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Those of you who read my ‘Tipping the Velvet’ op will know how highly I regard this author – Sarah Waters, the Booker-nominated queen of Lesbian Victoriana.
Fans of that TV show or readers of the book are in for a shock with this one though – Fingersmith is relentlessly dark and emotionally gruelling, virtually from the first page. The book is a whopping 550 pages long, and is made up of three very distinct ‘parts’. In this op, I’m mainly going to talk about Part One, simply because after the end of that part, the plot then flies off on a wild roller-coaster ride with twists and turns making you gasp as each development unfolds.
I can’t bear to ruin any of those moments for anyone, so I’ll just stick to the ‘set up’ and let you go off and discover the rest for yourselves.
The action opens as our young heroine, the cocky and streetwise Sue Trinder, introduces us to her world. Sue is a ‘fingersmith’ – a thief. She learns her trade from the other youngsters that board with her at Mrs Sucksby’s house. If this is beginning to sound a bit like Oliver Twist, that’s because it’s purposely written that way. In fact, the opening scene takes place with a visit to the theatre to see this very production, where Sue becomes very upset when poor old Nancy cops it off Bill Sykes.
Sue’s household is an odd one, one where there are knocks at the door day and night, thieves coming and going, and ‘shine’ being endlessly bought, sold and re-cycled as the local fingersmiths ply their trade in her parlour. Mr Ibbs, the man of the house, isn’t Sue’s – or anybody’s - father. He’s a locksmith to trade, but uses this as a cover for his shady dealing and metal smelting. The house at Lant Street is a feast for a youngsters senses, and provides as much of an education as the illiterate young Sue is ever likely to get.
Pretty soon though, we are jolted out of the Dickensian reverie we may have fallen into. Waters never shys away from harsh imagery, and I almost spat my coffee out when Sue’s poor ‘simple’ friend and housemate, Dainty, passes her evening by sewing her boyfriend a coat made from the hides of stolen dogs. This is a hard world, where everything is fair game for theft and profit, and where everybody is out for themselves, regardless of who gets hurt.
The plot kicks in with the arrival of Richard Rivers - a handsome and charming conman. He has the mother of all cons up his sleeve – and only Sue can help him to pull it off. His wicked plan involves duping a young girl away from her wealthy uncle by pretending to fall in love with her. Upon marriage, she becomes a rich heiress, and Rivers laughs all the way to the bank. He then plans to dispose of the pesky girl by declaring her insane, and committing her to the lunatic asylum. Sue’s role is to act as her maid, to win her confidence and help her escape from her uncle. For her services, she will be paid two thousand pounds.
Any fears Sue has about the mechanics of the con, the risks involved and most of all about leaving The Borough for the first time in her life are quickly put to rest as her partners in crime all urge her to take up Rivers’ offer – two thousand pounds Sue! We’ll all live like royalty!
Pretty soon Sue is learning a maids duties – how to dress her lady, how to look after her every need. Never once does she reflect upon the irony of this – the caring maid turning into a sinister con merchant. The call arrives and off she goes to Briar, where her life will take such a dramatic twist she’ll never be the same again.
We know this book is going to have a lesbian theme to it, and the reader can be forgiven at this stage for thinking that upon meeting her lady, our heroine falls instantly into Sapphic lust. This doesn’t happen. What happens is that Sue feels deeply sorry for Maud – a girl her own age with the life of a prisoner. Forced to read for hours to her uncle in his library, never allowed outdoors without a chaperone, and unable even to think independently, Maud is a pale specimen of a girl. Over time, their odd working relationship does grow into friendship. But only when pushed almost to the edge of madness by the attentions of the increasingly deranged Rivers does Maud let her veil slip and her desire for Sue to show.
This book yields just one love scene, and it’s over with very quickly. However, the consequences of that one moment of intimacy reverberate throughout the rest of the book.
Soon the plan comes to a head, and a frantic Sue realises the depth of the treachery she is going to commit to this poor, innocent girl she has fallen in love with. With a heavy heart she sticks to her guns and the escape comes off as planned. Sue, Maud and the evil Rivers sail off in a punt down the Thames, each with a different idea in their heads of what will happen next.
And what *does* happen next will make you say OH MY GOD out loud. It really is that shocking.
