Fingersmith, or: The Most Victorian Novel Ever Was Written in 2002

Regrettably, this will be a fairly short (and very informal) post; I have to return my copy of Fingersmith to the library, so I don’t have time to mine it for the quotes that would allow me to talk about it in more detail. I also haven’t quite decided whether the title of this post is misleading—whether Fingersmith really is a true-blue Victorian novel (just with a queer twist), or whether its use of so many quintessentially Victorian tropes and plot devices somehow makes it even more postmodern than, say, The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Possession (two other wonderful 20th/21st-century spins on 19th-century literature). Either way, though, it’s a fascinating book.

For me, reading Fingersmith was like taking a whirlwind tour back through whatever my school’s equivalent of “The Victorian Novel 101” was. Of course, it’s not surprising that Sarah Waters is absolutely steeped in the period’s literature; she wrote a doctoral thesis on it. What is truly impressive, though, is the elegance with which Waters manages to pack so many of the era’s signature concerns into a single (though admittedly lengthy) novel. A synopsis of Fingersmith reads like a rundown of 19th-century clichés—long-lost parents, swindled heiresses, near-identical strangers, multiple and conflicting wills, etc.—but Waters, against all odds, creates order out of chaos, pulling the many improbable narrative threads into alignment with one another and simultaneously breathing new life into them. Fingersmith, in keeping with its 19th-century roots, is certainly a melodramatic read, but it is also a surprisingly fresh one.

But if the novel owes a debt to Victorian literature generally, it also reads as both an homage to and send-up of one author in particular: Wilkie Collins. Certainly, the first third of the novel is straight out of The Woman in White: the delicate heiress, the plot to defraud her by locking her in an insane asylum—even the use of art lessons as a vehicle for romance (or seduction, as the case may be). And while the next portion of the novel in many respects turns the plot on its head—the delicate heiress has a mind of her own and was in on the plan from the start—it never quite enters the realm of wholesale subversion. Indeed, for every trope upended, another is played straight—the substitution of one girl for another, say, or the tragic unwed mother. What’s more, the basic outlines of the plot remain the same; Sue and Maud may prove unusually resourceful in escaping their respective imprisonments, but they remain, in many ways, damsels in distress—manipulated and, in certain vital ways, naïve.

I wonder, though, if this doubling down (literally) on the damsel in distress storyline is not itself a sort of subversion by excess. I wonder too whether there is a way in which the novel’s hyperbolic adoption of certain features of the Victorian novel can be tied to its most notable departure from 19th-century conventions: the substitution of a lesbian relationship for a heterosexual one (a satirical exaggeration of a form typically interested in securing marital harmony? I don’t know enough queer theory to really develop an argument about this aspect of the novel, but I’d be interested in reading someone else’s take on it).

It also strikes me, though, that this exaggeration is counterbalanced by a fairly noteworthy omission; namely, the absence of a real male villain. The Woman in White gives us not one but two evil masterminds: Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco. In Fingersmith, “Gentleman” seems at first to fill this role, but is ultimately revealed to be playing second fiddle to someone else (more on that in a moment). There is also, of course, Mr. Lilly, but unsavory as his treatment of his niece is, his narrative function is more akin to that of a figure like Miss Havisham; he is a disruptive, warping force, but not ultimately a great schemer himself (indeed, his evil influence ultimately proves much shorter-lived than his Dickensian counterpart’s).

In place of a male villain, Waters gives us a female (and lower-class) mastermind: Sue’s guardian, Mrs. Sucksby. It’s a nice twist in and of itself, but what makes it truly interesting is the different spin it puts on the novel’s events; like Glyde and Fosco, Mrs. Sucksby may in part be motivated by a desire for money, but she is also motivated by something else: her love for her daughter. To be sure, villainously maternal figures aren’t wholly unheard of in Victorian literature. But then again, Mrs. Sucksby isn’t truly villainous, however immoral some of her actions are; in fact, by novel’s end, she’s a relatively sympathetic character. In other words, Fingersmith is a quasi-Gothic, quasi-sensation novel that lacks a real antagonist—that actually replaces the greed and lechery of so many male villains with a distinctly female (and relatively forgivable) motivation.

So, I reiterate: I’m not sure exactly how to locate Fingersmith vis-à-vis Victorian literature. In many ways, Waters’ take on the 19th-century novel is much more straightforward than Fowles’ or Byatt’s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Fingersmith appealed to readers who dislike the more overt self-referentiality of these other authors. I can’t shake the feeling, though, that for all that Fingersmith reads like a Victorian page-turner, it might actually be the most subversive rewrite of all. Then again, I haven’t yet read Sarah Waters’ other novels, so perhaps there’s something even better in store.

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3 Comments

Filed under Books I've Read (and Thought About), Thoughts, Criticism, and Other Informal Ramblings

3 responses to “Fingersmith, or: The Most Victorian Novel Ever Was Written in 2002

  1. I’m thinking that I maybe have to read this. While I primary read and write nonfiction theses days, I majored in Victorian literature as an undergrad, and I still have a mega soft-spot for all of its attendant tropes. I remember writing papers on “The Woman in White” and “Villete” during one semester, and I sort of miss those days.

    • I had multiple professors/fellow students recommend Fingersmith to me, but it just wasn’t feasible to read something that long solely for pleasure while I was still in school, so I was pretty late to the Sarah Waters party. Now, of course, I understand why they were recommending it, and I have to admit that it would have been helpful to have read it sooner; Victorian sensation fiction was a research interest of mine when I was in grad school, and I nearly wrote my thesis on it. In any case, it’s definitely one of the better Victorian pastiches I’ve read, if only for its incredible awareness of 19th-century narrative conventions. And on a side note, I think my own problem is sort of the opposite of yours; I read a decent amount of non-fiction (history, philosophy, and a little science) as an undergrad, but it’s been a few years since I read anything but novels and literary theory.

  2. Pingback: Penny Dreadful: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Roughly) | Reading In The Growlery

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