Fingersmith: Book and movie combo deal!

It was only by accident that I came to hear Sarah Waters discussing her newest book The Night Watch at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2006.  It was a beautiful Scottish summer’s day; perfect for a day trip from Glasgow. I had planned to just wander around the festival at Charlotte Square Gardens; tickets were £8 per session and I knew my meager Oxfam salary couldn’t support too many purchases.  But then on a whim, I decided to get a ticket to Sarah Waters, an author I’d never heard of.  It changed my literary landscape.

Fingersmith is my fifth Sarah Waters novel (Night Watch was the first, followed by Tipping the Velvet, The Little Stranger, and the Paying Guests).  In my view, every single one of these books is the work of a genius.  Waters has novel-writing totally nailed – distinctive plots, robust characterisation, unpredictable twists, and a phenomenal way with words. When I’m reading any of Sarah Waters’ books I feel like I’m reading a modern classic.  It was no different with Fingersmith.

The book

The novel opens with an introduction to Sue, an orphaned petty thief in London. One day, she is asked by ‘Gentleman’ to help him defraud a young heiress, Maud, sequestered away in a country mansion in the custody of her uncle. Gentleman wants to plant Sue as the maid of Maud and enlist Sue’s help to make Maud fall in love and marry him.  Once Gentleman has accessed Maud’s inheritance, he intends to lock her away in a madhouse.

So begins the twistings and the turnings of the plot – that takes us from Fagan-esque London, to a gothic mansion, to a mental asylum and back to London again; the narrator changing twice, and the characters shape-shifting as a consequence. The love that blossoms between the two protagonists is dealt with delicately, the revulsion we feel for Maud’s uncle is built up slowly. Waters easily portrays the sadism of the asylum staff, and the pain of betrayal. But best of all, this intricate and layered plot is founded on a solid base of expert story-telling and a dexterity with words:

…I know that what has roused me is not sound, but movement.  Movement, and light. Beyond the bed-curtain the rush-lamp’s wick has flared suddenly bright, and the doors and the window-glasses are straining against their frames.

The house has opened its mouth, and is breathing.


I loved every page of this book, but it should be noted that there are nearly 600 of them.  Some readers might find this daunting.  If so, do not worry. Fingersmith needn’t be dismissed….

The movie

… there is a Korean film called The Handmaiden, inspired by Fingersmith.  Rather than Dickensian London, the film is set in Japanese-occupied Korea.

Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee in The Handmaiden

The premise is largely the same as the book, but about half-way through, the film takes a hairpin turn from the book’s plot, omitting some of the excellent twists, shedding the sensuousness and sexual subtlety, and then sharply descends into mild pornography and violence (the film has an ‘R18+’ rating in Australia).

It’s a good film in its own right – it looks beautiful and is gripping (even if a bit long).  It has won a mountain of accolades and adds new textures to the story, like the exploration of racial tension between Japan and Korea.  However, I don’t think it delivered on the layers and the complexities of Waters’ work, particularly when it came to portraying the two protagonists’ love scene, which I thought was overdone and a bit pervy.

The BBC serial (of course)

As a not-so-secret fan of BBC period dramas, the 2006 BBC adaptation of Fingersmith is now on my ‘to be watched list’. It has Sally Hawkins in it, and while she may be part of a steamy love scene, I can’t imagine for one moment that it will be pervy.

And, the audio book

The sample sounds pretty good – replete with genuine cockney accents – and can be found on Audible.

So, you can take your pick as to how you want to dip your toe into Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. Naturally, I recommend the book. But mark the following words directed at ‘Maud’ by an asylum doctor: ‘We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to over-indulge yourself in literature; and have inflamed your organs of fancy.’ If you do choose to read, rather than to watch, look after your organs of fancy.

Sally Hawkins as Sue in the BBC adaptation.

Brilliant feature image thanks to goddammitstacey.

Fingersmith was a Christmas present from Brianna @ Paperback Bri through The Broke and the Bookish Secret Santa (which I can highly recommend by the way). Thank you so much Brianna.

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.


  1. got this one by my bedside – can’t wait to read it. Might be time for another Sarah Waters!

    • Ooooo yeh! I have one more of hers to read (Affinity). I’m going to wait a bit and build up the suspense….

  2. The Paying Guests was my first Sarah Waters and I’ve been meaning to read Fingersmith ever since! I’m especially excited about the movie, though I’d meant to see it in theaters and missed it because I want to read the book first. I know what you mean about feeling like you’re reading a modern classic with Waters’ books; I’ve only read one but could tell instantly that she’d be a favorite.

    • That’s so great to read that. I’d be interested to know what you think about the movie. It did get good reviews, but having read the book it just didn’t work for me as well. Make sure you read the book first!

  3. I haven’t read any of Sara Waters’s books, yet – shame! I love your description of this one though, and I also really enjoy watching movie adaptations of books. Fingersmith sounds like a great first Sara Waters book for me!

    • My other favourite one of hers is Little Stranger – it’s a gothic style ghost story and I think she replicates that genre brilliantly. Enjoy!

  4. I’ve read two Sarah Waters novels. Fingersmith was my first, Tipping the Velvet my second. I’m so glad Fingersmith found you, and what a wonderful Secret Santa to receive. It had a profound effect on me. I’d never read anything like it before. Somehow I missed the existence of a BBC adaptation.

    I’m going to recommend Slammerkin to you now. Have we had this conversation already? It’s by Emma Donoghue and is inspired by a true story. I think you’ll enjoy it.

    • We haven’t had a conversation about Slammerskin; thanks so much for bringing it to my attention. I loved Room (and literally cried throughout the entire film, which was embarrassing), but hadn’t even heard of this one. I love the link you’ve provided too. It’s really refreshing to read the author’s views on the book, rather than the publishers. I mean to read her new one too (The Wonder). I’ll put both on my reading list – thanks!

      • I haven’t read any of her other books, so will investigate further! Slammerkin is great, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

  5. I love Fingersmith to bits! First read the book (after being smitten by Tipping The Velvet), followed by the BBC adaptation and a little later, the audiobook. Loved it in all its different forms. But reading the book first is still the best way to start the journey, I’d say. The Handmaiden is a visual treat and has a great music score too, but like you said, the love scenes were really not so tastefully done, to put it mildly. :p
    BBC definitely did a much better job with Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy!

    • I haven’t seen the BBC one yet. I really need to- I only just realised that Sally Hawkins is in Tipping the Velvet too.

  6. I love Fingersmith to bits! First read the book (after being smitten by Tipping The Velvet), followed by the BBC adaptation, and then listening to the audiobook. Loved it in all its different forms! The Handmaiden is a visual treat and has a lovely music score too, but as you said, the love scenes were really not too tastefully done, to put it mildly. :p
    BBC definitely did a much better job with Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy!

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