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Old School Wednesdays: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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Today, Ana reads her first ever Sarah Waters (I KNOW).

FingersmithTitle: Fingersmith

Author: Sarah Waters

Genre: Historical Fiction, Gothic, Romance, LGQBT

Publisher: Virago
Publication date: First published in 2002
Paperback: 582 Pages

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a “baby farmer,” who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves?fingersmiths?for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives?Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of?passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum.

With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways…But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals.

Standalone or series: Standalone

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print

Why did I read this book: I’ve been told many times I should read a Sarah Waters novel. I’ve been told many times this one includes unreliable narratives, lady thieves, and a lovely romance and for some reason I ignored all that until now.


It was supposed to be the perfect plan, to be executed with precision and simplicity.

Sue Trinder is a fingersmith, a petty thief who learnt about her craft from her adoptive family growing up in a London slum. The head of their household – which doubles as baby farm and fingersmith central – is Mrs Sucksby, the only mother figure Sue has ever known. It is her need to repay all the kindness and protection she received from Mrs Sucksby that leads Sue to say yes to the plan proposed by Gentleman, one of her adoptive “siblings”.

Aided by Gentleman, Sue is to win the position of lady’s maid to one Maud Lilly, a meek, good-hearted gentlewoman who is set to inherit a vast fortune once married. Sue would be then in the perfect position to aid Gentleman – a sophisticated con-man posing as artist – in seducing Maud into marrying him. Once that is achieved and Gentleman gets hold of Maud’s fortune (to be shared with Sue and Mrs Sucksby), Maud is to be disposed of, sent to a madhouse to spend the rest of her days.

So: get in, seduce Maud, get her fortune, send her to the madhouse, get out.

Nothing that two experienced crooks couldn’t handle.

But in between the getting in and the getting out, the “seducing” and the “sending Maud to the madhouse” parts don’t go exactly according to plan. Because once there, Sue starts to first pity naïve, sheltered Maud and then to deeply care for her, inexorably falling in love with the other girl. An unexpected connection forms between them and before long Sue is regretting the role she will – because there is no going back – have in Maud’s destruction.

Then the first part comes to its conclusion and with it, we see the first of many plot twists. The second part starts, and it’s now Maud who narrates. Maud, who might not be as good-hearted and naïve as Sue made her to be.

From the many unexpected twists and gripping narrative build-up leading to the exquisite ending (my heart), everything about Fingersmith is almost tone-perfect. I loved the relationship formed between Sue and Maud especially the way that each of them express their latent love for the other.

“I felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart – so hard, it hurt me. A hundred times I almost rose, almost went in to her; a hundred times I thought, Go to her! Why are you waiting? Go back to her side! But every time, I thought of what would happen if I did. I knew that I couldn’t lie beside her, without wanting to touch her. I couldn’t have felt her breath upon my mouth, without wanting to kiss her. And I couldn’t have kissed her, without wanting to save her.”

In the midst of a lot of misdirection and lies, their mutual desire and growing admiration rang so true (bonus point for including different interpretations of the word “fingersmith”).

Another important, essential aspect of the story is the way that not only personal but also public history inform people’s lives especially how the past can take hold. Both in terms of lived, experienced history that inform one’s actions but also in what we learn and are told about “what happened”. Those directly impact the issue of identity and awareness that become the pinnacle of each character’s growth into fully fledged women in charge of their own history. More specifically: who are Maud and Sue? How much of the way they grew up impact who they are now; how much who they were when they were born means?

Fingersmith is a book that serves a well-filled Gothic spoon too: everything that happens, happens with dramatic excess and to a chilling effect. I think the spoon overflows though when it comes to the mental asylum and treatment of mental illness as portrayed in the book. That, of course, had to be the most horrible place of all time, overseen by crooks and evil nurses bent on torturing the “inmates”. I believe that around the time the book takes place (late Victorian era), advancement had been made in the provision and supervision of institutions such as these which gave a false tone to this particular part of the book – which unfortunately also happened to be its most unnecessarily prolonged part. In fairness though, it is for a reason that the specific place was chosen by Gentleman and it was in a particularly remote location too.

A Historical thriller with a heavy side of Gothic and a narrative that made me think of Wilkie Collins and that features ladies being sneaky and falling in love and in lust, Fingersmith is everything I hoped it would be. I’ve had it on my TBR for years. YEARS. Imagine that: such a brilliant book languishing, forgotten in my shelves without being read. It’s almost too much to bear *inserts dramatic Gothic exclamation*!!

Notable Quotes/Parts:

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me. I was Mrs Sucksby’s child, if I was anyone’s; and for father I had Mr Ibbs, who kept the locksmith’s shop, at Lant Street, in the Borough, near to the Thames.

Additional parts: So…my first Sarah Waters! It was brilliant! What should I read next?

Also, anyone watched the BBC adaptation? Any good? Or should be avoided?


