‘My Devilish Delight’ – Sarah Waters on Her Heartbreaking and Salacious Fingersmith Classic | Books
Fingersmith was my third novel, after Tipping the Velvet and Affinity. It shares their 19th century setting, but it was inspired by two particular Victorian worlds. The first was that of working-class life as reflected in the interviews conducted by journalist Henry Mayhew for his brilliantly evocative book London Labor and the London Poor; the second was that of “sensational” fiction, the successful genre established in the 1860s by novelists such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose tales of gothic melodrama reveled in themes of domestic violence, secrets and lost and shifting identities.
What appealed to me about these worlds is the place they give to marginalized voices, the way they challenge our stereotypes of Victorian kindness. Those interviewed by Mayhew include peddlers, vagabonds, orphaned children: characters on the fringes of mainstream culture but with a complex culture of their own. The sensational novel is swarming with “ladies in peril”, vulnerable women and girls who are victims on a large scale. But it’s also full of female protagonists who are con artists and schemers in their own right – women who are glorious transgressors of social norms. I decided to bring these two worlds together in a way that I hoped would pay homage to them.
In fact, the tribute extended to a bit of looting: my starting point was to “borrow” a wonderful twist from Collins’s Woman in White. With that in place, my task became to think back, work out my characters and their involvement in the scam, decide who could win what and why. The resulting plot sees ‘baby farmer’ Mrs Sucksby send her adopted daughter Sue to work as a maid for a lonely heiress – and persuade her to marry a crook, who then intends to lock her up in a crazy’s house.
Well, in true tabloid style, it all gets a bit dizzying, and there were times when even I struggled to keep up with the complications. Looking back now on my research, I find detailed notes on Victorian criminal life, as well as page after page of juicy street vocabulary. My title comes from Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Historical Slang: “Finger-smith. A Midwife: C.19-20; down. 2. a thief, a pickpocket.
But I also find various inheritance scenarios tested as flowcharts. I see key decisions being made and debated: “Perhaps M is Mrs. S’s own daughter??” “Maybe R could be killed, + Mrs Sucksby hanged for that?” And I find a few things that surprise me: ideas for a sexual encounter between Sue and the villain of the novel; the possibility that Maud, my heiress, ends up on the gallows herself. Most unexpectedly of all, I see I flirted with the idea of Sue and Maud being twins, separated at birth. I have no recollection of it – and I can’t, I think, have entertained the idea for very long.
Because Sue and Maud’s mutual fall in love forms Fingersmith’s joyous and disruptive heart: it’s the emotional entanglement that fuels my plot, even as it spoils Mrs. Sucksby’s. It is also central to the novel’s feminist agenda. Maud’s abusive guardian, Mr. Lilly, was inspired by The Woman in White’s selfish art-collecting uncle, Mr. Fairlie. His literary project, however, is based on that of Henry Spencer Ashbee, a Victorian bibliophile who in the 1870s and 80s privately published three huge indexes of pornographic books.
Porn was a thriving industry in the 19th century, dominated by men. Her images are replete with scenes of female intimacy, but all were constructed largely with male viewers in mind. And yet, for someone like me, who searches the past for evidence of homosexual lives and only finds clues, fragments and gaps in mainstream sources, this male author pornography has always been strangely Attractive: This is the only realm of Victorian representation where you are guaranteed to find lesbians having a good time. As I put on Fingersmith together, I began to wonder what it would be like to portray 19th century women enjoying pornography in their own way – say, extracting queer content from a larger narrative, then discarding the rest.
So as diligently as I wrote down my list of historical slang terms and did my research on robbers’ kitchens, asylums and everything else, I made frequent trips to the British Library to read pornography. old and copy lesbian tracks. (Rather satisfyingly, many came from Ashbee’s personal collection, which he bequeathed to the British Museum along with his most respectable books.)
For a time I had planned for Maud to piece together a piecemeal text from smuggled excerpts from her uncle’s volumes. It never made it to the final cut, but the idea of a lesbian plunder of texts by male authors remained crucial to my vision of the book as a whole. When Maud asks Sue to explain “what a woman should do, on her wedding night”, she stages an encounter that comes, curtly, straight from the pages of classic porn – then she is undone by the physique and emotional reality of it. The ending of the novel, which sees her making a living by writing pornography herself, shows her playing men at their own game – or perhaps even beating them, forging a kind of female eroticism that is freed from patriarchal control.
Pornography, baby farming, childhood trauma, asylum racketeering… the topics are serious, but, oh, what fun I had. That’s what I remember most about the writing process: the joy, the devilish joy, the speed and the blissful intensity with which I worked. I also vividly remember giving the manuscript to its first reader and then, from an adjoining room, hearing her cry as she reached the end of the first part, a mixture of shock and indignation at having been so surprised. Could there be a happier sound for an author?
From the start, in fact, the reception of the book has been exciting. In 2002, the year of its publication, it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Booker. He received a historic dagger from the Crime Writers Association and – one of my favorite honors – won the Children of the Night award from the Dracula Society, for which I was presented with a handmade model tombstone with two little babies swaddled at the foot. Soon I started getting letters from readers who found the story so inspiring that they drew pictures of its heroines, based fanfiction on it, took phrases and images, and turned them into tattoos. Around the same time, I saw the book promoted in WH Smith as “The Perfect Mother’s Day Gift”.
finger cot is a novel, in other words, that seems to have appealed to all sorts of people – though, like Tipping the Velvet, as a coming-of-age story about female empowerment, it may have be spoken more intimately to young women. This please me a lot. I’ve never reread it cover to cover and I suspect that if I did, I’d give it some serious trim. But I still consider it the novel that I found my feet in as an author, and when I skim through it now, I love it immensely. I still think it’s a cracked story; there are jokes that still make me laugh. It has also, very flatteringly, had terrific reincarnations, first as a BBC TV version, starring Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy in a beautiful combination as Sue and Maud; then in an excellent US stage adaptation by Alexa Junge; and, most recently, in the form of Park Chan-wook’s deliriously good The Handmaiden, in which the characters and plot are transported to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s.
With Fingersmith, I finally scratched my Victorian itch. I moved on with my next book, The Night Watch, to the 1940s, and my novels have remained in the 20th century ever since. But if I had to keep one of my books for posterity, this is probably the one I would choose. Partly because I had so much fun with him, partly because he has returned so much to me over the years, in the form of the warmth that has been expressed for him by so many of his readers, but also because succeeds quite well, I think, in doing things that I’ve tried to do throughout my career: extracting characters from established narratives and allowing them to reproduce and mingle and go in new directions .
It is above all a novel which celebrates the pleasures of ground: storytelling, reading stories and pinching stories. Like all my books, it looks to the past, but it is really, I hope, about how, by imagining alternative histories, we can, with courage and malice, begin to rethink the present and the coming.