‘“It’s a girl,” I say. And when she hears that she cries out with all her lungs: “Then God help her! For the world is cruel to girls! I wish she had died, and me with her!“‘
The Victorian world was of course particularly cruel to girls, and it is that cruelty that animates many of the great nineteenth century novels. In her own novels, Sarah Waters offers a new spin on the position of women in Victorian Britain. Her work has been described as ‘lesbian Victoriana’, but for all that label’s appeal, it would be unfair to ghettoise Waters.
Queen Victoria famously declined to pass legislation against lesbianism because she refused to believe ladies would do such things. This was really a kind of oppression by omission, and there is something appealing about writing lesbian characters into the Victorian world. Of course, this could be done very badly. As we discover in Fingersmith, lesbianism has long been a favourite preoccupation of pornographers, and then there is the crass tendency to project PC agendas into the past. Waters steers clear of both, and in many ways Fingersmith fits neatly into the nineteenth century tradition.
Oliver Twist gets a mention on the very first page, but the Dickens influence runs deeper than that: in fact the novel is a sort of Bleak Expectations. Fingersmith is the story of two orphans from very different backgrounds, who nonetheless turn out to have much more in common that the bad luck to have been born girls. Sue Trinder grew up in a thieves’ kitchen in the Borough (a fingersmith is a pickpocket), while the heiress Maud Lilly was being trained as a secretary by her sinister uncle in his country mansion. The two are brought together by a dastardly conman, and the ensuing intrigue brings forth revelation after revelation.
The plot is suitably gripping, and if the peripheral characters are a little thin, Sue and Maud both come to life in their struggle against destiny, whether inherited or imposed. Sue narrates most of the book, taking up the burden of explanation in a pleasantly traditional style. Maud’s section, though, is written in the present tense, and while she fills in the gaps and adds depth to Sue’s account, the effect is generally more impressionistic. When Maud meets characters we already know, it adds to the sense that she is more vulnerable and naïve than Sue, though in some ways she is also more savvy. They make an odd couple.
The girls’ sexual orientation, which develops over the course of the story, is only a small part of their transgressiveness. While they begin the novel as pawns in a man’s game, each in her own way gradually develops a sense of herself. Each revelation, however devastating it seems at the time, is further evidence that things are less fixed than they appear, and that women can perhaps take control of their own lives.
The love story at the heart of Fingersmith is complicated by circumstances both historical and particular, and the happy ending is elusive enough to keep the reader engaged for over 500 pages. We are amused.