Book Review: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

fingersmith

Warning: this review contains mild spoilers

Remember how I raved about “Wildthorn” and how it left me hungry for more Victorian queer ladies and their adventures? Well, I actually got “Fingersmith” ages ago but since my TBR pile is so huge I only managed to get to it now.

 

This novel takes place in the 1860s, Victorian England. On the one hand, we have Sue Trinder, an orphan who lives with a lady that sells babies and has an entire nest of thieves at her disposal. Sue’s been a thief since before she can remember, and it’s all she knows. One day, a Gentleman comes to her with a sinister plot to commit the biggest con she’s ever been involved in in her eighteen years of life. He asks her to act as a companion to a young, lonely woman who is very rich and if she were to marry and if something were to happen to her – say she grows so poorly the husband has no choice but to send her to an asylum – all the money would go to the husband. Which is what Gentleman intends to become, with Sue’s help. Sue transforms into Susan Smith and departs London, her mother figure and her “colleagues” for the first time in her life. Seducing the young woman doesn’t appear to be a problem for Gentleman. The problem is, however, is that nobody warned Susan she would fall in love with her subject!

On the other hand, we have Maud Lilly, a girl who’s never known anything but abuse disguised as “tough love”. She lived with nurses until she was ten and afterwards, she is forcibly removed by her obsessive, sleazy, scholar of an “Uncle” into the country. For years, she desperately longed for a way out of Briar, an old mansion full of nasty servants, and to get away from her Uncle. Every day, she would transcribe his “French” texts for him, over and over again. Until one day, a man enters, offering her a way out, a path towards freedom. The only thing she needs to do is to become “a villain”, like him, and deceive and manipulate certain people. But can she go through with it if the very person she’s to deceive has captured her heart?

 

“Fingersmith” is a perfect read for those who love unreliable narrators, creepy gothic mansions and plot twists you’d never see coming. Like me, when you start reading you would probably expect it to be your standard “thief falls in love with her target and there’s drama” plot, but I was shocked to discover that it was anything but that. It is true, the book is about thieves and con artists and there most certainly is a lot of drama, but you never see the twists and turns coming. At many points I had to put the book down and gape at it because my mind was blown! The twists have been described as “Dickensian” which I think is an excellent analogy. Parts 1 and 3 are narrated by Sue and Part 2 is told by Maud. I suppose you could say that the twists start in part 2 and continue throughout the book until the very last page, so you can’t really skim through any sections of the book. The entire work is dense and the details are intricately woven into the plot, so the book is very… sating so to say. I can honestly say that while this book has familiar elements, they are put together in a way that makes me say that “Fingersmith” isn’t anything like I’ve read before.

“Oliver Twist” is my favourite book by Charles Dickens (well, it’s the only one besides “GE” that I read but still), and Nancy is my favourite character – I adore thieves with hearts of gold. “Fingersmith”, however, has zero Nancy’s, except one secondary character named Dainty. Not a single character can be described as warm, fuzzy, or even “good”. So if you’re looking for a feel-good story about two girls who defeated obstacles of their era and finally found solace in each other’s arms, this is not the book for you. In fact, the few extremely well-written romantic scenes are nowhere nearly enough to soothe the shivers and the anticipation the reader feels as she follows the girls on their respective journeys. Our narrators are written as people, and the author doesn’t hesitate to show their ugly sides. They are not villains, however. It can actually be argued that the story has two primary villainous figures. The first is quite self-aware and literally refers to himself as “villain”. The figure of Richard Rivers the master manipulator is quite mysterious and more often than not, downright repulsive. He is certainly clever and cunning, which is why the ring of thieves welcomes him. However, he is definitely not the creepiest character in the book – that spot belongs to Maud’s Uncle. He literally reminds me of Mr. Thenardier from “Les Miserables” – except instead of mauling his own kids to pretend to be poor, he abuses his niece because he needs a secretary to rewrite erotic novels for him. Some of you may enjoy the idea that these novels serve as a sort of “MacGuffin” for “Fingersmith” – a plot device used to advance character development (Maud).

Villain number two is a Fagin-esque character named Mrs Sucksby, Sue’s adoptive mother (or is she?). I say “Fagin-esque” not only because she is a central figure of the thieves’ den, but also because her end is eerily similar to Fagin. However, I can’t remember whether Fagin is redeemed at the end of “Oliver Twist”, but Mrs Sucksby certainly does, in her own way. Her character is also at the center of two primary themes of the novel – deception and nature vs nurture. The entire novel is soaked in deception, and it can be said that it all starts with Mrs Sucksby. I haven’t seen the mini series yet but I already think that Imelda Stanton is the best actress to play this character. In fact, she’s exactly who I pictured when I was reading certain revelation scenes.

“Fingersmith” is quite a unique novel, and an exemplary piece of written work. The characters of the novel are not someone I cared about or rooted for, but they’re certainly fascinating. And the plot twists definitely kept me on the edge of my seat. My rating for “Fingersmith” is 8.5/10. 

 

Favourite quotes

“Everybody in my world knew that regular work was only another name for being robbed and dying of boredom.”

“But words, words – hmm? They seduce us in darkness, and the mind clothes and fleshes them to fashions of its own.”

“Dark nights are good to thieves and fencing-men; dark nights in winter are the best nights of all, for then regular people keep close to their homes, and the swells all keep to the country, and the grand houses of London are shut up and empty and pelading to be cracked.”

