A darker tale than one might expect, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is a story of deception, double-dealing, and dysfunction. Opening in 1862 in a dilapidated London slum known as the Borough, we meet heroine #1: 17-year-old Susan Trinder. Orphaned at a young age, Sue has been raised as a fingersmith (pickpocket) by Mrs. Sucksby, a crooked landlady who trafficks in foundling babies dosed with gin. When a smooth talking tenant approaches Sucksby with a get-rich-quick scheme to swindle a sheltered young heiress of her fortune, Sue eagerly volunteers to help.
The young heiress, of course, is heroine #2: Maud Lilly. Also orphaned at a young age, Maud lives a safe but excruciatingly dull existence with her uncle on an estate called Briar in the English countryside. Bored to tears and fits of mindless cruelty, Maud is punished harshly and bullied into submission as she is trained to take over her uncle’s distasteful line of work. Needless to say, when an alternative unexpectedly presents itself, Maud jumps at the opportunity. Though the two women come from opposite positions of poverty and privilege, Sue and Maud are both women confined by their circumstances. Though both are admirably strong-willed and cunning, they are also naive; preoccupied as they are in setting their elaborate traps, they often don’t see the ones set for them by others. (And as you fall for their charms, I daresay, neither will you. The Byzantine twists and hairpin turns of plot in this book are absolutely breathtaking.)
Told as a first-person narrative alternating between Sue and Maud’s points of view, the nuanced characterizations were fresh and a pleasure to read. More strikingly, the descriptive atmospheric details are among the most beautiful and realistic I’ve ever encountered. Waters is clearly a woman at home doing research, and there’s a reason why–prior to writing fiction, she was in a Ph.D. program at Queen Mary’s, studying lesbian and gay historical fiction
Although Waters is famous for penning “lesbo Victorian romps“, the actual lesbian content in this book is “more or less incidental.” And in this setting, I didn’t even mind it. The subtle touch felt right, and honestly, probably played a role in propelling the book to its success with mainstream audiences. As far as I’m concerned, the more people that get to read this lovely book, the better!