Review: Fingersmith

This review contains spoilers.

Is it possible to write the past accurately without adopting its literary forms? I ask because Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is probably the closest I’ve seen a modern author come to recreating a Victorian sensation/Gothic novel, with its dense, twisty plot, its doublings, its shifts of perspective, its interest in misplaced inheritances and miscreant thieves.

Its premise goes something like this: Sue Trinder, daughter of a family of thieves (or fingersmiths), poses as a maidservant to Maud Lilly, the niece of a rich country gentleman. The idea is that she’ll befriend Maud and convince her to elope with a rake known ironically as Gentleman, who will thereby get his hands on Maud’s fortune and share it with Sue’s family.

Of course, things don’t really go to plan – not to Sue’s plan, anyway.

And, of course, Fingersmith is not a Victorian novel. It’s a Victorian novel with lesbians, which is a) awesome, and b) a difference that’s fundamental to the work Waters is doing here.

Fingersmith actually reminded me a little of what Margaret Atwood does in her Alias Grace. Atwood’s novel takes the story of real-life convict Grace Marks and uses its ambiguities, the cracks between the sources we have for it, to write a woman who defies the objectifying (white, male, straight) gaze of history, whose refusal to be rationalised away into the social order sees her returning, again, to haunt it. In a similar way, Fingersmith takes a traditional novelistic form (names like Dickens and Wilkie Collins spring to mind, as well as female authors of earlier Gothic fiction like Ann Radcliffe) and, exactly, queers it; uses its own conventions to undermine it, to challenge its basis in “reality” (and Dickens in particular prized the social realism of his novels, with their casts of thieves and fallen women and workhouse poor), to haunt it.

An example, albeit a pretty spoilerific one: as the conventions of the genre demand, Fingersmith has its consolatory happy ending, its reward for the trials and travails of True Love. (In other words, its heroines get together and live, probably, happily ever after.) But it’s not structurally consolatory, because the union in question is not a marriage, not even a heterosexual love match; so it doesn’t, as these endings usually do, gesture towards a restabilising of the status quo, a restoration of patriarchal society. Instead, it inscribes an escape for these two women, from the patriarchal-capitalist structures of inheritance which have trapped them both throughout the novel – structures which make women disposable and interchangeable (one of the plot twists literally sees them switch places – this feels very Dickensian to me), objects to be hoarded and exchanged for wealth – into a new kind of social structure, that attaches no importance to wealth and is based only on love. In other words, this is a rewriting of the marginalised back into the literary tradition, in a way that destabilises the very idea of that tradition.

I think there’s an argument to be made that what Waters is doing is actually not so very different from late eighteenth-century female-authored Gothic novels like Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, or even something like Fanny Burney’s Camilla. The literary orthodoxy, even its feminist contingent, is very good at ignoring, or forgetting, the fact that these excessive novels, with their overwriting and their melodrama and their continually swooning heroines, have always been self-haunting; they’ve always fretted and pushed at the boundaries of patriarchal social norms, deployed those norms to remind us of their limitations. Last week I longed to be able to write a thesis on the use of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in modern Gothic novels; another thesis I’d love to write is one on the Gothic novel and feminism.

But that’s by-the-by, and can’t detract from the fact that Fingersmith is also a damn good read, suspenseful, absorbing and oh my word the sexual tension. I didn’t like The Little Stranger at all, so I’m glad I gave this a chance.

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