Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a “baby farmer,” who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.
One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of—passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum.
With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways…But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.
“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.”
Sarah Waters’ novels have a somewhat legendary status among historical queer stories. I’ve always wanted to read one of her works and a close friend of mine kept haranguing me to try Fingersmith — and I finally did. Let me give a two-word descriptor that will excite you enough to read it too: Dickensian lesbians. Interested yet?
I will admit had a lot of stop-starts with this novel. It’s very long and occasionally dull — much like an actual Dickens novel, which makes sense considering Waters’ modelled this story after the Dickensian model. (Except she made it gay.) That doesn’t mean that it’s bad! Just that it will undoubtedly take you a while to read. Fingersmith‘s one weakness is it’s length. But it has a multitude of strengths.
Waters’ characters are perhaps the most complex, well-developed characters I’ve ever come across. A word of warning: don’t trust anyone; no one is as they appear. And that is all part of the tension of the novel, and the incredible pacing. The narrative is long and slow, but you will want to keep reading as more and more of the plot unfurls … as well as the twists.
“I felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart — so hard, it hurt me. A hundred times I almost rose, almost went in to her; a hundred times I thought, Go to her! Why are you waiting? Go back to her side! But every time, I thought of what would happen if I did. I knew that I couldn’t lie beside her, without wanting to touch her. I couldn’t have felt her breath upon my mouth, without wanting to kiss her. And I couldn’t have kissed her, without wanting to save her.”
What excited me most about the novel is probably not something that will excite many people, but it made the editor in my squeal: the grammar. Waters’ utilises the same Victorian grammar rules that Dickens and many other writers of that age used: so, random semi-colons in places in sentences you would never assume; long-winding sentences that seem to have no end; and em-dashes in interesting places. It would have been such a fun novel to edit, and I can only hope I can edit something similar in my future career.
Fingersmith is a curious novel that I both struggled with and loved. There were many times I gasped aloud at the direction the plot went in, and blushed at the slow-burning, barely there romance. I highly recommend this novel and am so excited to read her other works.
“But, here was a curious thing. The more I tried to give up thinking of her, the more I said to myself, ‘She’s nothing to you’, the harder I tried to pluck the idea of her out of my heart, the more she stayed there.”