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Fingersmith

Fingersmith

It doesn't get much more thrilling than this, folks: thievery, double-crossing, a case of mistaken identity, and a testament to the enduring power of love. Sarah Waters' Fingersmith (2002) follows the story of Sue and Maud, two girls from completely different backgrounds whose paths are fated to cross. Traversing the bleak city of 1860s Victorian London, the girls will discover the extent of the dangerous scheme they are involved in. How will their stories collide? Read on about Waters' Booker Prize nominated masterpiece to find out!

Fingersmith: summary

Let's dive into a summary of Fingersmith.

Part 1:

A fingersmith is slang for a thief/pickpocket.

The novel opens with the perspective of Susan Trinder, known as Sue, who was given up at birth and adopted by a woman named Grace Sucksby, a baby farmer.

Baby farming was the Victorian practice of adopting children in exchange for payment. The baby farmer would accept either a lump sum or regular payments, and raise the child in return.

Sue is a fingersmith, and picks pockets to bring in money for Mrs Sucksby until she meets Gentleman, a man who offers her an opportunity to be part of a scheme. Sue must befriend a rich girl named Maud and convince her to marry Gentleman. However, over time the two develop an attraction for each other and fall in love. This is cut short when Maud marries Gentleman and runs away with him. However, Gentleman's plan unfurls, as he takes Maud's money before calling for a madhouse to take her away. When the madhouse workers arrive to collect Maud, Sue gets mistakenly taken instead.

Part 2:

The narrative switches to Maud's viewpoint, and we find that she endured a difficult childhood with her uncle, feeling trapped as she helped him catalogue a perverse dictionary. When a man named Richard offered her an opportunity to escape, she took it. They would arrange to marry but needed a lookalike to take Maud's place, eventually happening upon Sue, who closely resembles Maud. After marrying, they tell the madhouse that Sue is Maud before fleeing to London. It turns out that Maud was in on the plot all along.

Maud is fraught with guilt. On their way to London, Gentleman tricks her and takes her to Mrs Sucksby's house. She realises that Mrs Sucksby is the woman behind the whole plot. As it turns out, Marianne Lilly, Maud's apparent mother, had come to Mrs Sucksby seventeen years ago afraid and alone. She had asked Mrs Sucksby to take her daughter in exchange for one of her farmed babies out of fear of her father and uncle. The baby that Marianne Lilly gave Mrs Sucksby was Sue, and the baby she received in return was Maud. Sue is Marianne's real daughter.

Maud eventually decides she has no choice but to submit to Mrs Sucksby, and after some time, another twist is revealed. Maud is not just any infant, but Mrs Sucksby's daughter.

Marianne decided to leave half of her fortune to her real daughter, Lily, and half to her adopted daughter, Maud. Mrs Sucksby saw an opportunity to take all the money by imprisoning Maud and getting Sue sent to the madhouse.

In Victorian England, a child would be legally entitled to their fortune upon turning eighteen. If a child was considered mad, their next of kin (in this case, Mrs Sucksby) would receive the money instead.

Part 3:

Sue is punished in the madhouse, so much so that she questions her sanity. However, she eventually escapes, assisted by an old friend. Sue returns to confront her betrayers, finding Maud and Mrs Sucksby, who stab Gentleman to stop him from revealing the truth.

The truth comes out regardless, and Mrs Sucksby is hanged for her part in the scheme. Sue finds the will of Marianne Lilly and realises she is her daughter. She sets out to find Maud, eventually finding her and clearing the air. The pair talk about their feelings and can begin building a relationship from the ground up.

Fingersmith: characters

Susan Trinder

Susan, known as 'Sue', is the 'fingersmith' of the novel and narrates the first and third sections. When Gentleman employs Sue to convince Maud Lilly to marry him, both of the girls find themselves involved in an increasingly sinister chain of events.

Maud Lilly

Maud narrates the second section of the novel. She suffered a difficult childhood cataloguing a perverse dictionary for her uncle. She jumps at an opportunity to escape this life and tricks Sue to do so. She then flees London with Gentleman before he deceives her and imprisons her at Mrs Sucksby's house, where she discovers truths that bring her identity into question.

Mrs Sucksby

Mrs Sucksby is the adoptive mother of Sue and the orchestrator of a complex series of events. She coerces Sue into befriending Maud in order to claim her inheritance, deceives Sue, and then imprisons Maud. It's also later revealed that Mrs Sucksby is Maud's real mother. Once the truth is revealed, Mrs Sucksby is hanged.

Gentleman Rivers

Mrs Sucksby employs Gentleman to play a part in her scheme. He is to propose marriage to Maud by convincing her it will rescue her from her uncle, and consequently gain access to Maud's inheritance. He is stabbed in the final part of the play.

Marianne Lilly

Marianne is the adoptive mother of Maud and the real mother of Sue. Maud believes that Marianne is her mother, but Marianne swapped the two girls at birth, whereupon she was committed to an asylum, dying shortly afterwards.

Fingersmith: Genre

Fingersmith is an example of historical fiction.

Historical fiction means that the novel's events take place in the past. An important feature of the genre is that the narrative sticks to what was customary at the time. The setting must be authentic, the characters realistic for the era, and the dialogue representative of the time.

Fingersmith is set in Victorian times, and the atmosphere reflects this era. We are taken to the slums of London, where thieves and pickpockets roam free. Baby farmers raise children for money, and we see first-hand the prevalence of the 'madhouse' in society. These aspects combine to create an authentic setting that helps the reader feel immersed in the narrative.

