“‘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!