London, 1862. Sue Trinder is a young fingersmith or thief. Orphaned at birth when her mother was hanged for murder, she was raised by Mrs Sucksby, a baby farmer. All her life she has lived with Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs in a house in Lant Street, a house full of other rough and ready thieves. One night, a man known to them as Gentleman, who also goes by the name of Richard Rivers, comes to see them. He has a proposition to make; an opportunity for Sue to make their fortune. All she has to do is pretend to be a lady’s maid and persuade her new mistress to marry a rogue.
It sounds simple enough. But this plan is elaborate and complex. It has to be if they are to get their hands on Maud Lilly’s fortune and keep it…
And what of Maud Lilly? Another orphan, she was raised in the madhouse where her mother died and left their by her uncle until he could find a use for her. He is a reclusive man, who remains at Briar cataloguing his vast library of erotic books. Maud’s job, when she is old enough, is to help him, and, when he has guests, to read passages to them for their enjoyment.
Maud Lilly knows nothing of the world beyond what she saw in the madhouse as a child and what she has since encountered at Briar. Is it any wonder that she craves freedom, and is willing to marry Richard Rivers to obtain it. Only, as secrets are revealed, it seems there is much more at stake than money…
This is the first book by Sarah Waters that I have read, though I will say that I had watched the TV adaptation of the book before reading it.
The atmosphere that the author manages to create around the story is intense and mesmerising, especially in the second half of the book. The plot is complex and full of twists and turns, and as we are given both Sue and Maud’s perspective of what is going on, offered tantalising glimpses of the truth behind the lies.
The pace of the first quarter of the book was slow as all the foundations for what was to come needed to be laid, but when it started gathering speed, it never relented until the end. The characters were well-crafted and the use of language was employed cleverly to help set the tone in each of the locations visited. The descriptions – of thoughts, feelings, smells, sounds, and places – are rich and bring Victorian England colourfully to life, perhaps too colourfully, I would imagine, for those of a sensitive nature. But, in my opinion, this only added to a realistic portrayal of the people and the times.
Fingersmith has everything a Victorian suspense story requires: a madhouse, a prison, orphans, thieves and pickpockets, not to mention a view of the seedier side of life in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The grim, rough streets of inner city London are juxtaposed with that of the rich and well-to-do, as we are taken from Lant Street to Briar, a grey and gloomy mansion set in its own estate in the country. And yet, though these places are worlds apart, misery and villainy are to be found in both.
After reading this, I will certainly be adding the other novels by Sarah Waters to my “must buy” book list.