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In writing ‘Fingersmith’ Sarah Waters has not only written a fantastic historical thriller but she has shown her literary skill and knowledge by mimicking the Victorian mystery melodrama genre with great aplomb.
The story deals with two young girls both just seventeen, one Sue Trinder an orphan and street thief brought up in Borough a rough quarter of Victorian London, the other Maud Lilly an only child also orphaned at a young age brought up in a mental asylum but now living with her rich uncle Lilly (based on real life book collector Henry Spenser Ashbee) in the decaying splendour of Briar a country manor house on the banks of the Thames on the outskirts of London. Both girls become embroiled in a cunning and fiendish plan by Richard Rivers a roguish conman also known as ‘Gentleman’ to steal a large fortune but things don’t go to plan and soon both girls find themselves in great danger, their freedom and sanity in peril.
To describe the novel as ‘Dickensian’ would be accurate in that it is set in the lower circles of Victorian criminal society. This is a world thieve dens in run down parts of London. There are gangs of children roaming the streets pick pocketing passers like Fagin’s gang in ‘Oliver Twist’ and indeed Dickens’s novels popular at the time are mentioned in the story. Of course the parallels with Dickens are not accidental neither are the similarities to another contemporary style of the Victorian period the so-called ‘Penny Dreadful’ or ‘Sensational’ novels by authors like Wilkie Collins. Although most of these could be described also as early detective novels their main feature was that their convoluted plot always had a secret to reveal. ‘Fingersmith’ is not a detective novel but it certainly does have plenty of secrets that are revealed in sensational and gripping fashion throughout. These ‘Sensational’ novels were also characterised by the plight of a central female character often facing ‘sexual peril’. The stories exuded an overall creepy atmosphere, bleak setting filled with menace populated by sneering villains and vulnerable heroines. Sarah Waters adopts these characteristics in ‘Fingersmith’, the two central female characters go through very tough times before a dramatic and violent conclusion takes place. As in previous Waters novels the female characters are the best defined and the strongest in the story. Both Maud and Sue are intricate personalities, Maud has been corrupted by her uncle’s virtual imprisonment of her and her abuse at being exposed to sexual deviancy and eroticism that would’ve have been unthinkable to any young woman of her social class. Maud is in many ways a contradiction in that she has lost her innocence by virtue of her treatment and knowledge and yet is naive and childish in her relations with others.
Sue on the face of it is totally different she has grown up as a Fingersmith (thief) and belongs to a street gang led by the imposing Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs an expert locksmith and criminal fence. She has had to learn from a very early age that life is tough and that to survive you have to be prepared to live a life of crime. Despite this Sue is not totally corrupted by this world, she has also been protected from the worst excesses by Mrs Sucksby who it seems favoured her amongst the rest of the gang becoming like a mother to her. So despite her harsh upbringing Sue is still an innocent in many ways just as Maud is.
The story centres around these two girls is split in three parts telling us the story from a changing perspective and surprising the reader with each turn of the page. This way of unravelling the story is both intriguing and frustrating, it is the one aspect of the book that I felt a little unsure about. In essence the story told in part one is repeated through the eyes of a second character in part two. While this is a clever literary device and allows us to see beyond the surface plot to uncover hidden schemes and subterfuge it also felt like the story had stalled and I was to some extent irritated that I had to wait to reach part three for any real narrative progression. I must state though that this in the end is a minor criticism and in retrospect the story overall benefited by the way it was laid out in three parts using different character perspective.
Sarah Waters is very good at setting up the uncompromising brutal Victorian world where money and status was essential to avoid destitution. She vividly bring to life the ghetto like Borough where Sue and her ‘family’ of thieves live in a crumbling house often full of abandoned babies that Mrs Sucksby takes in order to sell on to others. The cries of the babies being subdues by ‘dosing’ them with gin!
Waters also manages to bring to life the horrors of the Victorian mental asylums that were used more often than not to hide away unwanted relatives or women that had brought dishonour on their families. These where dreadful places manned by overbearing sadistic nurses who tortured the inmates with a variety of inhumane treatments. Medical cures of sorts were administered by quack doctors who believed in the intrinsic instability and fragility of women’s minds if they were exposed to too much freedom of thought and general excitement. The reality of life for many women at this time was bleak. The prospect of marriage was a dangerous one. On one hand it could bring security and social acceptance on the other a woman became totally legally subservient to her husband and thus could be abused by him or with the agreement of malleable doctors could be locked away in a prison like asylum if her presence became an inconvenience.
I don’t know for sure how accurate the descriptions of Victorian life were but they certainly felt believable and I would expect that a great deal of research was done from an author such as Waters who has a Ph.D. in English Literature and has been an associate lecturer with the Open University.
One aspect of ‘Fingersmith’ that you would not have found (at least such an obvious way) in the original Victorian sensational novels is sex and eroticism. Of course Waters is famous for what has been described as ‘Lesbian Victoriana’ best exemplified by her earlier novel ‘Tipping the Velvet’ and ‘Fingersmith’ once again leads us into this forbidden world of Victorian desire.
Another aspect of the story, which differs from the original novels (but maybe is more realistic that the originals) is the language used by the character. There are plenty of expletives and for a while this seemed odd since we all have a certain image of how period speech should be from the novels of the time and the films adaptations and costume dramas we have all seen. Even the most ruthless and despicable characters like Bill Sykes never uttered the F word although we know that it was commonly used in the rougher strata of Victorian societies. This preconditioning to the genre makes it odd for us to see the characters ‘effing and blinding’ at every turn. You quickly get used to this and of course this is far more realistic than any language Dickens would ever have his characters use.
Waters is often seen as a woman’s writer and it is true that her main characters in this book as in her other books mainly strong women but it would be a mistake to exclude a male readership because of this. The story is ultimately high melodrama with an intriguing mystery at its centre but it is also a cracking read and will satisfy anyone who has a liking for the Victorian genre.
‘Fingersmith’ is available in paperback (560 pages) published by Virago Press (ISBN-10: 1860498833 ISBN-13: 978-1860498831) from Amazon for £5.98 (+p&p) at the time this review was written.