That’s the first part – and from there on in the plot will have you rapt with attention as it twists and turns its way to its conclusion. Five hundred pages will fly by as you read frantically to the end of each chapter, unable to sleep until you know what happens next.
Sue and Maud make unlikely protagonists – neither of them wins our hearts at the outset. But as the story progresses, we see how each of these girls have had all their choices and liberties taken from them by a Victorian society that can do with women as it pleases. Our sympathies grow, and so does our emotional investment in these hostages to fortune.
Being rich and educated gets Maud nowhere – this is a world where a female can be incarcerated into a lunatic asylum simply on her husband’s say so. Being illiterate forces Sue to live on her wits, but the codes of the day make any working class woman without a man at her side just as helpless and scorned as a prostitute. Thieving is the only life she knows, even though her heart may be yearning for a decent, honest existence.
The language of this book is shocking and compelling from the outset. It may be Dickensian in its scope and its characters, but this book has a much harder edge. Waters constantly exposes the brutality of the times, and in particular the sexual hypocrisy, with a mixture of familiar obscenities and outdated Victorian phrases. This provides the reader with an education, a real insight into the way that working class people actually spoke, as opposed to the Austen-esque ‘ooh kind sir, pray that you might not make me blush’ etc. The effing and blinding is kept to a minimum though, and as such it has a greater power to shock.
Sue refers to Maud’s intimate parts rather quaintly as ‘her feather’ – which made me giggle. But I wasn’t giggling later on when Sue’s sinister uncle uses the c-word for same thing. In fact, I was amazed how upsetting an effect this had.
As you read this book, you will find your anger rising at the way the people in it are forced to live. There is a segment which takes place in a women’s lunatic asylum which is the most distressing thing I have read since ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Again, this provides an insight into the way that mental illnesses were treated in days gone by. I challenge anybody to read about the women’s treatment in the horrific ‘asylum’ without tears coming to their eyes.
Waters has taken some criticism from purists on the grounds that her work is unoriginal. Certainly, she owes a great creative debt to Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc, but in my view she takes these classic Victorian elements and adds something all of her own – I hesitate to call it a ‘female touch’, but certainly it is to do with a way of conveying a kind of warmth and sensuality, even through the brutality. How dare anybody cry ‘copycat’ at a book with this much energy and depth? If Waters pays homage to the shocking novels of Dickens, for instance, then what could possibly be wrong with that? Her research is flawless and her evocation of period utterly convincing.
If you’re worried or intimidated by the idea of reading ‘gay fiction’ then I beg you, don’t be. This isn’t a ‘lesbian book’ any more than Oliver Twist is straight porn. It’s a book about *people*, their weaknesses and their passions, regardless of sexual preference. And after you’ve found out a bit about the sexual habits and tastes of Victorian ‘gentlemen’, you’ll be aching for some warm female tenderness, in whatever form it may take.
The reader is involved from page one, and once this book has touched you there’s no turning back. Though you dread what horrors the next page will bring, you need to go on. The double-dealing villains and pornographers (did you think Maud’s uncle’s library was full of ornithology?) cry out for their just desserts. But nothing is ever that simple, and around each bend in this story is a realisation that we are all the products of our upbringing. Nobody, but nobody, is as they first seem.
As the tale lurches to its end, we are literally left gasping. I dreamed about Sue and Maud for weeks after I finished this, and couldn’t put their story out of my mind. I immediately embarked on a lighthearted crime caper novel, as I needed the respite. But the thing about Fingersmith is simply that once you have read it, you’ll never be able to forget it.
Very thorough review. I loved this book along with Waters' other two books. I'm living in New Zealand at the moment and watched the first episode of the adaptation on TV last night. Excellent stuff. Just one thing though - as far as I remember there's more than one love scene...on her wedding night - they're together again aren't they? Amy
lm4amf 15.05.2005 22:58
brilliant review, i've just started reading the book this evening after missing the last episode when it was on TV last month.
coyotelily 09.05.2005 00:43
Fab review- if i hadn't already read this book i would now! have to agree that this is the best book i have ever read- i was moved shocked and enthralled by the fabulous characters and the amazing plot- i agree with shopgirl you will never forget this book when you have read it- thanks