Rating: 8 – Excellent, leaning toward 9

Reading Next: The Deep by Zetta Elliott

Buy the Book:

(click on the links to purchase)

Book Depository UK amazon_uk

Ebook available on kindle US, kindle UK, nook & itunes

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  • Katrina
    January 15, 2014 at 9:49 am

    The BBC adaptation is SO good! I also really loved the adaptation of Tipping the Velvet. (I should mention that I haven’t read any of her books)

  • Juan Pazos
    January 15, 2014 at 10:02 am

    This book was one of my favourite reads a couple of years ago. I simply loved it. Can’t recall many details now but it’s definitely a treat for any reader trying to find something like a Wilkie Collins in contemporary style. I went on to read The Little Stranger which is excellent but not as goood as far as I am concerned. It can be described as an update on Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. It raises a lot of interesting questions as to what actually happened, as you can expect from the TOTScrew comparison but the ending was a little flat for me. Haven’t seen any of the adaptations, but they look very tempting!

  • Becca
    January 15, 2014 at 11:45 am

    If you liked Fingersmith, then I really recommend Tipping the Velvet, which was a lot of fun. I enjoyed Fingersmith, but I I prefer Tipping the Velvet.

  • Ashton
    January 15, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    The BBC miniseries is so good- much better than Tipping the Velvet.

  • Wendy Darling
    January 15, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    I’m so glad you finally read this author–and loved the book! I’ve loved every Sarah Waters book I’ve read–in fact, there’s only one I haven’t gotten to yet and I’ve been saving it for years because it takes so long for her to publish! We are getting a new one this year, though.

    PS–I forgot you guys did this feature! We’re hosting a classic YA/MG readalong series this year too, I’ll have to refer people to you if they’re interested in other books. We were going to do The Westing Game as well, but I see you did that one recently, so we might skip it. So fun to revisit/discover these classics.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

    I particularly loved Affinity and The Little Stranger, they both made me think for a long time afterwards. I also liked Tipping the Velvet too, of course.

  • Peggy Farooqi
    January 15, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    I loved, loved, loved this book when I first read it when it came out. It was my first Sarah Waters, and I bought all her others almost straight away. I didn’t see the twist coming at all. Reminds me to put this on my ‘want to re-read’ pile and get the ebook.
    Peggy @ thepegsterreads

  • Victoria (Eve's Alexandria)
    January 16, 2014 at 4:36 am

    Hooray! Sarah Waters is so so wonderful and I’m relieved you loved her. I think of all her books The Little Stranger is my favourite – it’s a chilling psychological thriller/ghost story set in a crumbling country house in the 1950s, and so creepy. But I also really love The Night Watch, which is told backwards. Of her other Victorian novels, Tipping the Velvet is fun and I love the ending; Affinity is the weakest book story wise I think. I can’t wait for her new book The Paying Guests to come out in September. Squeeee!

  • Celine
    January 16, 2014 at 4:53 am

    Yeay! Now read Tipping the Velvet! (but don’t watch the Tipping the Velvet TV series – it’s terrible)

    The Little Stranger is good (brilliant in places!) but it suffers a little from being two disparate genres uncomfortably tied together which leads to a slightly frustrating read. Still – I’d recommend it!

  • Sarah Rees Brennan
    January 16, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Yay I love Fingersmith, and I’m glad you do too! It’s my favourite Sarah Waters by a country mile, but Tipping the Velvet is also a great read, and the Little Stranger is another Gothical good time.

    The miniseries is pretty good, too. My mum and I rewound a Maud/Sue kiss a number of times…

  • Ana
    January 16, 2014 at 9:21 am

    So much love! OK, I secured a copy of the BBC show and I REALLY want to read The Little Stranger next because it sounds more appealing to me.

    Thanks, everybody!

  • Lianne
    January 16, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    I don’t understand why no one ever advocates Affinity. I think it’s because it’s her first and shortest and sort of gets pushed out in terms of publicity because there isn’t an adaptation.

    It’s a shame because it’s my favourite! I’ve read everything she’s done and nothing quite comes close to the mix of Victorian fascination with the afterlife and ghosts, or the spooky female prison and it’s misleading guests. It’s also the closest one to an original sensationalist novel ala Wilkie Collins (in fact, it does remind me a LOT of The Woman in White).

    Honestly, wouldn’t miss it.

    (Adored Little Stranger but GOOD GOD the ending really, really frustrated me.)

  • Lianne
    January 16, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    (Also, HATE iPhone autocorrect and its random decision-making about where apostrophes go.)

  • Anne Simonot
    January 19, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    I liked Affinity (dark though!) but I loved The Little Stranger: its atmosphere of brooding decay, the ghostly phenomena, the ambiguity, and most of all, its depiction of the decline of the upper no-longer-moneyed classes and the changing world they were living in. Totally recommend it!

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