What a deliciously brazen stunt Sarah Waters pulls off in this romantic thriller set in Victorian times. Quite a fingersmith herself (that’s a pickpocket), she steals with abandon from Dickens, plucks cliches from every Gothic romance ever perpetrated in the early 19th century, yet keeps us in thrall to her first-rate pastiche of betrayed maidens and dastardly smiling villains.
The first section of “Finger- smith” is narrated by 17-year-old Sue, an orphan adopted into a den of thieves in a London ghetto. The rest of the family is composed of Mr. Ibbs, Mrs. Sucksby, the evil-tempered delinquent John Vroom and the sweet dimwitted young woman Dainty. Sue and John are fingersmiths, Mr. Ibbs a fence and Mrs. Sucksby, who would be comfortably and honorably at home in any Dickens book, augments the household income by farming babies. There are always half a dozen or so about, illegitimate or unwanted infants she is paid to keep for a while. Only Sue, for mysterious reasons, was never sold or given away, though she’s been told her mother was hanged as a thief.
One blustery night, another member of the tribe appears, in high melodramatic style, “dressed dark, wet through and dripping, and with a leather bag at his feet. The dim light showed his pale cheeks, his whiskers, but his eyes were quite in the shadow of his hat.” This is Richard Rivers, a suave confidence man whom the family calls “Gentleman.”
Having nearly succeeded three times in marrying an heiress, he’s hatched a new campaign for which he needs Sue’s help. He has been hired by a reclusive scholar to help mount some illustrations for an enormous dictionary he’s compiling. Mr. Lilly’s only companion is his niece and secretary, Maud, who is in want of a maid. Maud will inherit a fortune, but only if she marries, an unlikely prospect given her enforced solitude.
Gentleman, who is “handsome as a plum,” has a foolproof plan to carry away the girl and her money; Sue, as the new maid, is to help him persuade Maud to elope with him. They will then have the ingenuous bride committed to an asylum, where her own mother died, and take all her inheritance.
This is as much plot as I can divulge and, believe me, I’ve only skimmed the surface. The novel is constructed with secret compartments, Chinese box within Chinese box, each darker than the one before. None of the characters is telling the truth, though only one unwittingly leads us astray: “We were thinking of secrets. Real secrets, and snide. Too many to count. When I try to sort out who knew what and who knew nothing, who knew everything and who was a fraud, I have to stop and give it up, it makes my head spin.”
Suffice it to say, Sue, Maud and Gentleman are soon embarked on their courtship dance in a decaying mansion in a dreary, rain-soaked landscape. Sue’s narrative ends as Maud is escorted to the living burial that Gentleman has plotted for her.
The second part begins again with Sue’s arrival at the Lilly house, this time from Maud’s point of view. It is a tour de force as every incident Sue described takes on an entirely different and uglier meaning.
We learn more about Maud’s work for her creepy and sadistic uncle and about her relationship with Gentleman. Pay attention when Maud tells Sue the dictionary has reached the letter F; it’s a little joke Waters plays on Sue and on the reader.
When Sue takes up the narration again in the third part, the plots and motives get murkier still, sadder too. The story careens into a lurid climax, the only time the writer’s control of her plot devices slips and turns cartoon-like. But the novel is for the most part a smart and seductive enchantment, in large measure because of the female characters. The men are cardboard villains, but Mrs. Sucksby, the housekeeper Mrs. Stiles and, of course, Sue and Maud are rich creations.
Waters’ earlier novels, “Tipping the Velvet” and “Affinity,” are supple and psychologically nuanced lesbian romances. The erotic charge between Maud and Sue and the psychological games they play make “Fingersmith” a sophisticated treat, like fine bittersweet chocolate.