Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
(Part of my mission to read more books by female authors; this title suggested by Bellulah.)
I came to this novel knowing only one thing about Sarah Waters; that she writes saucy historical fiction about lesbians. Add to this the fact that the book is published by Virago, and was nominated for the women-only Orange Prize, and I think I'd be justified in supposing that I'm not the target market.
Which may be true, but it would be a pity if anyone were to be discouraged by outmoded notions that Ms Waters writes in a Spare Rib-reading time warp, all bare wood tables, ethnic trousers and dangly earrings. Or, indeed, that it's just smut. Fingersmith is a rollicking, satisfying read, as packed with twists and reverses as the 19th-century novels in the milieu of which it operates.
It's the story of two orphans: Sue Trinder, raised among thieves in a ramshackle house in South London; and Maud Lilly, isolated amid her uncle's books in a damp house in the Thames Valley. Their lives interact in a series of double-crosses and revelations, during which the reader's sympathies ebb and flow between the protagonists. There's quite a bit of mental instability in the mix and, yes, some fumbles of the ladies-only variety.
Which is something you wouldn't find in the works of the great 19th-century novelists, determined as they were not to "bring a blush into the cheek of the young person". But Waters is clearly besotted with her predecessors. For a start, her central figures are orphans, that reliable stock figure of Dickens and his contemporaries; Sue's upbringing among the fingersmiths inevitably suggests Oliver Twist. The theme of insanity echoes Charlotte Brontë's Mrs Rochester; Maud's bibliophile uncle is a malevolent version of George Eliot's Causaubon; the subordinate position that romantic love takes to financial reality hints at Jane Austen.
Of course, Fingersmith is more than a pastiche. Apart from the subjects that Dickens or Eliot could not have begun to tackle, not least the true nature of Uncle's library, it's the Victorian age seen through 21st-century eyes, with the understanding that we should also consider the areas in which we've made little or no progress. An asylum-keeper considers the moral turpitude that has driven one of his potential charges out of her mind:
'But the over-exposure of girls to literature– The founding of women's colleges–' His brow is sleek with sweat. 'We are raising a nation of brain-cultured women. Your wife's distress, I'm afraid to say, is part of a wider malaise. I fear for the future of our race, Mr Rivers, I may tell you now. And her wedding-night, you say, the start of this most recent bout of insanity? Could that' – he drops his voice meaningfully, and exchanges a glance with the doctor who writes – 'be plainer?'
See, a clever woman who doesn't like shagging. No wonder the country's gone to the dogs. But this is no po-faced tract about the tribulations endured by madwomen in the attic. The literary analogies are wry and winking, defiantly metafictional. "I will not swoon," says Maud. "Only girls in books do that, for the convenience of gentlemen." Fiction, after all, is a lie, a deception, and it is deception that acts as the engine to the story. Maud, deceiver and deceived, becomes a writer by the end of the book; is there any difference between her deceptions and the ones that Sarah Waters practises on us?
At its heart, Fingersmith owes the most not to the big Georgian and Victorian hitters of the novel, but to a slightly later, less reverential tradition. Like Cold Comfort Farm and The Young Visiters, like the works of Pirandello and Calvino and Borges, it's a book about books.