Fingersmith

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“Oliver Twist with a twist…Waters spins an absorbing tale that withholds as much as it discloses. A pulsating story.”—The New York Times Book Review  

The Handmaiden, a film adaptation of Fingersmith, directed by Park Chan-wook and starring Kim Tae-Ri, is now available.

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.

Praise

“Deliciously brazen…a smart and seductive enchantment.”
Los Angeles Times

“Oliver Twist with a twist…Waters spins an absorbing tale that withholds as much as it discloses. A pulsating story.”
The New York Times Book Review 

“Astonishing narrative twists.”
Newsday 

“Superb storytelling. Fingersmith is gripping; so suspenseful and twisting is the plot that for the last 250 pages, I read at breakneck speed.”
USA Today 

“A deftly plotted thriller…absorbing and elegant.”
Entertainment Weekly

“A marvelous pleasure…Waters’s noted attention to historical detail and her beautifully sensitive dialogue help to anchor the force-five plot twisters.”
The Washington Post 

“Calls to mind the feverishly gloomy haunts of Charlotte and Emily Brontë…Elaborate and satisfying.”
The Seattle Times

“A sweeping read.”
The Boston Globe

Excerpt

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.

This is the first time I remember thinking about the world and my place in it.

There was a girl named Flora, who paid Mrs Sucksby a penny to take me begging at a play. People used to like to take me begging then, for the sake of my bright hair; and Flora being also very fair, she would pass me off as her sister. The theatre she took me to, on the night I am thinking of now, was the Surrey, St George’s Circus. The play was Oliver Twist. I remember it as very terrible. I remember the tilt of the gallery, and the drop to the pit. I remember a drunken woman catching at the ribbons of my dress. I remember the flares, that made the stage very lurid; and the roaring of the actors, the shrieking of the crowd. They had one of the characters in a red wig and whiskers: I was certain he was a monkey in a coat, he capered so. Worse still was the snarling, pink-eyed dog; worst of all was that dog’s master—Bill Sykes, the fancy-man. When he struck the poor girl Nancy with his club, the people all down our row got up. There was a boot thrown at the stage. A woman beside me cried out,

‘Oh, you beast! You villain! And her worth forty of a bully like you!’

I don’t know if it was the people getting up—which made the gallery seem to heave about; or the shrieking woman; or the sight of Nancy, lying perfectly pale and still at Bill Sykes’s feet; but I became gripped by an awful terror. I thought we should all be killed. I began to scream, and Flora could not quiet me. And when the woman who had called out put her arms to me and smiled, I screamed out louder. Then Flora began to weep—she was only twelve or thirteen, I suppose. She took me home, and Mrs Sucksby slapped her.

‘What was you thinking of, taking her to such a thing?’ she said. ‘You was to sit with her upon the steps. I don’t hire my infants out to have them brought back like this, turned blue with screaming. What was you playing at?’

She took me upon her lap, and I wept again. ‘There now, my lamb,’ she said. Flora stood before her, saying nothing, pulling a strand of hair across her scarlet cheek. Mrs Sucksby was a devil with her dander up. She looked at Flora and tapped her slippered foot upon the rug, all the time rocking in her chair—that was a great creaking wooden chair, that no-one sat in save her—and beating her thick, hard hand upon my shaking back. Then,

‘I know your little rig,’ she said quietly. She knew everybody’s rig. ‘What you get? A couple of wipers, was it? A couple of wipers, and a lady’s purse?’

Reader's Guide

INTRODUCTION

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 thievesfingersmithsfor whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrivesGentleman, a somewhat 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 left to live out her days in a mental hospital. 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 surprises.

The New York Times Book Review has called Sarah Waters a writer of "consummate skill" and The Seattle Times has praised her work as "gripping, astute fiction that feeds the mind and the senses." Fingersmith marks a major leap forward in this young and brilliant career.

