The wonderful ladies of my book club and I decided to venture down a new literary path with a novel that was described as being “a hypnotic suspense novel…of Dickensian leitmotifs” and an engrossing tale of lesbian fiction set in the Victorian era. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is the story of an orphan named Sue who lives in gloomy, dirty London, circa 1862. Her adoptive “mother” is a thief and baby seller (yes, she literally runs an orphan baby mill in her house like a modern person would have a puppy mill) and everyone else in the “family” are also thieves. Sue’s life is destined for nothing until a handsome con man called Gentleman proposes that Sue help him in a scheme to trick a young, wealthy woman out of her fortune. All Sue needs to do is play lady’s maid to this woman, help Gentleman to marry her and then commit her to a madhouse so he can claim her fortune for himself and give Sue a portion. Sue agrees to this plan and off she to goes to the English countryside.
Introduce Maud Lilly to the novel, the above aforementioned wealthy, young woman about to be duped into marriage. She lives a secluded life with her Uncle who is obsessed with writing a “dictionary” and is forced to wear gloves at all times to protect the precious books in the Uncle’s library. Maud is presented to the reader as being timid, delicate and in love with Gentleman, who has been posing as an art instructor to Miss Lilly. As Sue interacts with Maud in her role of lady’s maid and attempts to do her part to encourage Maud to elope with Gentleman, she begins to establish a friendship with Maud beyond that of lady and servant and eventually admits to herself that she has fallen in love with Maud. This causes her to start questioning her role in Gentleman’s scheme but in the end, she assists Maud in her elopement, is present when Maud and Gentleman marry and make the journey to the madhouse to have Maud unknowingly committed.
At this point in the novel, the conclusion of part one comes with a very Dickens-esque twist and the novel continues with Maud as the narrator. For all that I struggled to find a rhythm to this novel and did not devour it with my usually voracious appetite for an engagingly written tale, there were some plot twists and points that made this novel an interesting read:
1) At the end of part one, Sue ends up being the one committed to the madhouse under the name Mrs. Rivers
2) We learn that Maud was aware of the scheme to marry her to Gentleman and have her committed the entire time but her own deal with Gentleman was to have the innocent maid he would bring back with him from London committed in her place so she would be free of her Uncle.
3) Part two is told from Maud’s point of view and we learn that she was born in the same madhouse that Sue is committed to and her mother died there.
4) The “dictionary” her uncle is working on is actually a reference book for all known literary pornography of that time and she is forced to read passages from books of this nature to gentleman guest who have a similar interest in that genre
5) Maud also falls in love with Sue but still goes through with the plan to have Sue committed in her place so she can be free of her Uncle.
Part two ends with Gentleman taking Maud back to London and forcing her to stay with Mrs S., Sue’s adoptive mother. It is at this time that we learn Mrs. S. was the true mastermind of this plan for over 17 years. There is a convoluted storyline where we learn that Sue is really Maud and Maud is Sue meaning that Sue’s real mother was a wealthy lady that had escaped her abusive father and brother and gave birth at Mrs. S. place. Her family found her and she begged Mrs. S to keep her baby safe with the promise that her daughter and the switched baby would each split her fortune on their 18th birthdays. Mrs. S agrees and gives one of the orphan babies, Maud, to the father and brother who take her and her mother to the madhouse where she is raised by the nurses until her Uncle claims her at a later time. Maud then turns out to be Mrs. S. child and not an orphan child at random. Mrs. S wanted to have Maud brought home so she could see her again and also claim all of the fortune that had been promised by Sue’s mother, the wealthy lady.
Still following? Congrats, because this piece of the novel was an absolutely bear to get through! Felt like I needed to draw it out with crayon so I didn’t lose who was who. The quick summation for the rest of the novel is that Sue manages to escape the madhouse, makes her way to London, perceives that Maud has replaced her in Mrs. S. life, attempts to exact revenge, learns the awful truth about plot and her birth, Gentleman is killed, Mrs. S. is hanged for the crime, Maud disappears, Sue comes into her fortune, returns to the country house, finds Maud living there and supporting herself by writing her own literary erotica and they insipidly declare their feelings for each other.
For a novel that is toted as pushing lesbian fiction to be more mainstream, I found this part of the book to be very lacking in development and not as central to the overall story line as I had thought it would be. My book club members and I picked this novel as we were intrigued by how a suspense novel involving a lesbian couple set in an era where relationships of that nature were kept in secret could be presented and were drawn in by the multitude of praise given to this title. I can praise the author’s historical accurate and chilling description of Sue’s time in the madhouse, but overall, I was underwhelmed by a book that I had high hopes for and that just sucks. At our book club discussion, my friends and I had too many questions that we would love to pose to the author: Why was the literary pornography piece included and written about so much? It didn’t seem to explain anything other than her husband’s depravity and then later give Maud a source a income. Why wasn’t there more development of Maud and Lilly’s relationship? Are our expectations to high in this modern age to appreciate the more subtle shadings of development the author employed to progress their relationship? Why in the hell was the last part so damn long?? 100+ seemingly endless pages on Sue’s escape from the madhouse, her travel to London, stalking Maud for days and then about 12 pages surrounding the culmination of all the cross plots and Gentleman death.
We have since been told that this is not the best of Sarah Water’s novels and while I am intrigued by the summations for her other works- Affinity and Twisting the Velvet- I find myself shying away from attempting a second title after being burned so disappointingly by Fingersmith. Guess I’ll soak my figurative fingers in icewater and see how I feel in a few weeks.