling and exciting and moving, but I was particularly fascinated by the way Waters demonstrates the limited options for women of the era. This sounds dull but wait until you find yourself with Maud, wearing a purple dress with yellow ribbons, standing on a bridge over the Thames without a penny in her pocket. No skills, no relatives, no options. Or Sue, who says, “Everybody in my world knew that regular work was only another name for being robbed and dying of boredom.”

But this fabulous florid turn on Victoriana rests on a solid skeleton. Narrative turns and plot devices occur like clockwork, keeping our curiosity alive. Pickpocket (“fingersmith”) Sue Trinder (the “maid”) narrates first. Then the story is told by her mistress Maud Lilly, who sees everything differently. Who is fooling whom? What is perception, what deception? Maud has been raised precisely to read books — but has been so isolated from the world that she cannot read her circumstances or surroundings. Sue, the criminal, is paradoxically sheltered. She says, “When I try now to sort out who knew what and who knew nothing, who knew everything and who was a fraud, I have to stop and give it up, it makes my head spin.”

Waters manages simultaneously to tell a robust tale while gesturing toward the novels she emulates. “The stuff of lurid fiction?” Bring it on!

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
This entry was posted in contemporary fiction, historical fiction, Victoriana and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Sarah Waters, “Fingersmith”

  1. Heather says:

    Mm, an excellent review of an excellent book. I might be due for a re-read of Fingersmith – I read it nearly exactly five years ago, on a plane back from London … I bought it in an airport bookshop and proceed to read the whole thing over the course of a trans-Atlantic plane ride plus an hour-long layover. I remember loving it, but I remember the plot only dimly!

  2. carolwallace says:

    Yes, Heather, I was on a transcontinental flight and completely absorbed. Sarah Waters is quite a writer!

  3. ann163125 says:

    I’m obviously going to have to go back to this and try again. I spent five long days in the summer it first came out trying desperately to get interested in what was going on at which time I reached the point where I realised that I was just about to have to read the whole thing again from someone else’s point of view and gave up the will to live – or at least the will to go on reading. Maybe it was me and not the novel. Some time I am going to have to pick up the nerve to give it a second go.

    By the way, I got as far as the dog in ‘The Little Stranger’ and then gave up on that as well. I don’t do books that are cruel to dogs.

  4. carolwallace says:

    You know, Ann, Sarah Waters may not be for you. She’s certainly not averse to the creepy or the cruel from time to time. Or even the downright distressing; witness the dog in “The Little Stranger.” There is also a kind of sad canine in “Fingersmith.” Oh, gosh: and the dog skin coat! Dickensian, but something you don’t want to read about. Nope.

    You get big points for trying, though!

  5. motheretc says:

    I’ve been hearing a lot about this book recently, and would love to give it a try. Do you think this is book club material? A friend of mine is trying to get one going, and this sounds like it might be the kind of book to draw a crowd.

  6. carolwallace says:

    Only drawback about Fingersmith for a book group is that it’s loooong. Nearly 600 pages in paperback. How about Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth?” I haven’t blogged on it — read it a while ago — but it’s just fabulous and in paperback. It’s readable and subtle and emotional and culturally interesting! I bet you can find a good blog post on it among our mutual blogger community.

  7. cousinsread says:

    I’m always so happy when I find out that someone else loved this book because it is one of my favorites and Waters is one of my favorite authors.

  8. carolwallace says:

    Oh, Anbolyn, I think it was you who recommended it! What a debt I owe you! Have you read “Tipping the Velvet” and “Affinity?” Are they as good?

  9. I loved this book and the BBC adaptation! I still haven’t read any other Sarah Waters yet, I’m desperately trying to make some progress with my TBR bookshelves. I’m a little disappointed to hear about cruelty to dogs in her other books as a I’m really softhearted. I hope this won’t turn me off SW.

  10. carolwallace says:

    I’ll have to look for the BBC version — wonder if it made it to the US. Waters will certainly keep until the TBR list looks a little overpowering, though!

  11. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

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