If Charles Dickens had been alive in 2002 – and if Charles Dickens were a woman who loves women, or at least an author who wished to appeal to such – this is the book that Charles Dickens might have written. Sarah Waters gives us the dark alleys and stinking gutters, the unrepentant thieves struggling to make a living off of others’ innocence, the crumbling leaky mansion inhabited by an anti-social misanthrope (this one happens to be a scholar of the era’s pornography, soft-core though it would be to us today) and a cast that would warm the heart of any theatrical agent nursing a deep roster of character actors.
The plot too, is Dickensian in its intricacy, incorporating old family lore, false identities, willful deception and several rapid transitions between the world of wealth and that of poverty – not to mention servitude, orphaning, incarceration and consignment to a madhouse. For the most part it all flows and compels, though there are places that would have benefitted from less conversation and more activity. Given that Waters has had significant success, I’d guess her fans will be more comfortable with the blend than I. They may also forgive several infuriating passages where characters prolong the drama by refusing to speak the obvious, leading this reader to feel manipulated and the tale prolonged beyond its natural scale.
At the heart of the story is the relationship of Susan and Maud, intricately-tied despite being separated until their teens and unaware until the novel’s very end of what those ties really are. Their interaction is told in alternating first person sections and it is to Waters’ credit that there is never any question which of the two we are inhabiting. As to which of these women is laudable and which detestable, that is always in question, again to the author’s credit. Neither is a saint, yet both have been placed by others into situations that make their conduct, if not excusable, at least defensible in a novelistic context. Their love story is handled very carefully it seems, as if aiming for just enough clarity to satisfy readers who seek that aspect, but obliquely enough not to deter those who are indifferent to it. For anyone who brings along an attitude antagonistic to the image of two women in love with one another, the lack of a single admirable male character in this tale will perhaps suggest a reason to consider it more generously.
Getting back to the women, Mrs. Sucksby, the mother and mother-figure who is in one sense the instigator of all the angst, is in another sense as much a victim. Her final act of love and protectiveness seems modelled on that of Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps another nod to the man who wrote that novel, as he might have this.
Thoughtful, empathetic; a rewarding and pleasurable read, though it would have been more so with a few tucks and darts in the right places.
(Fingersmith was adapted into a two part BBC movie, 2005)