Fingersmith: contexts

Let's look at some key contexts to help you understand Fingersmith.

Patriarchal oppression

Victorian-era women had very few rights and were unable to divorce their husbands. The husband would also have complete access to his wife's finances.

Waters bases her novel around this concept. Gentleman marries Maud, meaning she loses access to her financial liberty through no choice of her own. She can also be returned to his custody should she ever attempt to flee Mrs Sucksby's.

Expectations of women

Victorian society held the expectation that women should tend to the home while men commuted to the workplace. This was conceptualised based on the belief that men were physically stronger, but morally weaker than women.

This discrimination also led to women being denied the vote. Waters' female characters are in a constant battle between the agency they desire and the expectations society haves of them.

Fingersmith: analysis

The success of Fingersmith as a novel relies on the layers of irony that it builds as the story progresses. It accomplishes this through its use of narrative voice and its structure. The reader frequently has information withheld from them, as the novel is narrated in first-person, and we only know what the narrator knows.

A first-person narrator tells events as they see them, from their perspective. This often means that the narration may be biased, unreliable, and lacks knowledge of events elsewhere in the narrative.

By only providing access to the thoughts of two characters, we never know what other characters, like Gentleman or Mrs Sucksby, are thinking. This means that the reader is forced to picture the events through the eyes of the girls, and form their judgements accordingly, creating a stronger connection between reader and protagonist.

Waters continually adds layers to her narrative by subverting what readers believe they know. One expects that Maud has betrayed Sue to get her sent to the madhouse but is surprised to learn that Maud has been betrayed herself, and then that Sue and Maud were switched at birth. Each character, at some point, is acting out a role. Each revelation – when a character realises that they are part of a much bigger scheme – adds a layer of irony.

Let's take a closer look at the plot twists in Fingersmith to understand how these layers of irony are constructed.

Fingersmith: themes

Patriarchy

Waters undermines the patriarchal system in Victorian society by showing how it can be manipulated to serve anyone. Gentleman, being male, has patriarchal power that he can use to his advantage. He uses the premise of marriage to take Maud's money, sending Sue off to the madhouse in the process. As men had the power over their wives to dictate their physical and mental health to others, sending Sue to an asylum is an unfortunate, but authentic portrayal of Victorian ideas.

Once Waters reveals Mrs Sucksby to be pulling the strings of the entire operation, she shows that female characters can be crafty and intelligent enough to exploit the patriarchal system for their own gain. The fact that a structure designed so men can maintain social autonomy over women is being exploited by a woman for financial gain is heavily ironic, implying how flawed the patriarchal system is.

Powerful women

None of the women in Fingersmith are what one would expect in Victorian England. Sue is a thief, Maud a secretary who has engaged with pornographic material, and Mrs Sucksby the orchestrator of a serious financial scheme. Maud and Sue also prove that love of all kinds can transcend all boundaries. Homosexual love was forbidden in the Victorian era, but despite all the problems they encounter, the couple manage to come out of the other side with the possibility of a fresh start, having the opportunity to speak to each other and form a new relationship at the end of the novel.

Furthermore, Waters provides the two leading female protagonists with the opportunity to describe their experiences in the first person. They are thus provided with a voice in a society that historically would attempt to ensure women never received one.

Fingersmith - Key takeaways

  • Fingersmith is an example of historical fiction, meaning it adheres to what was customary at the time the novel is set.
  • Fingersmith features two first-person female narrators who only describe as much as is known to them at one time.
  • Waters creates a connection between the reader and the protagonists by allowing the reader and the protagonist to experience new plot twists and revelations at the same time.
  • The lack of information available to the reader helps to create layers of irony as characters discover they are part of bigger schemes than they initially thought.
  • Some of the most important themes in Fingersmith centre around the display of powerful women, and of a flawed patriarchy.

Frequently Asked Questions about Fingersmith

Fingersmith is an example of historical fiction.

Fingersmith was first published in 2002.

The book ends with Mrs Sucksby being hanged, and the girls reuniting in order to talk through the events and form a new relationship.

Fingersmith is set in 1862, in Victorian London.

Maud and Sue are two girls from different backgrounds whose paths are fated to cross. They are brought together under increasingly bizarre circumstances. The girls are repeatedly double-crossed, cheated, and become involved in more and more serious, dangerous schemes.

Final Fingersmith Quiz

Question

What year was Fingersmith published?

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Answer

1990

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Question

What year is Fingersmith set?

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Answer

1860s

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Question

Where is Fingersmith set?

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Answer

Victorian London

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Question

Who is the author of Fingersmith?

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Answer

Sarah Waters

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Question

What is the genre of Fingersmith?

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Answer

Historical Fiction

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Question

Which of these are not key themes in Fingersmith?

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Answer

Broken patriarchy

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Question

Fingersmith is narrated in which voice?

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Answer

First person

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Question

Why is the novel's title, Fingersmith, important?

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Answer

Fingersmith is slang for thief/pickpocket, and the novel opens with the perspective of Susan (Sue) Trinder, who is a fingersmith by nature.

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Question

"In Victorian London, it was common practice to adopt one's child in exchange for money." 

Those who adopted many children were often given the slang nickname of what?

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Answer

Baby farmers

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Question

Which of these is not a key character in Fingersmith?

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Answer

Maud Lilly

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