 

ABOUT SARAH WATERS

Sarah Waters, 35, was born in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales, United Kingdom. She studied English Literature at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, at the universities of Kent and Lancaster. As a student she lived for two years in Whitstable, the sea-side townfamous for its oystersin which her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, is partly set. In 1988 she moved to London; her first full-time job was in an independent bookshop; later she worked in public libraries. In 1991 she decided to return to postgraduate study, and she spent the next three years writing a PhD thesis, on lesbian and gay historical fiction. She developed a daily writing routine, and a passion for language and composition. She had articles on gender, sexuality and history published in various scholarly journals, including Feminist Review, Journal of the History of Sexuality, and Science as Culture.

But while working on her thesis, and becoming increasingly interested in London life of the nineteenth century, Waters began to conceive the historical novel that would become Tipping the Velvet. With the thesis complete, and supporting herself with bits of teaching and part-time library work, she started to write. The novel was finished in just over a year, and was published in the U.K. by Virago (1998) and in the U.S. by Riverhead (1999).

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is in the process of adapting the book into a major series with director Andrew Davies, who also directed the BBC's adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

By 1991, Waters had already begun her second novel, Affinity. This was completed with help from a London Arts Board New London Writers Award, and appeared in the U.K. in 1999 and in the U.S. in 2000. Waters taught for a time for the Open University, a national educational institution offering undergraduate schooling to mature students from a range of social backgrounds. She has also tutored on creative writing programs. She published articles on literature as recently as 1999, but now devotes herself full time to the writing of fiction. Her third novel, Fingersmith, was completed in 2001, and she is currently at work on her next book. She still lives in London, a city she finds endlessly inspiring; but she dreams, too, of returning to a life by the sea.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • At the start of her story, Sue Trinder claims: "I was Mrs. Sucksby's child, if I was anyone's." Is this true? Why or why not? Might she still make the same claim by the end of her saga?
     
  • "Everything that came into our kitchen looking like one sort of thing, was made to leave it again looking quite another," Sue says of Mrs. Sucksby's kitchen (p.10). At Briar, she finds unbearable "two-facedness" on the part of the servants, "all on the dodge in one way or another." (p.83) Compare and contrast the two households. In what ways does each reinforce the activities of its inhabitants?
     
  • Deceptive appearances are a recurring theme throughout the novel. Is anything about Maud what it seems to be? What about Gentleman? Mr. Lilly? Why do you think the author chose to come at the story twice, from two separate points of view? Is Sue's perception of the situation more or less "real" than Maud's? Why or why not?
     
  • Sue and Maud initially appear to be almost perfect opposites: where Sue's hands are toughened by work, Maud's are smooth and childlike; where Sue is illiterate, Maud does nothing but pore over books. In what ways do the scale and nature of their differences change as the novel progresses? In what ways have they grown alike by the end of their story? How are they different?
     
  • Sue and Maud's relationship progresses through many incarnations. Discuss the manifestations of their relationship: how do they fulfill and surpass their roles as villain and victim? Servant and master? Caretaker and dependant? How do their transitions alter their destiny?
     
  • What effect has her occupation in her uncle's library had on Maud's psyche? Is she capable of distinguishing between the content of the books and her own sexuality? What does her brutal treatment of Agnes indicate? How has she evolved by the time she returns to Briar at the end of the novel?
     
  • Sue's imprisonment in the asylum echoes Maud's incarceration at Lant Street, as well as her earlier situation at Briar. Discuss the ways in which gender and constraint are demonstratedand challengedin their respective characters. In what ways is the desire for "rare and sinister liberty" (p. 210) at the heart of both Maud and Sue's actions?
     
  • Do you think Sue's recollection of her earliest memory ("I remember seeing...how the world was made up: that it had bad Bill Sykeses in it, and good Mr. Ibbses; and Nancys, that might go either way. I thought how glad I was that I was already on the side that Nancy got to at last.I mean, the good side, with sugar mice in.") would be altered by her experiences? In spite of all the deceptions she has undergone, does she still regard "good" and "bad" so clearly? Why or why not?
     
  • What does this novel ultimately say about the relationship between morality and love?
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