Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Sarah Waters and her Victorian Novels.

This week my spotlight is on an author who drew me in with her incredible Victorian historical novels. I was knocked out by the depth of research, the incredible storytelling and how sexy they were compared to the rather buttoned-up novels from the period. I first became aware of her work when the BBC serialised her novel Tipping the Velvet – a beautiful, but obscure pornographic reference to performing oral sex on a woman. Of course much of the hysterical and prurient coverage in the media was about the sexual aspect of the story. Mostly, I think, due to the relationships and sex scenes being between women. This obsession with sexuality totally bypassed the novel’s picaresque structure, it’s likeness to the work of Charles Dickens and our heroine Nan’s journey of self-discovery. It completely missed what Waters was doing; the book is always described as a lesbian romp, but it is much more than that. Waters was writing back to this point in history and the period’s literature which is largely populated and preoccupied with heterosexual couples and the institute of marriage. The art and literature acceptable to the establishment was influenced by the middle class family values presented by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The literary canon mirrors what society presented as the norm or even the ideal. I’ve heard people say that homosexuality and bisexuality is ‘everywhere’ now and ‘you didn’t hear about lesbians in my day’. Actually, the last phrase is more accurate than we might think. No, we didn’t hear about the LGBTQ+ community, not because LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist, but because they were not open with their sexuality and certainly didn’t write about it. Waters openly admits she isn’t writing about characters that existed, lesbianism was so undercover in Victorian London that there is no record of it at all. Waters is redressing that balance. She’s creating characters to represent these minorities and the hidden subculture where they might have belonged.

I was fascinated with the research Sarah Waters must have done to create the rich and vivid worlds that she portrays. One page in and you know exactly where you are, because she engages all of your senses immediately. In Tipping the Velvet, Nan’s upbringing was in Whitstable, Kent. Her working class family own an oyster restaurant and Nan helps out, so when she first meets the performer Kitty Butler she is ashamed of how her hot hands smell. Kitty removes her gloves to shake hands and Nan is mortified by “those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many years we had ceased, entirely, to notice them”. Nan is mortified that she smells like a herring, but Kitty assuages her fears, kissing her hands and telling her she smells like a mermaid. This type of description reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s prose in The Picture of Dorian Gray, especially the opening where the lush lilacs are in bloom and the scent is heavy, overpowering and intoxicating to the point of nausea. The descriptions have an element of synaesthesia and wrap themselves around the reader like a mist, taking us to that exact moment. I also loved the switching of gender, allowing characters to experience Victorian London as both sexes in one person and what a different place it could be. Men were largely the only sex who could have these picaresque adventures or ‘romps’ as they are sometimes called, but Waters opens up a whole different world to her characters in just a change of clothes. Waters uses clothes erotically with scenes of dressing and undressing and to represent the gender gap. When Nan and Kitty dress as men the clothes are simpler, they allow an ease of movement and a freedom that women don’t have. She then describes the putting on of chemises, stays, stockings and ribbons, both in the erotic sense of being tied up or bound like a gift, but also to represent the restriction of women. In the most dramatic sense the corset restricts even the woman’s ability to breath. Whereas when Kitty is performing as a ‘masher’, a male drag act, her clothing physically gives her the freedom to perform, but also gives her a pass to be comical and bawdy.

Keeley Hawkes and Rachel Stirling on the cover of the TV series tie in of Tipping the Velvet.