 

Dreamcast

There’s already a mini series which has perfect casting, so just look it up here 🙂

 

Recommendations

You might enjoy “Fingersmith” if you liked:

“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

“Wildthorn” by Jane Eagland

“The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins

 

Have you read “Fingersmith” or any other Sarah Waters’ books? Do you enjoy Victorian fiction? What are your favourite historical LGBT books? Please let me know in the comments!

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Book Review: Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

I enjoy reading about leading ladies as much as the next leading lady. However, I do prefer reading about them in a historical context, in the words of Jennifer Donnelly, Libba Bray and now, Jane Eagland.

Victorian feminists are great aren’t they? Seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove is one of them. Ever since she was young, she has been eager to learn, particularly about science and medicine. Her dream is to become a doctor, like her father. “A woman becoming a doctor? They’ll want to become lawyers next!” – uttered a secondary character whose name I can’t be bothered to remember. It was almost unheard of for a woman to want something other than being a wife and looking after her children while making occasional social visits in the Victorian times. In fact, a woman could legally be proclaimed “mad” for even the slight deviation from social norms of the time – a situation which is unfortunately still prevalent in some countries. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens to Louisa – her dreams and aspirations turn into nightmares when she is sent to Wildthorn Hall – an asylum for women. Labelled a lunatic, she is deprived of all freedom, privacy and even her real name. She is, however, a smart girl and figures out soon enough that there is something more going on than a mere clerical error. To her horror, she realises that nobody is going to help her get out of there and she has to rely on her own tenacity and knowledge to escape. Befriending a young nurse called Eliza seems to be the only ray of hope for Louisa in the dreadful place that is Wildthorn Hall.

In a way, “Wildthorn” can be considered a gothic novel, with the main setting being an old mansion in the middle of English countryside and containing many dreadful, bone-chilling secrets within itself. Gothic novels have, since I discovered “Jane Eyre” in school, held a special place in my heart. Wildthorn, however, is a lot scarier than Manderley or Thornfield.

From the very first page, Eagland really focuses her writing energy on establishing the atmosphere in the book and it truly pulls you in. The majority of the book is set in the asylum; however, a few chapters in part 1 focus on establishing Louisa’s backstory and are very telling of the Victorian times and social structures. Louisa is constantly pushed into becoming a proper lady by her mother and her brother, as well as her aunt. However, her dad understands her free spirit and tries his best not to quash it – he has no problem letting Louisa learn about whatever she wants and supports her ambition to become a medical practitioner, even though he understands perfectly that most of his colleagues would be appalled by the idea. Her father’s death, however, puts an end to things and eventually leads to Louisa’s imprisonment in Wildthorn.

The horrors of the asylum are primarily represented by the head nurse, Fanny Weeks, who is nearly as “pleasant” as nurse Ratchet from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. She is the main cause of Louisa beginning to doubt herself and thinking that someone is trying to drive her mad. Her spirit remains unbroken, however, which is a testament to Eagland’s character-driven narration. Yes, the atmosphere and the setting are masterfully conducted, but the real center of the book is Louisa’s character. I really found myself rooting for her and wanting her to actually be able to pursue her dream. I especially loved the way she used her knowledge of science during her various attempts to escape. I figured out the reason for her imprisonment about halfway through the book, but I really liked how realistic her actions and emotions were towards the end – when one is in a situation like she is in, it is very often difficult to think rationally. Asylums were, back then, an equivalent of imprisonment, and I think that SPOILER the fact that Louisa considered her feelings for her female cousin to be the reason for her imprisonment END SPOILER says a lot about the situation back then. The horrible truth is that even today, one can be incarcerated for expressing their feelings. Eagland has really brought the injustices of the time into perspective. My rating of “Wildthorne” is 8.5/10.  

Favourite character:

Louisa – she is kind, loving, brave, smart, and ready to fight for what she believes in – even if it means getting locked up in an asylum and chained to a dirty bed. After all, if you know how to use your knowledge, you can do pretty much anything – if you have a beautiful ally within, all the better. One shouldn’t, after all, attempt to break out of prisons and madhouses alone!

Character who gets the most development:

Louisa – at the start of the book, she is very outspoken and does not, due to her upbringing, know around whom it is better to stay quiet. However, she develops into a very intelligent and cunning young woman as the book progresses. I also liked how Eagland didn’t focus her entire storyline on her sexual orientation – she’s a character that happens to be gay, not a “gay character”. Romance still played a good part in the book though, and I enjoyed it, even though I don’t normally like romantic books.

Least favourite character:

Tom Cosgrove and Fanny Weeks – they are both despicable human beings.

Favourite quote:

Louisa’s medical report lists the following factors that show that a woman is insane:

“An interest in medical matters inappropriate for one of her age and sex”

“A neglect of appearance and personal toilet, and wearing unsuitable clothing for a young lady of her status”

“Excessive book-reading and study leading to a weakening of the mind”

“Desiring to ape men by nursing an ambition to be a doctor”  lawyer

Self-assertiveness in the face of male authority”

“Obstinancy and displays of temper”

“Going about unchaperoned, for exampple, travelling to London alone”

I highlighted the traits that I tend to display on a daily basis. Good thing I don’t live in the Victorian times!

Dreamcast

Louisa – Anna Popplewell

Eliza – Jennifer Ellison

Recommendations:

You might like “Wildthorn” if you liked:

“Gemma Doyle Trilogy” by Libba Bray;

“Tea Rose Trilogy” by Jennifer Donnelly;

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte

“Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys