This book came to me from Scotland, sent to me by a good friend who participated in the 2011 World Book Night and remembered how much I love books (and receiving presents!). Though I had a few misgivings, not usually being into crime fiction, I was quickly swept up in the plot, and absolutely loved Fingersmith. In fact, I’ve selfishly decided not to pass it on, as required by World Book Night protocol, but to keep it for myself!
Seventeen-year-old Susan Trinder has grown up in a thieves’ den in the squalid and disreputable area of mid-nineteenth century London called the Borough. An orphan, she has been brought up by Mrs Sucksby, a rough and unscrupulous woman who makes a living from farming out orphan children, who has nevertheless always protected Susan and shown her a motherly affection.
The setting and characters of Sue’s world seem to come straight out of a novel by Dickens. Apart from Mrs Sucksby and her infants, the household on Lant Street includes Mr Ibbs, a locksmith who also deals in forgeries and stolen goods, and his bedridden sister, who remains invisible throughout the novel, but makes her presence heard by moaning and crying loudly whenever she has “the horrors”. An infrequent visitor to the house is Richard Rivers, a charming but dangerous villain who goes by the name of “Gentleman”. Another eminently Dickensian character is Sue’s mother, a murderess who was hanged from the roof of Horsemonger Lane Gaol when Sue was just a baby, conferring upon Sue a sinister glamour that followed her throughout her childhood.
The story proper begins when Gentleman arrives one winter night to enlist Sue’s help in his latest plan. Having taken up the post of personal secretary to the elderly and reclusive Mr Lilly, Gentleman intends to trick his employer’s niece, Maud Lilly, into marrying him, and then have her locked up in an asylum so that he can take possession of her considerable fortune. He needs Sue as an accomplice in situ, to replace Maud’s maid, gain her confidence, and then use her influence over her to push her into marrying him. Her reward will be a sizeable portion of Maud’s inheritance. Though Sue hesitates a little at first, Mrs Sucksby’s encouragement and her own natural greed lead her to accept Gentleman’s offer, and she is soon on her way to Briar, Mr Lilly’s decaying estate in the country.
However, as Sue settles in at Briar and becomes accustomed to her new duties, she feels increasingly uncomfortable. On the surface, everything seems to be going according to plan: Maud accepts her falsified credentials without question, and shows her unexpected kindness. And under cover of giving Maud drawing lessons, Gentleman’s seduction of his victim progresses apace. As the weeks go by, however, Sue feels increasingly drawn to Maud, whose timid and gentle disposition has suffered greatly at the hands of her tyrannical uncle. When Sue realizes she has fallen in love with Maud, she is devastated. Nevertheless, out of a sense of duty to Gentleman and Mrs Sucksby, she decides to put aside her feelings and not to alert Maud to the danger she is in. Instead, she helps Maud escape from her uncle’s house, and Maud and Gentleman are married in a shoddy ceremony at dead of night.
Several weeks later, the time comes to deliver Maud up into the hands of the doctors. But when the trio arrive at the asylum, it turns out that Gentleman has double-crossed Sue, for it is she who is handed over in Maud’s stead. Moreover, when Maud makes no move to help her, Sue realizes that Maud has been in on Gentleman’s plot from the very beginning. Sue’s desperate struggle to break free from her captors only serves to confirm the doctors in their opinion that she is mad and she is soon under lock and key.
“Gentleman” Rivers’ plot is a direct reference to the fate of Laura Fairlie in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White: in both cases, the story revolves around a marriage contracted with an ulterior motive (i.e. a plot to steal an heiress’s fortune) and a woman being wrongfully committed to an asylum. However, Sarah Waters does what neither Dickens nor Collins could have done: she takes the reader over the threshold of the asylum and gives him an insider’s look at the horrific conditions that existed in Victorian asylums. The overcrowded and unsanitary wards, the brutal treatments inflicted on the patients, and the abuse they suffered at the hands of the nurses are truly the stuff of nightmares. It is only thanks to her courage, her ingenuity, her refusal to give up hope, and a stroke of sheer luck, that Sue manages to escape from the asylum and make her way back to London, where she plans to confront Maud and Gentleman and exact retribution for their treatment of her.
Back in London, however, there are many more surprises in store for her. It seems that everyone has a potentially explosive secret hidden up their sleeve, and it takes a murder to finally bring everything out into the open. The events that subsequently take place alter Sue’s life, and her perception of herself, forever. What remains, in spite of everything, is Sue’s unchanged love for Maud. It burns all the stronger and purer in contrast to the squalor and dishonesty in which it first sprang to life. And it is with the most heartfelt relief and a sense of restored faith in humankind that the reader follows Sue back to Briar, where she and Maud are happily reunited.
Sarah Waters is a master story-teller, conjuring up Victorian England in faultless detail and keeping the reader on the edge of his seat with her unexpected plot twists. In turn funny, poignant, or downright frightening, and beautifully written from start to finish, Fingersmith is a many-layered and thoughtful exploration of the multiple forms of child abuse that existed unchecked in Dickens’s England, and of the meaning of freedom for women in a patriarchal society.
© Florence Berlioz 2011