While I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet. I loved Affinity. It has that deliciously gothic feel alongside the same themes of feminism and sexuality. It is a much darker novel, especially if we compare it’s conclusion with the arguably happy ending and the self-actualisation she allows Nan in Tipping the Velvet. Affinity looks at power and possession, it’s very sensual rather than a ‘romp’ and could be categorised as a psychological thriller in the same vein as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Set in late September 1874, we meet Margaret Prior, who is thirty years old and described as plain. She hasn’t been sought after on the marriage market and has to find a way to make her life meaningful, but respectable. So she becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank Women’s Prison, hoping to find purpose after suffering a period of mental breakdown and enforced rest at her parent’s home for the last two years. The pentagonal Millbank corridors seem endless and the doors with their inspection slits become symmetrical, until she opens one and hears ‘a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story.’ This sigh belongs to the medium Selina Dawes. Margaret’s charitable role is to bring comfort to the women behind bars, but this woman is incredibly different to the poor, sad and often downtrodden women she’s seen until now. This plain woman on the verge of thirty has come to comfort those behind bars, several of whom Waters brings to instant, sad life. Margaret is instantly transfixed by the vision she sees in the ‘eye’ of the door. Selina is captured in a private moment (or is she?) with her face turned towards the sunlight stroking her own cheek with a violet. Margaret finds this pose sensual and records in her diary that ‘she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow…” Could Margaret be that violet?

Selina Dawes is not only beautiful, she’s intelligent and exciting to talk with. The conversations between the two women are thrilling and charged with sexual tension. Selina challenges Margaret’s views on spiritualism as fanciful and suggests that since such a place as Millbank exists, couldn’t anything be real? Strangely, Margaret does become confronted with evidence of the supernatural. First a locket disappears from it’s place in her room, then on another occasion, flowers magically appear. Most strange of all is how much Selina knows about her, even the things she keeps hidden, and very soon she tells Margaret she loves her. Waters weaves Margaret’s weekly diary entries with past ones that reveal a previous attachment to the woman who is now her sister-in-law, including a plan to abscond together to Italy. Clearly, this adventure never happened. We are also privy to Selina’s writing, mainly about her life before prison and how she came to be there. As the visits go on, Margaret starts to accept that Selina has some sort of supernatural power and believes that she is a victim of a miscarriage of justice. Selina asserts that she did not assault a woman at a séance, but were those séances real or fraudulent? I felt desperately sorry for Margaret who appears to have a better life, but in reality both women are in prison. Margaret’s prison is built on class and convention, a mother who doesn’t give her any space and the knowledge that her desires will never be acceptable to her family or society. I was so desperate for her escape.

Zoë Tapper and Anna Madely on the cover for the TV tie-in of Affinity

The third of her Victorian novels is Fingersmith and it really is her masterpiece in my opinion. We’re back in the Dickensian-esque back streets of London and the world of the fingersmiths or pickpockets. The first half of the book is about Sue Trinder, brought up in a nest of thieves with a female Fagin called Mrs Sucksby at the helm. Then one of Mrs Sucksby’s associates comes to her with a plan. ‘Gentleman’ has been planning a con and if it pays off they’ll be very rich; even better than that, it’s all legal. It all depends on Sue to play the part of a lady’s maid to a rich and very isolated young woman. The Gentleman has been wooing this wealthy heiress, who goes by the name of Maud. Very sheltered, with only her Uncle for company, Maud was born an orphan in the asylum where her mother gave birth. Sue’s job is to become her maid and gain the lady’s confidence, so that she can influence Maud into accepting Gentleman’s proposal of an elopement. As soon as they’re married he controls her fortune and if between them they can gaslight her into an asylum, he will make it worth Sue’s while. However, Sue likes Maud and they begin sharing confidences and become friends. Now Sue is conflicted about their plan, but it’s here that Waters has created a twist to end all twists. It’s the best twist in literature and I won’t be convinced otherwise! I can’t tell you anymore about the book without ruining it for those who haven’t read it yet and if you haven’t I’m so jealous that you get to experience it for the first time.

Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy on the cover of the TV tie-in for Fingersmith

These three novels are not linked by anything except their historical period, but in each one you are immersed completely into the 19th Century and the most unsavoury locations and aspects of it. We recognise these filthy streets, this poverty and these villains thanks to Dickens and his Nancy, Bill Sykes and Fagin. When I pick up one of these novels for a re-read I feel like I’m indulging myself because they’re so rich, evocative and sumptuous in both world-building and storytelling. I enjoy her later novels too, but these three were the closest I’ve ever come to that feeling of being a child and discovering the incredible storytelling of Little Women or Jane Eyre for the first time. They always take me back to that formative experience of falling into a book and never wanting to come back out into the real world.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

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.