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.