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