2012 was a Dickens year. As well as being the good old chaps’ 200th anniversary, The Book People had a marvellous offer earlier on in the year which resulted in each and every Relish shelf being filled with tantalising red spines…. Oh new year, full of such wild and wonderful resolutions. How many Dickens did I plan to read? Oh, at least three or four. How many did I actually end up reading? Not one. What a failure.
Whilst Daddy Relish devoured title after title mid-year, I told myself that Autumn/Winter was Dickens season. Feeling exhausted yet still in the need for a little victoriana, what did I plump for in the end? A bit of Sarah Waters. Although I’m utterly familiar with her titles (Tipping the Velvet, etc) Fingersmith is actually the first I have picked up to read. With promise of Victorian squalor, filthy crime and perhaps a little lesbian fantasy, this was the highly promising lazy option and boy did it deliver. Please note: I am going to be as sparse as possible with the plot details on this one as never in your wildest dreams will you work out the jaw-dropping twists in this vivid, drama-filled, spanking Victorian romp!
Sue Trinder is a petty thief living in the criminal underbelly of stinking London-town. Orphaned at a young age (her mother hanged for murder) she is raised in a dark, dank house full of gin-soaked infants kept by ‘Mrs Sucksby’ and her band of ruffians. Forming part of this entourage is Mr Richard Rivers, a young aristocrat fallen on hard times; otherwise known as ‘Gentleman’ to people of the Borough and, as it goes, a man with a plan.
Maud Lilly, an orphan like Sue, lives isolated in a large country mansion with her odd-ball, scholarly uncle. Cloistered in her uncle’s great library, dressed in girlish clothes and pristine-white gloves, Maud is sitting on a fortune. A fortune that Gentleman intends to have for himself. To do this he requires Sue’s charms as a fraudulent lady’s maid to lure the young woman into his clutches, get their hands on the dough and then, inevitably, find a way of getting rid of her for good….
Waters’ portrayal of a dark and twisted Victorian England is delicious. Much like Michael Faber’s wonderful Crimson Petal and the White, Waters’ London is one whose stench you can almost taste it is so biting. A city whose inhabitants live in third-world poverty and squalor, all combining to create an atmosphere that kept me gripped throughout. Like Faber, by virtue of the fact that this is a novel written by a contemporary author, the situations and characters are released from their restraints in all of their filthy glory, making this cleverly plotted tale all the more convincing. In sharp contrast we are treated to a glimpse of life inside a dark, dank country house, quite evocative of the Wilkie Collins and, if that weren’t enough, the stark, terrifying lives of those trapped inside a Victorian asylum. Shudder.
I adore my historical fiction and, although I don’t claim to be David Starkey, I find it all the more enjoyable when it is reasonably accurate. It strikes me that Sarah Waters knows her Victorian England yet has the talent not to let her research overcome a fabulous yarn. Fingersmith is evocative, provocative and uniquely written. It is shocking and entertaining and can stand proud next to my go-to authors for a quick burst of well-written historical fiction… without having to put in the effort. Hilary Mantel, Kate Mosse, Sarah Waters….thanks very much!