Sarah Waters is one of my favourite writers. Anything she writes is a pre-order in my house, so there may be some bias in my next statement. For me, she is one of the best writers of the 20th Century with, hopefully, more to come. More recently, she has dabbled into the early 20th Century and even WW2 for her novels The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, but she started back in the 19th Century and this is my favourite from that series. Amazon calls her genre Lesbian Victoriana, which made me giggle a little, but I think Waters is doing more than that; she is chronicling women’s experience. She includes lesbian encounters and women falling in love with women, but in this book that’s an aside rather than the main focus of the plot. I think to term these novels as lesbian novels is reductive and has a sense of prurience. I remember the fuss and excitement when Tipping the Velvet was serialised at the BBC, and male journalists practically salivating over Rachel Stirling and Keeley Hawes. I think they’re intended to be read as women’s experiences of living in Victorian England, with the women’s sexual relationships as part of an unspoken subculture only just emerging into the open. She is using the device of ‘writing back’ to the historical period and bringing a group into the limelight who were hidden at the time and never portrayed in fiction. It’s about seeing the Victorian era and women’s lives in totally new eyes, and accepting that the literary canon only shows us a small part of a vibrant and varied world. As with history being written by the victor, literature of the early to mid 19th Century tends to be written by white, straight, middle-class males. Waters is trying to redress the balance and give us a minority viewpoint which I love.
Orphan, Sue Trinder, lives in a family of petty thieves and is trained to become a ‘Fingersmith’. Based in London, the den is run by a motherly woman who has a hard and ruthless side. All the thieves congregate and bring their wares to ready them for sale, while a baby farm is run on the side. It is here that a man called ‘Gentleman’ recruits Sue for a scam to defraud a wealthy heiress. We also meet a young woman called Maud Lily, she’s an orphan too, but with a home in a gloomy mansion as the ward of an odd Uncle. She has a very comfortable life, helping him with his work as some sort of secretary, but his subject matter might raise an eyebrow or two. He is an avid collector of Victorian pornography. This makes Maud very uncomfortable, but it seems an unspoken agreement that her help is in return for his protection. This strange upbringing makes Maud very sheltered and naïve in one respect, but also strangely knowing in others. Gentleman has devised a long con that starts when Sue is placed within the mansion as Maud’s lady’s maid. She will then encounter the Gentleman who will try to court Maud. They hope, that with Sue’s encouragement, Lily will fall for his charms. His long term aim is to marry her, because according to 19th Century marriage law, all of her fortune will then become his property. Then it’s a simple case of claiming she’s mad, and as long as a doctor agrees, a man could sign his wife into an asylum leaving him free to use her money. If she helps, Sue will be entitled to some of the ‘shine’.
As always with Sarah Waters books, the depth of research is obvious and this feels so real. The sense of place is so strong, in the filthy detail of the London terrace streets and the silent unease in the mansion. These two places feel entirely opposite. Where Sue grew up there’s constant noise, people running in and out, babies wailing upstairs and other people’s belongings being appraised and sold on. There’s squalor and poverty, so for her, the change to being a lady’s maid is a massive leap. By contrast the mansion is quiet with the sound of ticking clocks, days without seeing another soul. There’s a feeling of being imprisoned somehow, it’s stifling and the scene where she works in the library with her Uncle feel so uncomfortable. The tension as the con slowly starts to work is terrible. Then, in what is probably my favourite twist in fiction, the pace picks up and the reader is left reeling as everything changes.
In the second section of the book we go back in time a little to Maud’s story, some of this overlaps with the first part and some of it is her history and how she ended up closed away with only a perverted Uncle for company. We follow Sue’s journey as Maud’s lady’s maid and see how a friendship develops between the two young women. Maud is living like a prisoner and has experienced years of coercive control leaving her timid and unsure. The con would only work if Sue stays focused and doesn’t get involved with her new mistress, but their friendship is deepening and Sue is starting to have doubts about the plan. There is an attraction between the two women that was unexpected, but is there anyway to back out of the plan or is it too late? There is something hypnotic about this book. It is a long read, but unlike the Victorian novels it emulates, it didn’t feel long-winded or become boring. I was engaged at every point of the story, absolutely fascinated with the twists and turns of the plot and never quite sure who is telling the truth. I was desperate to find out who has really been conned in the end. This is one book where BBC adaptation is very good too, with great casting and a definite feel of the book.
However, the novel is perfection. It’s a historical thriller, told through unexpected heroines and delving into the more deviant side of Victorian life: pornography, pick-pocketing, theft, fraud, confidence tricksters, and baby selling. Not to mention the lesbian aspects of the storyline that would have been unthinkable in fiction of the time. In fact I clearly remember a tutor at university telling me that all the focus on deviant sexual behaviour was focused on gay men and prostitution – intimating that the thought of two women having a relationship was so taboo that it didn’t even exist in most Victorian minds. I loved that we were seeing a totally different section of Victorian society and it had a voice. There is a feel of Dickens in the poverty and living conditions, and of course he had his own wife detained in an asylum. However, there’s none of that Victorian moralising that comes with fiction of the period. This is the underclass speaking for itself and the character of Maud’s Uncle hits home the idea that even the middle classes were not necessarily as respectable and God-fearing as they seemed. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys Victorian fiction whether in the form of historical novels or of the period. It’s also a great thriller with enough double-crossing and revelations to keep any reader satisfied. This really is Sarah Waters at the height of her writing powers and should be on your TBR list immediately.
Meet The Author.
Sarah Waters OBE, was born in Wales. She is the author of six novels, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, which have been adapted for stage, television and feature film in the UK and US. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction and she has won the Betty Trask Award; the Somerset Maugham Award; The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award; the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger. Sarah has been named Author of the Year four times: by the British Book Awards, the Booksellers’ Association, Waterstones Booksellers; Stonewall’s Writer of the Decade in 2015; Diva Magazine Author of the Year Award and The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in 2017, which is given in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work. Sarah was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Sarah Waters lives in London.