Unwanted wives incarcerated in asylums, unwanted babies farmed out to criminals, a drawing master seducing his young lady student and a scholarly uncle sequestering his heiress ward from the rest of the world. If you’re well versed in the building blocks of Victorian sensation novels, there’s much about Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith that may seem familiar.
Yet this 2002 thriller manages to defy expectations in new and exciting ways – not just by introducing sensational plotlines and dialogue that would have been inadmissible to Collins, Braddon and Reade (a central female/female romance, a bibliographical study of pornography, plenty of ‘fucks’, ‘cunts’, and, my personal favourite, ‘fucksters’), but by forcing us to reassess who we can trust and the false security our previous literary knowledge might have given us.
The novel starts in the unforgiving world of Borough, where men and women eat by stealing purses and skinning dogs. A debonair trickster known as ‘Gentleman’ has a plan - petty thief Susan Trinder, daughter of a murderess, must leave London for Briar, a country house near Maidenhead, to become maid to Maud Lilly and help him steal her away along with her fortune.
|Sarah Waters (1966-)|
This is the point at which we expect Sue to enter the Victorian world we know from novels – a world of hierarchy, etiquette and morality – but soon it becomes clear that she is in much more danger here, and it is dirty, amoral Borough that is the novel’s pattern for love and domesticity.
What comes next is a few hundred pages of twists and turns, double crossing and, at times, brutality. Could it have done with a more extensive edit? Yes, but Waters keep you guessing to the very end and reading fast to the finish line. The title Fingersmith hints at thievery, midwifery and female masturbation, yet it also conjures up the idea of a wordsmith, playing with readers’ emotions and stirring up their imaginations – appropriate given the novel’s final moments, and the original conception of sensation fiction.