Once again I’ve just finished a book set in England. Hmmm. Fingersmith has been around for quite a while, but I just discovered it a few weeks ago. The story is set in the Victorian age and quite literally begins in a den of thieves in London. Sue is a pickpocket or fingersmith who has grown up under the tutelage of Mrs. Sucksby. Mrs. Sucksby is a one woman orphanage, or baby farmer, taking on unwanted infants and selling them when opportunities arise. Mr. Ibbs lives in the same house and fences stolen goods.
One of their colleagues is alleged to be a “Gentleman” who has run through his own money gambling and engaging in other spendthrift behaviors. He has discovered an orphan girl, Maud, who will come into money when she is married. She lives with her strange uncle in a manor 40 miles outside of London. Gentleman persuades Sue to act as a lady’s maid to entrap Maud into marriage, and then to dispose of her in a mental hospital when they’ve secured the money. Sue is reluctant at first, after all she’s an illiterate thief. Gentleman instructs her in how to be a lady’s maid, and she believes that she will be bringing back a tidy sum to share with her cobbled together family.
The plot seems simple enough and there’s the rub. Waters takes you on a fascinating journey with intricate twists and turns. It’s a tale of manipulation, but who is manipulating whom is part of the fun. Add to this a bit of eroticism and Victorian sexual hypocrisy and it stays interesting throughout its 580 pages.
I’ve read a few novels by Sarah Waters (maybe even all of them) and this novel is both similar and different from her others. Her novels all explore the psychology of her characters, their relationships, class conditions, and are all set in the past in England, but of the ones I’ve read this is the first one with a male narrator. Unlike the others, it also doesn’t feature a lesbian or queer love story. While it was described as a gothic novel and ghost story, it is really more of a character study with the ghost part of the novel taking second place for the majority of the novel. In fact, while there are some odd occurences towards the beginning, it isn’t until over halfway through that these incidents really start becoming a focus since up until that point any weird happenings were easily blamed on people or things.
Dr. Faraday is a country doctor living in the same village he was born and raised in. His parents were poor and struggled their entire lives to ensure that their son would be able to make something of himself, but he has come to the point in his life where he is doubtful of his success, and certainly as one of three or four doctors that works in the area, he isn’t exactly very financially secure. Set in the years following World War II, England is still under rations, and life is changing. One remnant of the past is the home and manor of the landed gentry and its residents, the Ayres. The doctor’s mother once worked at the house many years ago, and on his one childhood visit there, he was dazzled by its grandeur. Now, almost thirty years later, he returns to the house on a house call to check on a new maid’s stomach ailment.