Sarah Waters is a rarity – an up and coming writer in this age of hype who actually deserves the prizes and plaudits bestowed on her, and then some more. She is not a literary dot.com but a true novelist, with strengths that are fundamental to the form rather than traditional, although all kinds of interesting experiments with language and content are bubbling through the retorts of her fiction. Whilst idiosyncratic, Fingersmith is in the tradition of The Wide Sargasso Sea, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and even of a work of drama, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Whilst Waters lives and breathes Victorian fiction, particularly the works of Dickens and Dickens’s sidekick on kerb crawls, Wilkie Collins, Fingersmith is less a homage than, like Stoppard’s play, the creation of a parallel universe of values and sentiment, existing in the interstices, the hidden spaces of great 19th-century novels. Love, the physicality of it, and fornication are the hollow spaces and priest-holes behind the wainscoting of the great mansions that are the works of the Victorian masters. The Thai novelist and Old Etonian, S. P. Somtow, talks of the rival mores of different cultures – but then we know the past is another country, too – when he says of sex, ‘You can talk about it all you like in America but you mustn’t do it and you can do it as much as you like in Thailand but you mustn’t talk about it.’ The huge sex industry on the Victorian street, much larger than those of modern Bombay or Bangkok, was off limits in fiction, but not in actuality, for the classic novelists a century and a half ago – oh, for the English Zola! – but presents a window of opportunity for Waters, not least in creating equivalents of Bill Sykes and Nancy who use four-letter words far older than Dickens. She delves – and so do the fingers of her girl lovers – even deeper than the love that dared not speak its name, the love, between women, that was never criminalised because Queen Victoria believed it was a sheer impossibility.
It is always difficult to do justice to a novel one admires; a bald summary falls far short of the fiction’s colour and vibrancy – and in this particular case the joy of Fingersmith depends so much on twists in the plot, explosive revelations, and the thwarting of expectations, that it is just not fair to reveal them.
It is enough to say that the tale has two narrators, 17-year-old Sue Trinder, a Suky Tawdry of a sister for Oliver Twist, brought up in a Borough thieves’ kitchen which is a mixture of the world of Fagin and Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle gone to the bad, and Sue’s coaeval, the young heiress Maud Lilly. Sue goes to Maud’s bibliophile uncle’s ramshackle country house on the banks of the same Thames which laves sordid Southwark, to work a desperate wickedness, but finds herself as much fly as spider.
The plot is ideally suited to changes in narrative point of view. So often in modern novels these shifts are cheap, mechanical tricks of the conjuror, done just to show off. In Fingersmith I had one of my own digits in something interesting – the earlier pages, so that I could flick back and compare how the scene had been repeated through different eyes. On this topic I would advise readers to fold over the notes at the end of the novel or even literally and figuratively take a leaf from Maud’s book (who slashes the volumes of her uncle in revenge) and tear it out. This page fell open by accident while I was reading and the clue in the author’s citations robbed me of a surprise.
Some minor cavils. At times the cogs of the plot do not fit smoothly together, in the way the wheels of Collins or Dumas can be relied on to do. I still don’t understand why Sue has to be passed off as Maud to two doctors (I won’t reveal more than that), though this may be the obtuseness of a novelist, me, who has never given a fig for plot. Then the period dialogue in the story is far superior to the narratives, which sometimes hit jarring modern notes. I can only suppose Waters preferred speed and ease for her readers to a solipsistic act of perfect authorial ventriloquism, as on the evidence of the speech she can turn out pastiche as well as a counterfeiter does brushstrokes. I would also have liked more on the love-making between Maud and Sue – admittedly told twice – as here is a golden opportunity to try the experiment of new wine in old bottles, modern carnality in antique prose. I don’t think this is simply male prurience.
Finally, the knifing that climaxes the book, in its squalor and adventitiousness, its depiction of the emotions of the victim and the witnesses, its uncertainty as to the identity of the murderer but certainty of the self-sacrifice of the person who is eventually hanged for it, is the best thing of its kind in any modern novel – better done than the violence in the books of would-be macho American thriller writers, although the reading experience was for me as English as tea and cinammon toast on a rainy afternoon while a BBC costume drama glows on the set.
Reading it in a third-world town where it’s Disney, Pepsi, and pickled palm-hearts rather than Dickens and tea and toast, and where the stabbings are even more prolific than those of the 19th-century rookeries, I hail Sarah Waters’ achievement in writing about a corner of a lost time that nevertheless stands as a universal drama of love and treachery for readers everywhere.